South Korea’s Balance: Inter-Korean Engagement and Domestic Concerns

From the Editor

The Korea Public Square is a forum for expert discussion on issues related to Korea’s past, present, and future. As a part of the tenth anniversary of the Korea Chair, CSIS inaugurates this new series for open dialogue on issues of importance to Korea and its future in the region. Experts, journalists, scholars, and opinion leaders are invited to engage in featured discussions.

In this second Korea Public Square, the CSIS Korea Chair invited Dr. Ramon Pacheco Pardo and Ms. Lisa Collins to assess South Korea’s engagement with North Korea under the Moon government and weigh the balance of foreign and domestic policy priorities going forward.

 

The Moon of the Moment

Ramon Pacheco Pardo, KF-VUB Korea Chair, Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Associate Professor in International Relations, King’s College London.

“I believe this is part of a process to reach a higher level of agreement. Now our role has become even more important. My administration will closely communicate and cooperate with the United States and North Korea so as to help their talks reach a complete settlement by any means.” These were the words of South Korean president Moon Jae-in on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Korean Independence Movement day. They were pronounced one day after the no-deal Hanoi summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Delusional? A month after the failed summit between the U.S. and North Korean leaders, it might seem so. After all, hopes were high before the summit that Washington and Pyongyang would sign an agreement. According to pre-summit reports, this would have included a peace declaration and cleared the way for inter-Korean economic cooperation. It would have also established a process whereby North Korea would have taken steps towards denuclearization in exchange for U.S. economic and diplomatic incentives. All of this seems fanciful in the short term.

Except that, from a South Korean perspective, it is not. Needless to say, Seoul would have preferred a deal allowing for inter-Korean economic projects including railroad and road links to be implemented. President Moon’s Independence Movement Day address even included references to these projects, as well as other steps towards inter-Korean reconciliation such as a DMZ peace park.

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Photo: Republic of Korea/CC BY-SA 2.0

President Moon’s words, however, reflect that his government has a clear goal and is willing to spend as much political capital and diplomatic efforts as necessary to achieve them. The goal is inter-Korean reconciliation, which is connected but not solely dependent on North Korea’s denuclearization—which, to make it clear, is not a realistic prospect in the short term. Ideally, reconciliation and denuclearization would go hand in hand.

In practice, the two Koreas have taken more steps toward reconciliation than the United States and North Korea toward a workable denuclearization roadmap. Yet, inter-Korean reconciliation cannot be fully realized as long as sanctions on North Korea remain in place, for they prevent full-scale economic cooperation between both Koreas.

President Moon’s government has a clear goal and is willing to spend as much political capital and diplomatic efforts as necessary to achieve them. The goal is inter-Korean reconciliation, which is connected but not solely dependent on North Korea’s denuclearization.

It is thus the time for President Moon to retake the driver’s seat. After all, the current bout of diplomacy with North Korea began thanks to him repeatedly extending an olive branch to Kim even during the days of “fire and fury.” However, Seoul has avoided the role of mediator between Washington and Pyongyang except in times when their diplomatic exchanges have slowed down or even almost collapsed. This is one of those times. But Seoul should make sure to sit at the table with Washington and Pyongyang as often as possible. Mediation should be the rule rather than an exception to be used on an ad hoc basis.

In this respect, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha’s proposal of trilateral track-1.5 talks is a step in the right direction. But these cannot be a one-off instance. Seoul should strive to institutionalize a trilateral format, even as the United States and North Korea on the one hand and both Koreas on the other continue their bilateral processes. President Trump, in particular, could lose interest in diplomacy with North Korea if progress stalls. South Korea should stand ready to prevent this.

But South Korea also needs to work to ensure that engagement with North Korea and implementation of a potential U.S.-North Korea agreement are sustainable—both in the United States and also in South Korea. In the case of the former, Trump will leave office in six years if re-elected or in two years if not. Either way, North Korea will not have denuclearized by then. South Korea will be key in making sure that whoever replaces Trump as the U.S. president sees the value in continuing diplomacy with North Korea to nudge Pyongyang down the denuclearization road.

