Moon’s foreign policy on North Korean denuclearisation

An uncertain future for South Korea's president

Chenjun Wang

International relations, Development | East Asia

3 December 2018

South Korea’s response to the enduring foreign policy challenge to its north is neither moonshine nor something to be over the moon about, Chenjun Wang writes.

The third inter-Korea Summit in September 2018 marked another diplomatic success for the Moon Jae-in administration. Kim Jong-un re-affirmed he would dismantle the nuclear sites and welcome nuclear inspectors. US President Donald Trump took credit for the summit’s success. China praised the two Korean leaders’ efforts to usher in a peaceful Korean Peninsula. All seemed to have gone to plan for President Moon, who achieved his summit goals and boostedhis domestic approval ratings. However, a closer look at President Moon’s foreign policy indicates many obstacles still lie ahead for South Korea.

Since assuming office in 2017, Moon has vowed to climb into the “driver’s seat” of the Korean Peninsula, calling for complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of the North Korean nuclear program.

Moon’s shuttle diplomacy between Beijing, Pyongyang and Washington also reveal a more independent and bridging role for Seoul in peninsular power dynamics.

Moon abandoned the unconditional economic support of earlier ‘Sunshine Policy’ presidents, namely Kim Dae-Jung (1998-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008). Moon supports maintaining economic sanctions for diplomatic leverage while seeking reconciliation and cooperation with Pyongyang.

In his 2017 Berlin speech, Moon called for “dismantling the Cold War framework on the peninsula”. He also reaffirmed that cooperation with Washington remained central to Seoul’s national security. Moon quelled Washington’s “maximum pressure” rhetoric by emphasising the need for a peaceful resolution and that no one could wield force on the peninsula without Seoul’s approval.

Moon also rejected the trilateral defence alliance and barred Japan from joint military drills. On the 73rd Liberation Day, Moon asserted that “the history of pro-Japanese collaborators was never a part of our mainstream history”.

Moon progressively authorised the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems until Pyongyang launched two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July 2017 and performed its sixth nuclear test in September that year. He conceded to China’s concerns, promising to halt further THAAD deployment. During his visit to Beijing in December 2017, Moon reached a “four principles” agreement with Xi to move forward with CVID on the peninsula.

Following the thaw in the Beijing-Seoul relationship, Seoul’s top trading partner lifted the unofficial economic sanctions it had instituted in response to THAAD deployment. To avoid excessive economic reliance on China, Moon actively sought membership in the new Japan-led Trans-Pacific Partnership and closer economic cooperation with ASEAN countries.

Moon’s audacious diplomacy is not moonshine or foolish talk. It earned him 75.2 per centdomestic support in a recent survey. His indispensable role as an intermediary in reducing belligerence on the Korean Peninsula is evident.

However, there are several post-crisis challenges Moon faces as a middle ground continues to be unreachable.

First, all states involved in the nuclear talks have different strategic priorities which makes an agreement impossible to reach.

Despite Beijing and Seoul’s shared interests in Korean denuclearisation, the priority for Beijing is not North Korean denuclearisation. Rather, it is removing grounds for regional military escalation, including Japanese remilitarisation.

Similarly, Washington seeks a nuclear-free North Korea, demanding that Pyongyang first dismantle its nuclear weapons. But that has been difficult to achieve because the US also aims to retain strategic dominance in the region to counter China.

The hard truth is that Seoul is the only actor for whom Pyongyang is a national security priority. There is no credible alternative security guarantee available to Pyongyang to motivate it to abandon its nuclear arsenal. Such a guarantee would need to be given by the international community rather than a single country. Consequently, Kim will not abandon his nuclear weapons.

Secondly, previous Sunshine Doctrines have failed to halt Pyongyang’s nuclearisation. South Koreans criticised their government for providing aid that that they believed helped Pyongyang fund the development of nuclear weapons. The negative public opinion in Seoul towards economic aid increased by nearly 5 per cent between 2011 and 2017. If Pyongyang again takes advantage of Moon’s Sunshine approach to re-cast the political, economic and diplomatic issues in its own favour, Moon will face renewed public criticism.

Also, a Sunshine Policy produces ‘brother-in-need’ goodwill towards Pyongyang. It has the unintended consequence of weakening the rationale for a US-South Korea alliance. As inter-Korean relations improve, US-South Korea relations follow the opposite trend. In 2000, the historic inter-Korean Summit led to an acute split in public opinion towards the need for an expensive US military presence in the country.

Moon successfully persuaded the ready-to-defect Kim and ready-to-cooperate Trump to meet at the symbolic Singapore Summit earlier this year. He has kept the support of like-minded China. He gives all credit to Trump and Kim and strikes a happy medium in his foreign policy.

However, despite his extraordinary achievements, there is nothing to be over the moon about. In the long term, his gains are neither sufficient to resolve the fundamental conflicts between Washington and Pyongyang, nor capable of ensuring key actors have a common understanding of denuclearisation. If these conflicts and incongruences wax, Moon’s domestic support will wane.

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