Nordpolitik 2.0: Moderating expectations

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Nordpolitik 2.0: Moderating expectations

Moon Jae In has taken significant flak both in the U.S. and Korea for his effort to reopen the long-closed North-South channel. American analysts as well as the Korean opposition have called him naïve, and fear a trap. Unexpected opposition has arisen to his proposal for joint teams, particularly in women’s hockey. While a majority still view his administration favorably, his poll numbers have fallen. But both positive expectations and risks are being overstated, and we should allow the president’s effort to play out before reaching premature conclusions.

First, it is important to remember that North Korea put President Moon in an impossible position by effectively threatening the games. In a typical example of North Korean extortion, Kim Jong-un claimed in his New Year’s speech that the success of the Olympics could not be guaranteed. A defiant posture from the administration — such as continuing the joint exercises — might have been emotionally satisfying. But it was prudent to moderate risks by encouraging North Korea to come to PyeongChang.

The well-known fear is the wedge problem: that North Korea is trying to pull Seoul away from Washington on core issues such as sanctions, exercises and even the alliance itself. And to be sure, there are those who would like to see a much more independent South Korean policy, one that distances itself from Trump and his excesses.

But critics of the administration have offered little evidence that such risks are likely to materialize. Earlier in his administration, President Moon was more hopeful that South Korean initiatives could lead a wider solution to the North Korean problem. That possibility should not be ruled out. But it is worth remembering that his administration has remained adamant in its commitment to multilateral sanctions and recently went so far as to impound two ships guilty of sanctions violations. It has also reiterated that the future of North-South relations ultimately depends on resolving the nuclear issue and has restated that at the current time, exercises will resume as scheduled.

There is room for criticism of the Moon administration, but those criticisms could be launched against his conservative predecessors as well; neither Lee Myung-bak nor Park Geun-hye can point to much success with respect to Pyongyang.

The problem Korean administrations of both left and right have faced is the lack of a clearly defined set of outcomes they would like to see in North-South relations.

One course of action should clearly be avoided: to trade reduced tensions for tangible benefits such as an opening of Kaesong or Kumgang or the relaxation of multilateral sanctions. Such a deal is little more than extortion.

Past administrations have typically fallen back on family reunions as a starting point. But this too has elements of extortion and is an example of the shamelessness of North Korean behavior: note how Pyongyang tried to use twelve women who fled of their own accord to get a deal. Why should families be held hostage to the broader course of North-South negotiations? However important as a small first step, family reunions should never be treated as a North Korean concession.

Instead of thinking about concessions Seoul needs to make, more attention needs to be paid to what Seoul wants from any talks. One way of approaching this is to take Kim Jong-un’s words seriously. In his speech, he talked about increasing the movement of people, and in both directions. This is a proposal that all political parties in South Korea should support. Getting people in and out of North Korea should be a shared national objective, and both South Korea and the United States have done way too little to make it happen.

Another possible front goes back to the “separation of politics and economics” that was a cornerstone of the Kim Dae-jung approach. Many South Korean NGOs previously received government funding, and providing such funding at this juncture would be tantamount to government aid to Pyongyang. But private NGOs that would like to engage North Korea with their own funding should be allowed to engage in humanitarian activities. Such engagement does not violate multilateral sanctions and can have little ill effect; to the contrary.

More ambitiously, the Moon and Trump administrations should use bilateral talks such as the recent defense ministers’ meeting to discuss concrete military confidence-building measures that the allies would like to see. These could include measures such as military-to-military talks, efforts to increase transparency and reduce risks of miscalculation, and looking forward, even discussion of how deployments along the DMZ could be done in a way that reduces risks of conflict.

Even more important than the DMZ would be clearer understandings between the two sides about the integrity of the Northern Limit Line, where most actual North-South clashes have taken place.

Everyone knows that the chances of success in any dealings with North Korea are slim. Setting expectations too high carries political risk. But exaggerating risks is also misguided. The worst possible outcome would repeat what happened during the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon: Kim Jong-un pockets a spectacle for his domestic TV audience, athletes go home and nothing much happens. Worse, the regime resumes testing.

But that outcome is hardly catastrophic, and to pretend otherwise reflects a loss of perspective. We would have been there anyway. It is time to enter a bit more freely into the spirit of the Olympic Games, however tarnished, and allow the administration’s initiative to play out. North Korea is hardly invulnerable, and sanctions could well be working more effectively than we think. If the Olympics are, in fact, part of the North’s efforts to find an exit ramp, then we should support efforts to help him find it.

*The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego. He is the author with Marcus Noland of the Witness to Transformation blog at

Stephan Haggard
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