But the Moon government also needs to make sure that engagement continues beyond his non-renewable five-year presidency, which will come to an end in 2022. A committed South Korean president is crucial to advance inter-Korean links and support U.S.-North Korea engagement. Former presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, for example, did not share President Moon’s enthusiasm for diplomacy with North Korea.

Thankfully for President Moon, a large majority of the South Korean population continues to support inter-Korean reconciliation—including roughly half of the conservatives. Furthermore, bipartisan National Assembly delegations have been traveling around the world to explain that the hope of inter-Korean reconciliation goes beyond the Moon government. And five South Korean parties issued a letter in support of the Hanoi summit in the days before it took place, including the main opposition party. In other words, absent a North Korean nuclear or missile test, the current South Korean approach is likely to last for at least one more presidency.

The Moon government also needs to make sure that engagement continues beyond his non-renewable five-year presidency, which will come to an end in 2022. A committed South Korean president is crucial to advance inter-Korean links and support U.S.-North Korea engagement.

The success of any diplomatic process with North Korea is predicated on the belief that Pyongyang is actually willing to change and prioritize economic growth over nuclear weapons. From a South Korean perspective, this is indeed the case. The fact that Kim publicly stated his willingness to denuclearize in Hanoi is positive for Seoul. His prioritization of economic growth since the Korean Workers’ Party plenum of April 2018 is also positive news. But President Moon has to make sure to steer Kim in that direction. Otherwise, dreams of inter-Korean reconciliation will hardly be realized.

 

Cutting Your Losses

Lisa Collins, Fellow, Korea Chair, Center for Strategic and International Studies.

North Korea will not be giving up its nuclear weapons any time soon. The Hanoi summit showed that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has not made the strategic decision to “trade guns for butter” or improve the livelihood of his people by dismantling his WMD programs; he instead wants to stick to a well-worn North Korean playbook of coercion and extortion. To most observers, North Korea’s reticence to give up their nuclear weapons was acutely obvious before, but now it has become even more apparent in the aftermath of the Hanoi summit. Where does that leave South Korea where hopes were sky high that the summit would start a peace process to eliminate decades of hostility on the Korean peninsula?

North Korea will not be giving up its nuclear weapons any time soon.

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Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images


Dr. Pacheco Pardo succinctly describes the perspective of the South Korean Moon Jae-in government—they are still hopeful that progress can be made with North Korea despite the failure to achieve a substantive deal on denuclearization in Hanoi. The Moon administration appears to be holding out hope that a “small deal” can be made with North Korea, one that would eventually lead to a “big deal.” A small deal might include the opening of liaison offices between the United States and North Korea to improve relations, some very limited lifting of UN sanctions and an agreement by North Korea to halt its fissile material production and WMD testing with international inspections being permitted at key locations. And as Dr. Pachecho Pardo argues, the Moon government has a clear goal to achieve peace and reconciliation with North Korea and is willing to spend an enormous amount of political, economic, and diplomatic currency to reach that objective.

The problem is that even a small deal is not likely at this point between the United States and North Korea because they cannot agree on how to mutually proceed with the core problem of denuclearization. This leaves us with three basic possibilities: 1) manage the problem and maintain the basic status quo; 2) ramp up pressure to encourage North Korea to adopt a more flexible position for a future deal; or 3) adopt a position that is more favorable to North Korea’s demands to elicit a compromise deal. In the current environment, the most realistic and the “least bad” choice is likely some combination of the first and second options. It also means that taking the driver’s seat and racing ahead with inter-Korean economic projects and reconciliation with North Korea without adequate progress on denuclearization runs the risk creating a significant rift with South Korea’s most important ally, the United States. This is where I would disagree slightly and assert that both Washington and Seoul need to maintain a united strategy with regard to engaging North Korea. Whether we like it or not the best option for dealing with North Korea is to manage the problem the best we can within the bounds of the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

