Continuity in North policy is a top priority
The author is the chairman of the Korea Peninsula Forum and a former visiting professor at Kangwon University.
The 21st century has been an unsettled time, with the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the global financial crisis, climate change, the Syrian civil war, the Covid-19 pandemic, U.S.-China tensions and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. After the Cold War ended, we had anticipated international cooperation, peace and prosperity, but small and large conflicts continued, economy has become a weapon and democracy has been threatened.
China is working to restore the authoritarian order of Sinocentrism, while the U.S. is employing countermeasures to maintain the liberal international order. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may be a post-Cold-War prelude to a new Cold War of competition between superpowers joined by their allies. Major European countries, such as Germany and France, are dramatically shifting their defense postures from passivity to strength.
North Korea, aware of the need for defense capabilities, has worked steadily to achieve self-reliance by becoming a nuclear-armed country. South Korea has also realized the need for credible deterrence. Internationalism and universal norms are challenged, and a new arms race is upon us.
The Yoon Suk-yeol administration gets underway amid grand chaos with countries scrambling for ways to ensure survival and Korea facing a series of difficult challenges. The main challenges are those of ensuring security, national interest and the welfare of the people.
Urgent tasks are many, such as stabilizing the real estate market and containing runaway prices, but key is correcting the Moon Jae-in administration’s submissive policy toward North Korea. If inter-Korean relations continue on their current course, hostility between the two Koreas could last a century.
Peaceful unification will begin with the normalization of inter-Korean relations. The Yoon government must create an action plan to rebuild healthy inter-Korean relations with a cool head and informed by three decades of unification policy.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the 1992 Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation between the South and the North — also known as the basic agreement — and the Joint Declaration on The Denuclearization of The Korean Peninsula.
From the Kim Young-sam administration and through the Moon administration, South Korean governments set the goals as the North’s denuclearization, establishment of peace and improvement of inter-Korean relations.
But the current state of inter-Korean relations shows that there has been no substantial change and that denuclearization efforts have been a complete failure. And yet, all past governments blamed the North while celebrating their accomplishments.
The Moon administration praised itself, saying that “it has realized the vision of a Korean Peninsula free of a war” in a report on its five-year tenure, although the North blew up the joint liaison office in Kaesong and this year alone fired 10 ballistic missiles.
There are three main reasons why the North Korea policies of all past governments have failed.
First, they misjudged the North’s nuclear strategy, which is central to inter-Korean relations. The North has always suffered economic crises. But its defense policy has remained top priority. For a dictator whose top priority is protecting the regime, nuclear programs are a strategic choice that cannot be given up. But President Kim Dae-jung said “the North has never developed a nuclear program, and it has no ability to do so.” In March 2018, a special envoy dispatched by Moon to the North concluded that Kim Jong-un was willing to give up nuclear arms.
The South has long relied on the United States to handle nuclear talks, and the Moon government ended up acting as a middleman between Pyongyang and Washington, as if the nuclear crisis is a someone else’s business. Providing economic assistance to the North in return for denuclearization is a policy common to conservative and liberal governments, although conservative administrations wanted the North to give up nuclear arms first, while liberal administrations have delivered assistance first. The liberal governments were actually naive enough to believe that economic aid would trigger changes in the North’s behavior.
Second, the misjudgments were caused by the lack of objective and realistic evaluation of the North Korean system and regime and its strategy. The South incorrectly interpreted the North’s comments on denuclearization and its intention to change based on wishful thinking. It failed to get beyond its optimism. After Germany was reunified, the South entertained the possibility that the North would collapse. When the North suffered severe famine between 1994 and 1998, Seoul believed that economic support would change the regime. But as the South offered food and fertilizer, the North developed missiles.
