The two-track trap
Moon expressed willingness to engage with North Korea during a speech in Berlin on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit. However, since the joint statement following the South Korea-U.S.-Japan summit puts a high level of pressure on North Korea, it is unlikely that Pyongyang will respond to calls for talks. Moon’s meetings with the Chinese, Japanese and Russian leaders were photo ops that did not go very far on current issues. Instead, the difference in attitude between the South Korea-U.S.-Japan camp and North Korea-China-Russia camp were revealed. In the end, the Moon administration’s summit diplomacy has produced more homework instead of immediately visible outcomes.
Moon’s consistent position on North Korea has been to simultaneously pursue talks and sanctions. When he met with U.S. President Donald Trump, he emphasized the need for talks in addition to the highest level of pressure. He also sought bonds with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin by stressing both talks and sanctions. In his summit with the United States and Japan, Moon underscored the need for maximum pressure and talks at the same time.
Moon’s position succeeds the North Korea policy of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Kim pursued talks and pressure, and Roh the policy, maintaining inter-Korean relations in two-track fashion.
But things are very different now. Back then, there were already talks, and sanctions were added. Now, we are trying to talk while sanctions are already in place. In the changed situation, President Moon’s direction is not so easy.
Most of all, inter-Korean talks and nuclear deals were both in progress in the past. Since the inter-Korean summits, for instance, ministerial meetings were held and various exchanges and cooperation continued. Since Seoul had influence and leverage in inter-Korean relations, President Kim Dae-jung could stick to the parallel policy in 2002. The Roh Moo-hyun administration’s parallel policy was also possible as the six-party talks for nuclear negotiation were in progress and inter-Korean relations were at least maintained. In the end, an inter-Korean summit was also held.
But we are in a completely different situation now. Inter-Korean relations have been suspended without a single open channel. South Korean initiatives on North Korea affairs may be mere rhetoric. Six-party talks and other negotiation tools have long been scrapped, and when inter-Korean relations are not maintained and the framework for negotiation on nuclear weapons is scrapped, President Moon’s two-track policy may be unrealistic. Kim Jong-un has already declared he is unwilling to give up nuclear programs, and offers to talk about nuclear abandonment do not appear feasible.
The old two-track policy was possible because North Korea agreed on the ultimate goal of denuclearization. Pyongyang participated in inter-Korea and six-party talks and at least agreed on the principles of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. Negotiation back then was possible, and that’s why the two-track approach of talks and sanctions worked.
But today, North Korea is different. Pyongyang has long ago given up denuclearization. It’s made nuclear possession a fact in its constitution, laws and party platform. Pyongyang is unwilling to answer to any calls for talks and negotiations on the premise of denuclearization. In this changed reality, Moon’s two-track approach is possible in words but not reality.
The proposal for talks based on denuclearization is hard to start, and the current policy will only lead to continued sanctions and pressure. We need to seek different solutions for a different situation. The old two-track policy is hard to even begin. Moon’s solution may be based on old dynamics, but things have changed now.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 12, Page 29
*The author is a professor of political science and diplomacy at Kyungnam University.