Kim Jong-un’s New Year proposal to “melt the frozen North-South relations,” the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) spectacular presence at the Pyeongchang Olympics, the recent talks about a new inter-Korean summit, his secret state visit to China, and finally the prospect of an unprecedented US-North Korean summit all stand in dramatic contrast with the provocative nuclear and missile tests carried out by the DPRK over the past two years. Among South Korean and foreign observers, Pyongyang’s sudden U-turn generated passionate debates. Sympathizers of President Moon Jae-in argue that these circumstances offer a chance to improve inter-Korean relations, which in turn might eventually facilitate a negotiated settlement of the nuclear crisis. In contrast, Moon’s conservative critics stress that Pyongyang’s peace offensive is not a sincere effort to reach North-South reconciliation but rather a “Trojan horse” strategy aimed at driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington, and to “play all ends against the middle.”
To assess the prospects and risks of inter-Korean rapprochement, one needs to explain, first of all, why North Korean leaders—after scornfully rebuffing Moon Jae-in’s earlier efforts to engage Pyongyang—have switched to a more flexible policy. Their decisions as of late should be placed in a broader context.
In examining North Korea’s approach during the Pyeongchang Olympics, their attitude toward the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon is illustrative. From February to early September of that year, the DPRK tested about a hundred missiles, and subjected President Park Geun-hye of South Korea to a barrage of vicious verbal abuse. But in October, it abruptly sent a delegation of political heavyweights led by Vice-Marshal Hwang Pyong-so for the close of the games. Pyongyang’s overture suggested that the DPRK found it tactically advantageous to suspend its confrontational activities during this major international sports event.
North Korean leaders had even more reason to put a smile on their face for the Pyeongchang Games. In November 2017, the UN General Assembly adopted a ROK-submitted resolution on maintaining a customary truce during the Games. On December 19, Moon Jae-in announced that the US-South Korean military exercises scheduled for February-March 2018 might be postponed if the DPRK refrained from provocative acts. Had North Korea clung to its belligerent stance, it would have had to shoulder sole responsibility for the disruption of the Olympics. Such a reckless course of action would have further isolated the DPRK from the world, undercutting the North Korean claim—which China also echoed—that Pyongyang’s displays of strength were just defensive reactions to the US-ROK military drills. Since the Chinese leaders frequently suggested that the drills and the nuclear tests be simultaneously suspended, North Korea’s failure to reciprocate Moon’s offer could have convinced Beijing that Pyongyang was less interested in de-escalating the nuclear crisis than Seoul and Washington. Turning down the “double suspension” formula would have been a diplomatic faux pas, all the more so because this formula—which South Korean presidential security adviser Moon Chung-in enthusiastically adopted—had been originally suggested by none other than the North Korean leadership. Instead, the DPRK decided to take advantage of Seoul’s pressing need to hold the Olympiad in a peaceful atmosphere.
Thus it might be somewhat inaccurate to attribute North Korea’s growing flexibility simply to the effect of America’s “maximum pressure” policy, as Trump and Moon Jae-in have suggested. Judging from precedent, it appears likely that the DPRK would have temporarily softened its stance anyway. Still, the increasingly severe international economic sanctions that Pyongyang had faced since March 2016 must have influenced Kim Jong-un’s charm offensive. Ever anxious not to appear brittle in the face of external pressure, the North Korean leaders would have been probably unwilling to make a concession just for the sake of gaining a breathing spell.
Now, however, the Olympic truce provided them with a golden opportunity to present their flexibility as a sign of magnanimity, rather than weakness. North Korea probably expected that an improvement in inter-Korean relations will lessen Beijing’s willingness to enforce sanctions, since China traditionally prefers negotiations over pressure. They also tested Seoul’s adherence to the sanctions by sending General Kim Yong-chol—whom both the U.S. and the ROK authorities had subjected to personal sanctions in the previous years—to the closing ceremony of the Olympiad. So far these expectations have been fulfilled. The South Korean government exempted Kim Yong-chol “for the special occasion,” while Chinese leader Xi Jinping decided to meet Kim Jong-un – whom he had consistently snubbed since 2012 – for the first time.
Just as external pressure alone might not have been enough to induce Pyongyang to change its attitude, Moon Jae-in’s engagement policy per se has not alone been sufficient. Although Moon expressed a commitment to inter-Korean rapprochement from the outset, North Korea’s confrontational acts continued unabated until the end of November. By carrying out several ballistic missile tests and a new nuclear test, Pyongyang effectively compelled Moon to overcome his reservations about the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, whereupon North Korean propaganda promptly declared that the new administration “committed treacherous crimes which far surpass the crimes of traitor Park Geun Hye.”
One likely reason of North Korea’s initial unresponsiveness was the leadership’s reluctance to show any flexibility before achieving an indisputable ICBM capability. Once this objective was technologically within reach, they had a strong motivation to proceed at any cost until they achieved their aim and created a fait accompli.
Another factor was whether the DPRK saw a chance to drive a wedge between their opponents—Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo. In the early phase of the Moon administration, the South Korean government did its best to pursue multidirectional diplomacy. Since Park Geun-hye’s post-2015 security cooperation with America and Japan had exposed the ROK to massive Chinese economic pressure, but a premature attempt to reverse this policy would have carried the risk of US retaliation, Moon initially strove to build rapport with each of these three powers. Predictably, his approach was harshly criticized by Pyongyang. As North Korean propaganda put it, “It is nothing good for the destiny of the nation and the inter-Korean relations to prioritize outsiders, not compatriots, and cooperate with them.”