Yoon’s predecessors concluded that limited reforms in the North implemented during times of hardship signified economic opening. Although the North’s dictator stressed the country will have its own style of socialism, and there was zero possibility of change in its system, former leaders said it was just a rhetoric. Presidents who attended inter-Korean summits talked nonsense. They said that the Korean Peninsula is free from the threat of war and insisted the North desires reconciliation and peace, even as they stood before 100,000 people in Pyongyang cheering for nuclear arms development.
Third, there was no consistency or any strategic continuity in North Korea policy from one administration to the next. All past leaders said they will respect the policies of their predecessors, but these were empty promises. Policy disconnects fueled conflicts in the South during the process of planning and implementation. As ideology-driven perception toward the North guided situational assessment and decision making, the South failed to cooperate with the international community and win the trust of the North.
Although the South should have fully implement UN Security Council resolutions to sanction the North, Moon’s diplomacy was focused on easing and lifting sanctions. He was a disgrace in the international community and became the subject of ridicule by the North.
What should Yoon’s North Korea and unification policy be?
First, North Korea policy must be based on a clear national identity for the Republic of Korea. Constitutional values such as liberal democracy, capitalistic market economics, human rights, rule of law and republicanism are points we cannot concede during the process of improving inter-Korean relations and promoting unification.
“The South and the North have agreed to resolve the question of reunification independently and through the joint efforts of the Korean people, who are the masters of the country,” according to Clause 1 of the June 15, 2000 Joint Declaration. Ever since the declaration, the South’s North Korea policy has been held hostage by the North.
The expression “independently and through the joint efforts of the Korean people” has meaning in the socialist context, and it was a powerful tool for the North as it was used to shun outside influence, instigate internal conflict in the South and fuel pro-North sentiment in South Korean society. As the North intended, the joint declaration, not the basic agreement, became the foundational text for inter-Korean relations. Even if it takes time, future North Korea policy must reflect and expand our constitutional values.
Second, we need a realistic and cool-headed assessment of the strategic environment on the Korean Peninsula. Inter-Korean relations are not an ancient myth but a reality of international politics. Security and economy are converging, and we are facing new security threats, such those related to public health, cyber terrorism and new technologies. Our strategic environment is not limited to the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula. The Yoon government must be especially cognizant of China’s true intentions.
It must not repeat the Moon government’s mistake of arbitrarily evaluating the strategic environment to support its policy. In order to push reconciliation, the Moon administration argued that North’s system and nuclear strategy had evolved. Although the North never really equated the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula with actual denuclearization, the Moon administration deceived the public.
Third, the Yoon government must create realistic policy and strategy based on an evaluation of the strategic environment and must implement it. It is hard to push forward a long-term unification policy during a five-year presidency. But the government must create a grand unification plan as a national strategy and plan and push forward feasible North Korea policy based on it. Moon’s “New economic map of the Korean Peninsula,” which did not consider the national strategies of neighboring countries and changes in the North, is meaningless. If the Yoon administration normalizes inter-Korean relations during its term, a sustainable relationship can continue. On the other hand, the current National Community Unification Formula has effectively expired. It must be upgraded to reflect a nuclear North and structural changes in the South.
Fourth, the Yoon government must be directly involved in the process to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. Past governments made denuclearization the top policy goal, but they all relied on the United States and the North to negotiate it. To have effective negotiation with the North, which posses dozens of nuclear warheads, the South must have enough deterrent power. The Kim Jong-un regime is now advancing nuclear and missile capabilities. In theory, a nuclear weapon must be countered with nuclear arms, but there is a limit in reality. The Yoon government must endeavor to develop equal, opposite and credible military deterrence capabilities.
Fifth, the improvement of inter-Korean relations is a long journey that requires patience and resolution. International law, norms and practices should be used in inter-Korean relations as if it were relations between two countries. Only then will reciprocity be possible in inter-Korean relations. The North will likely refuse to accept the ground rules and counter with military provocations, threats and severance of dialogue. But there is no need to hurry. The government can leave the door open for dialogue while strengthening national security. We must not forget that unless the North’s regime is transformed, any inter-Korean agreement is nothing more than a house of cards.