With liberals back in charge in South Korea, Seoul is making peace offerings to its archrivals, but the North isn’t biting.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in believes the best way to solve the North Korean nuclear crisis is engagement of the sort that two past liberal leaders used to win historic summits with Pyongyang.
The problem, as clearly demonstrated during the last several chaotic days, is that North Korea doesn’t want to talk.
Instead, it has been testing missiles at an unprecedented pace and threatening to launch some of those toward Guam. Pyongyang may be looking to eventually use the existence of its nuclear weapons to negotiate a peace treaty with the United States to officially end the 1950-53 Korean War and remove U.S. troops from the South. Until, and unless, that happens, Seoul probably will have little luck building bridges.
This puts Moon in a bind, forcing him right when his inclination is to go left.
The Koreas last held formal talks in December 2015. Since then, North Korea has conducted a torrent of missile tests and two nuclear tests, boosting its efforts to make nuclear weapons small enough to fit on long-range missiles.
Moon, who took office in May, made his most ambitious plea for engagement two days after North Korea test-launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile last month.
In a July 6 speech in Berlin, Moon vowed to build on the legacies of late liberal leaders Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun and their so-called “Sunshine Policy.” Seoul’s economic inducements resulted in two historic summit meetings and temporary rapprochement between the Koreas in the 2000s.
Moon said the Koreas should start off with “easy” subjects. He proposed talks for reducing animosities across their heavily armed border and a resumption of meetings between aging relatives separated by war. He invited the North to participate in next year’s Winter Olympics, which South Korea is hosting. And he proposed ambitious longer-term projects, such as reconnecting an inter-Korean railway and building a gas pipeline connecting the Koreas with Russia.
Moon said he wasn’t offering unconditional cooperation. He condemned the ICBM launch and said the North could guarantee its security only through “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.”
Reopening dialogue with Pyongyang is crucial for Moon, who says the South should take the lead when it comes to solving the North Korean nuclear problem. But analysts say the ICBM tests show that Pyongyang is focused on Washington and uninterested in what Seoul brings to the table.
North Korea wants an end to annual military drills between the United States and South Korea that it condemns as invasion rehearsals, and the removal of tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in the South. It will also be looking to breathe new life into an economy hammered by years of heavy international sanctions, and to find more markets for its cheap products and labor.
These clearly are of greater significance to Pyongyang than anything Seoul can provide.
Moon has harshly criticized the hard-line policies under a decade of conservative rule in Seoul, which he says did nothing to stop Pyongyang’s weapons advancements and only diminished Seoul’s voice in dealing with its rival. But North Korean intransigence may leave Moon in the same policy rut as his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who also initially vowed more flexibility.
South Korea’s conservatives hold this view and they want more sanctions and pressure. They call his pleas for talks a “one-sided love affair.” MDT/AP