A good politician knows when to cut their losses in a losing hand. Given the current circumstances, South Korean president Moon should stop placing all his political eggs in the North Korea basket. He has spent a tremendous amount of political capital trying to improve inter-Korean relations and to further engagement with North Korea over the last two years with mixed results. It could be argued that the energy spent on the North Korean issue has likely been at the expense of dealing with other important domestic and foreign policy issues that are just as critical to the security and prosperity of South Korea. For example, a majority of South Koreans seem to be overwhelmingly preoccupied with the worsening condition of the economy, perceived increases in economic hardship, and the quality of their health being affected by dangerous levels of air pollution. These are things that appear to be more important to their overall livelihood and well-being rather than the distant, illusive, and fleeting promise of peaceful reconciliation with North Korea.

Given the current circumstances, South Korean president Moon should stop placing all his political eggs in the North Korea basket.

For these reasons, President Moon and his administration should cut their losses and turn their energy toward fulfilling campaign promises and implementing policies that are likely to have a greater chance of immediately improving the lives of South Korean citizens in the remaining three years of his presidency. The Moon administration’s energy would be better spent trying to figure out how South Korea can transition from a manufacturing and heavy-industry-based economy to an economy that is highly competitive in services, high-value-add technologies, and industries that utilize big data and artificial intelligence. This is one way to guarantee that the South Korean economy continues to grow and that it supports industries that provide good paying jobs for its citizens. By being competitive in these areas, South Korea will guarantee that it will not cede important ground to Chinese companies and technologies and it will also ensure that the country is in a stronger position to assist North Korea if, and when, it ever decides to give up its nuclear weapons and join the community of states.

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Photo: AFP/Getty Images

To maintain a secure environment that facilitates this type of economic growth and transition, South Korea will need to count on strong relations with the United States and the development of stronger relations with countries in Southeast Asia and Europe. President Moon has already embarked on an important series of overseas trips and foreign policy initiatives (i.e., the New Southern Policy) with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) countries to try and achieve the foundation for this important strategic plan. Good relations with the United States are also critical to this brighter future because of the security provided by the alliance, the exchange of people and knowledge between the two countries, and amount of foreign direct investment provided by U.S.-based investors. U.S. industries and tech companies such as Amazon, Uber, and Apple also serve as benchmarking examples for Korean companies seeking to be competitive in the coming fourth industrial wave.

To maintain a secure environment that facilitates economic growth and transition, South Korea will need to count on strong relations with the United States and the development of stronger relations with countries in Southeast Asia and Europe.

This does not mean that the Moon administration should give up on North Korea policy or seeking an improvement in inter-Korean relations. Moon’s intervention with “Olympic Diplomacy” in early 2018 was not in vain since it likely helped stave off a worsening conflict between the United States and North Korea at the time. Realistically, however, the Moon administration will not be able to make significant progress in economic projects with North Korea unless and until there is a breakthrough on denuclearization.

In this respect, I agree with Dr. Pacheco Pardo that Seoul needs to help guarantee that any agreement between the United States and North Korea is sustainable and practical. In fact, South Korea could be most helpful in convincing North Korea to engage in the institutionalization of working-level talks between the United States and North Korea in order to tackle the core issues at play in the continuing stalemate between the two countries. Additionally, as Dr. Pacheco Pardo mentions, the Moon administration could help facilitate trilateral 1.5 track talks between the United States and the two Koreas as proposed by South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha. Both of these initiatives could potentially help the two sides bridge differences in their respective negotiating positions and help break the deadlock in denuclearization. For now, however, the ball is largely in North Korea’s court to make a strategic decision about full denuclearization. Until that time, the current South Korean government would be well-advised to cut its losses and focus on policy initiatives that have a better chance of securing a more prosperous and brighter future for the Korean people. Creating conditions to improve South Korea’s economic growth and resolving serious social issues that threaten to divide the country, is the best way to ensure that North Korea is the one chasing the lure of a better future, not the other way around.

