The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
“It was so easy to cross this demarcation line, but it took 11 years for me to come to this historic place,” North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said when he sat down with President Moon Jae-in at the Truce Village of Panmunjom on April 27, 2018. During the summit, he repeatedly talked about the “lost 11 years,” and said, “No matter how great our agreement will be, it will disappoint many people if it will not be implemented properly, as we saw the last time.”
The “last time” Kim referred to was the Oct. 4, 2017 summit between President Roh Moo-hyun and his father Kim Jong-il. Most promises in the agreement after the summit were not kept. Kim Jong-un blamed South Korea for the “lost 11 years” and ignored North Korea’s responsibility for developing nuclear weapons to cause international sanctions.
In fact, skepticism was high that the Roh-Kim summit agreement would actually be implemented, as Roh only had four months left in his presidency and the agreement included a wide range of projects that would cost astronomical amounts of money.
North Korea probably learned a lesson that it must not strike a deal with a South Korean administration in its final year. The North’s cold reaction to the Moon administration’s repeated offers is certainly related to Moon’s relatively short remaining time in office.
During a press conference last week, Moon said, “Not much time is left.” So, he can choose to slow down and wrap up what he has already done, or speed up with a determination to accomplish all his goals.
Moon’s decision was clearly revealed when he named former National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong as his new foreign minister. During a New Year’s press conference, Moon said, “If we start from the Singapore declaration and speedily push forward negotiations, we can have North-U.S. talks and inter-Korean dialogue.” As he said, it will be the new foreign minister’s goal to actively push forward an inter-Korean summit and North-U.S. summit.
Chung, new National Security Advisor Suh Hoon and National Intelligence Service Director Park Jie-won have all been deeply involved in arranging inter-Korean summits since the Kim Dae-jung administration in the late 1990s. We can see Moon’s determination to accomplish something tangible before his term expires in May 2022. To this end, Moon replaced Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, who had been expected to serve a full five years. Moon’s strong determination is noteworthy, but it is regretful that he lacks a keen sense of reality and flexibility.
The biggest problem is that Moon’s perception differs from that of the new U.S. administration. President Joe Biden called the North-U.S. summit in Singapore an unproductive “reality show” and a strategy that failed to stop North Korea from reinforcing its nuclear capability. But Chung, who brokered the Singapore summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, said, “The denuclearization process has entered an irreversible stage and North Korea cannot reverse it.” This is why expectations are high that it won’t be easy for the Moon and Biden administrations to coordinate their policies.
Even at this moment, Kim must be fully occupied with studying the new U.S. administration and foreseeing its next course of action. I believe Kim won’t hurry whether he opts to stage another provocation or offer talks. “Time is on our side,” Kim once said, when he addressed the country during a military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party foundation last October. “We have become stronger and we will be even stronger amid hardships,” he said, expressing his satisfaction that the country was able to advance its nuclear capabilities while engaging in inter-Korean summits and North-U.S. summits.
Kim’s strategy became clear when he stressed the importance of bolstering the country’s military power as many as 30 times at the Congress of the Workers’ Party earlier this month without mentioning denuclearization once. In the past, North Korea at least promoted the idea of denuclearization, but it will likely to call for arms reduction talks from now on.
The fate of the Korean Peninsula is facing a crucial moment. Pyongyang and Washington have started their fierce strategy competition, but Seoul is only engrossed with one option — return to the top-down approach in Singapore to solve the North Korean nuclear conundrum. Kim says time is on his side while Moon says the clock is ticking. Whatever the case, if you hurry, you will lose.