By Mitch Shin
The Moon Jae-in administration’s “peace process” for leading the North to give up its nuclear weapons proved the limits of negotiations without the United States. Since President Moon took office in May 2017, Seoul has reversed its hostile policies against Pyongyang, set by the previous conservative administrations, to restart dialogue. The PyeongChang Winter Olympics in 2018 created significant momentum for the two Koreas to re-engage in restoring communication channels to mollify the animosity between the countries.
As President Moon started acting as a peacemaker on the Korean Peninsula by persuading then-U.S. President Donald Trump to sit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to tackle the denuclearization of North Korea, neighboring countries supported the stance and moves of Seoul.
However, after the Hanoi summit in 2019 ended without reaching an agreement, Pyongyang stepped back from the negotiating table and made clear that it would not return to talks with the U.S. nor with South Korea unless Washington halted its unspecified hostile policies and acts.
The new U.S. administration did not react to Pyongyang’s remarks directly but showed how it was going to deal with the North by announcing a new policy ― a practical and calibrated approach ― with regards to North Korea on April 30. Now, both parties are playing hardball, asking each other to fulfill unachievable goals first, meaning that President Moon’s hands are tied as he has only months left before leaving the office.
Conservative hawks in Seoul and Washington have consistently said that the only way to denuclearize the North and topple Kim’s regime is to pressure the North with devastating U.S.-led economic sanctions.
However, as the two different major parties have different ways to confront the North’s advanced nuclear weapons and missile programs, South Korea cannot achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula it wishes via these hard checks by Washington, Beijing and Moscow.
Pyongyang blew up the joint liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea, last year, which was a symbol of communications between the two Koreas. Since then, it is clear that Pyongyang no longer considers Seoul as its direct counterpart for handling common issues.
In addition, after U.S. President Joe Biden took office in January, North Korea tested multiple short-range missiles, which the U.S. considers as a “direct threat” to its territory. Kim had not acted like Moammar Gadhafi from Libya but he nonetheless wanted to show that he had lost his patience and willingness to talk with his U.S. and South Korean counterparts. He wanted to send clear messages that time is ticking and he has bombs.
The Moon administration’s “peace process” for the Korean Peninsula was ambiguous and unrealistic, as it couldn’t get full support from the Trump administration. It failed to persuade Washington hawks not only in the Trump administration but also in Congress and the Senate, to support its moves to attract Kim to be the first sitting North Korean leader to transform his nation into a “normal” country.
In his latest interview with Time magazine, President Moon Jae-in’s description of Kim’s characteristics as “honest” and “enthusiastic” brought attention from within and outside of the country, including criticism that he has a so-called “delusional” perspective on North Korea issues.
Another reason that South Korea cannot tackle the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is its unconditional support toward Washington’s moves. During the Trump administration, Seoul and Washington agreed to launch a joint working group to bolster and coordinate the sanctions against the North.
The purpose of launching that working group was based on the U.S.-ROK blood alliance tackling the denuclearization of the North together, although South Korean progressives criticized the group as a gratuitous organization that harmed the relationship between the South and the North. In effect, they believed that the working group actually obstructed the efforts of Seoul’s unification ministry to cooperate with Pyongyang.
With criticism over the alliance group growing, the Biden administration is now considering dismantling the working group, which in effect was proof that Seoul could not work independently to engage in inter-Korean projects without Washington. This reality is the main reason why the North has always wanted to talk directly with Washington, not with Seoul.
For its national interests, South Korea sometimes should be able to say “no” to the U.S. when necessary. However, in a reality where South Korea’s major security functions, including wartime operational control, do not work without the U.S., South Korea always has to say “yes” to their demands and requests.
The deployment of tactical weapons is the main example that proves that the South has not yet gained authority over its military and national security from the U.S. Over 70 years after the ceasefire of the Korean War, the destiny of South Korea still depends on 28,500-strong U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, and Washington policymakers.
The U.S. saved hundreds of thousands of South Koreans in World War II from Japan and during the Korean War from North Korea. Now, South Korea’s strong military and diplomatic ties with the U.S. are what the North grabs as its bargaining chip to sustain Kim’s autocratic power.
Mitch Shin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is chief Korea correspondent at The Diplomat, a current affairs magazine for the Asia-Pacific, with news and analysis on politics, diplomacy, security, economy, business, environment and technology.
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