Stopping the pendulum
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
I talked to a Chinese source who met with North Korea’s State Affairs Commission Chairman Kim Jong-un a number of times. When I asked about the most impressive part of their meetings, he said, “Kim was thinking about 20 to 30 years in the future.” His grandfather Kim Il Sung ruled for 46 years, and his father Kim Jong-il for 17 years. As Kim Jong-un is only 37 years old, it is natural that he’s talking about 20 to 30 years into the future.
Sadly, the political life of the leaders in South Korea and the United States who will deal with Kim is short. The single term for a South Korean president is five years, and the term for a U.S. president is four years, eight years at most if reelected. Nevertheless, they all have an ambition to leave a meaningful legacy during their terms. With about 13 months left in office, Moon would surely feel rushed. When he appointed National Security Advisor Chung Ui-yong as foreign minister, Moon asked him to go the extra mile to facilitate a peace process on the Korean Peninsula. So, Chung will endeavor to make a breakthrough in North Korean affairs.
What will the Kim Jong-un regime think about the Moon administration? Diplomats who have frequent contact with high-level North Korean officials say that the worst diplomatic disaster for North Korea was former U.S. President George W. Bush breaking the denuclearization deal made in the Clinton administration immediately after his inauguration in 2001. At the time, North Korea realized that any promise can be broken when an administration changes. That’s why the Kim regime rushed to have a North-U.S. summit in Singapore in 2018 — the second year of the Trump administration. With only 13 months left in office for Moon, it is very unlikely that Pyongyang would agree to another inter-Korean summit no matter how hard Minister Chung tries.
There’s no freebie in diplomacy. The Moon administration must have made some promise to Beijing to have Chinese President Xi Jinping visit Seoul before Tokyo. It is possible that South Korea made a promise to side with China in the contest between the U.S. and China.
To South Korea, no other agenda is more important than the North Korea issue. It’s only fair that the diplomatic authorities care about it. Nevertheless, a North Korean project or a promise should not be pursued if it cannot be kept. It’s better for the Moon administration to focus on securing Covid-19 vaccines. There are many other diplomatic challenges. South Korea, Japan and China can cooperate on environmental issues such as fine dust and nuclear energy utilization no matter how relations deteriorate. The Moon administration also could turn to multilateral diplomacy such as assisting developing countries on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the two Koreas’ entry to the United Nations.
We must realize that the government desperately needs a consistent North Korea policy beyond ideology. One of the key secrets to successful German reunification was Ostpolitik, or “eastern policy” that transcended political factions. Ostpolitik advocated by liberal Social Democrats in the late 1960s was continued by conservative Christian Democrats. Such consistency stabilized relations between West and East Germany, and West Germany could attain reunification.
There have been efforts to establish reunification policy transcending ideologies through discussions between the conservatives and the liberals. Starting with the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation in 1998 in the Kim Dae-jung administration, the Park Geun-hye administration created the Reunification Preparation Committee, and the Moon administration promoted the National Convention for Reunification. But ideas presented by these organizations were hardly used as the bases of the government’s national reunification policy because administrations neglected public opinion and chased their own beliefs.
If South Korea pushes an appeasement policy with North Korea to the extent of being seen as “pro-Pyongyang,” which then switches to a hard-line policy in the next administration, we cannot avoid sneers for being inconsistent. We need to prepare a balanced reunification plan that can be consistently pursued regardless of the ideological inclinations of the administration.