Ramon Pacheco Pardo Responds

Long-Term Dream vs. Short-Term Needs

Ms. Collins’s response to my initial article points out to one of the dilemmas faced by President Moon and, indeed, his predecessors. In short, any inter-Korean engagement and reconciliation process will take many years. But South Korean presidents have to attend to the reality that they only have a single five-year mandate and, above all, have to deliver to the South Korean population.

President Moon has faced accusations of focusing on inter-Korean reconciliation at the expense of the South Korean economy and other foreign policy issues. This seems more a question of optics rather than the reality though. On the former, President Moon is implementing an “income-led” growth strategy to try to boost consumption and reduce inequality. He has also continued start-up and SME support policies dating back to at least the late 1990s. On the latter and as Ms. Collins explains, Seoul’s “New Southern Policy” has firmly put Southeast Asia and India as a top foreign policy priority

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Photo: ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Should President Moon turn to “managing” the North Korean issue and fully concentrate on these other matters? President Moon repeatedly states that inter-Korean reconciliation is a process going beyond the end of his government. Pyongyang’s denuclearization will also take years if an option at all. But both Koreas now have a working-level inter-Korean process. Meanwhile, meetings between the leaders of South and North have become a “new normal.” Both are necessary foundations to transform inter-Korean reconciliation into the sustainable process that President Moon wants. He should double down on his bet in the months ahead.

But both Koreas now have a working-level inter-Korean process. Meanwhile, meetings between the leaders of South and North have become a ‘new normal’. Both are necessary foundations to transform inter-Korean reconciliation into the sustainable process that President Moon wants. He should double down on his bet in the months ahead.

Lisa Collins Responds

Dr. Pacheco Pardo is correct—the dilemma faced by Moon is not unique. Previous South Korean administrations, both conservative and liberal, have been criticized for expending too much energy on foreign policy issues (and North Korea) at the expense of serious domestic issues.

There is a fundamental understanding in South Korea that political dreams, such as Moon’s goal of inter-Korean reconciliation and peace, often do clash with real-world constraints. There are systematic and structural reasons for this. The five-year term limit makes it very enticing for South Korean presidents to push hard to achieve significant and concrete results on legacy issues to avoid being labelled a “lame duck” after two years. But, the need to pass implementing legislation and the party divisions in the National Assembly makes it difficult to carry out ambitious plans. The term limits and the dysfunction in the U.S. political system also make it hard to find alignment on strategic policies towards North Korea within the bounds of the alliance—this means that when there is seeming agreement on certain a strategy there is a tendency to want to bulldoze forward to seize the opportunity for progress.

There is a fundamental understanding in South Korea that political dreams, such as Moon’s goal of inter-Korean reconciliation and peace, often do clash with real-world constraints.

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Photo: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

Under these circumstances, it is reasonable to ask whether doubling down or betting on inter-Korean reconciliation and economic engagement with North Korea is really a smart strategy for South Korea at this point in time. In that respect, Dr. Pacheco Pardo’s framing of long-term dreams vs. short-term needs is very helpful for weighing the pros and cons of future policy choices.

Can true progress be made when only one side is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve these goals? What happens when it becomes apparent that the broad ideals of “peace and reconciliation” and “engagement” mean completely different things to the two Koreas? Can we really imagine a long-term peace process that would stick while North Korea is still holding onto an active WMD arsenal that might even be partially capped in the future?

What happens when it becomes apparent that the broad ideals of “peace and reconciliation” and “engagement” mean completely different things to the two Koreas?

There is no doubt that the United States, North Korea, and South Korea should continue to pursue a diplomatic solution to this intractable problem, but these are difficult questions that should also be asked in the process.

Dr. Ramon Pacheco Pardo is the KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Institute for European Studies (IES-VUB) and reader (associate professor) in international relations at King's College London.

Lisa Collins is a fellow with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Prior to joining CSIS, she worked for seven years as a program officer at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, Korea.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Ramon Pacheco Pardo
Professor of International Relations at King's College London; KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Brussels School of Governance of Vrije Universiteit Brussel; Adjunct Fellow (Non-Resident, CSIS Korea Chair)

Lisa Collins