By November, however, the Moon administration must have realized that the normalization of Chinese-ROK relations could not be accomplished unless Seoul made certain concessions to Beijing at the expense of Washington and/or Tokyo. Since the removal of the just-deployed THAAD batteries would not have been a feasible option, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha attempted to mollify China by making a “three-no pledge”: South Korea would neither deploy additional THAAD batteries nor participate in a US-led global missile defense system nor create a trilateral military alliance with America and Japan. This compromise solution elicited strong protests from Moon’s conservative opponents, who accused the government of “kowtowing to China.”
Despite the concerns of those American observers who questioned Moon’s loyalty to Washington, the recent reorientation of Seoul’s foreign policy has been directed more against Japan than the US. During Trump’s visit to Seoul in November, his hosts expressed their reservations about trilateral security cooperation by highlighting such contentious issues as the Japanese-Korean territorial dispute over Dokdo/Takeshima and the problem of the surviving “comfort women.” The South Korean government rejected an American proposal to conduct a trilateral US-Japanese-ROK military exercise, and instead opted for a bilateral US-South Korean drill. Japanese observers promptly attributed Seoul’s opposition to “a desire to mend fences with China.” It was also reported that the ROK, though it continued to share intelligence with Japan on North Korea, refused to provide Tokyo with information related to Chinese activities in the disputed South China Sea.
Finally, in late December Moon Jae-in declared that the 2015 “comfort women” deal which Park had reached with Tokyo could not be regarded as a satisfactory settlement, though he did not suggest to renegotiate it. Having played a key role in brokering the deal, the US promptly expressed concern and advised both sides to maintain concord in the face of the North Korean threat.
North Korean leaders were evidently aware of these disputes, but they seem to have considered it even more important to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. In early 2018, North Korean propaganda promptly voiced disapproval whenever the Moon administration tried to reassure Washington that inter-Korean rapprochement was not at variance with US-ROK security cooperation. At the same time, the DPRK depicted Trump’s hard-line policy as the chief obstacle to inter-Korean reconciliation. In essence, the DPRK tried to maneuver the ROK into a situation where Seoul would have had to choose between two unpleasant alternatives: pursuing inter-Korean rapprochement at the pace dictated by Pyongyang (which carried the risk of alienating Trump), or adhering to Washington’s sanction-centered approach.
In response, Moon attempted to square the circle by mediating between the US and the DPRK, not the least because the improvement of US-North Korean relations could have legitimized his engagement policy in American eyes. In the end, Seoul’s efforts seem to have paid off. On March 9, Trump expressed readiness to hold an unprecedented meeting with Kim Jong-un. Anxious to meet the North Korean leader before the planned US-DPRK summit and to restore cooperation with Pyongyang, in late March Xi Jinping held talks with Kim. Informing Moon about Kim’s visit, Xi’s envoy Yang Jiechi promised that China would soon end its retaliatory measures against South Korea.
In contrast, Japan has so far remained marginalized by the process of inter-Korean détente. Stung by the recent decline of Japanese-ROK cooperation, Japanese observers monitored the North-South talks with thinly veiled anxiety. Warnings were raised as early as January, and as inter-Korean talks progressed, became increasingly outspoken. In February, Moon rebuffed Shinzo Abe’s call for a speedy resumption of US-ROK military drills, whereupon Abe joined forces with Washington to advocate a sanction-oriented policy. Following Kim Jong-un’s visit in China, Abe declared his intention to meet Trump ahead of the latter’s meeting with the North Korean leader. As China’s Global Times remarked, “Japan wants to make sure Trump does not make a deal with Pyongyang that protects the US mainland but leaves Japan vulnerable.”
In the opinion of Moon’s Japanese critics, the president’s less-than-cautious engagement policy offered an escape hatch to the DPRK. This view was fully shared by South Korea’s conservative parties. In other respects, however, Moon’s Japanese and South Korean opponents were not necessarily in agreement. Notably, the conservative Chosun Ilbo adopted a sharply critical attitude toward Abe’s historical revisionism, and readily acknowledged that the 2015 comfort women deal was “hugely unpopular” in the ROK. In South Korean politics, anti-Japanese nationalism often cut across party lines.
In actuality, Moon Jae-in’s decision to seek rapprochement with China at Japan’s expense had much in common with the strategy Park Geun-hye had pursued in 2013–2014. Park’s perceived collusion with Beijing against Tokyo generated as much distrust among the Japanese public as Moon’s foreign policy. Both presidents seem to have concluded that turning a cold shoulder to Tokyo was less dangerous than alienating either Washington or Beijing, and both raised historical issues to explain and justify their stance.
From a US perspective, a strong Japanese-ROK security partnership is an essential bulwark against the North Korean threat, but Seoul must carefully balance the benefits of such a partnership against the risks of Chinese economic retaliation. Since the Chinese leaders were just as strongly opposed to any sort of Japanese-South Korean security cooperation as Tokyo distrusted Seoul’s collusion with Beijing, South Korea found itself on the horns of a diplomatic dilemma. One possible way out of this dilemma would be pursuing the elusive goal of Chinese-Japanese-ROK trilateralism (an option Park took in 2015), but in recent times, the prospects of trilateral cooperation have been rather dim. It would be Japan’s turn to host the next trilateral summit, but the Chinese leaders, eager as they were to isolate Abe, seem to have dragged their feet, and the renewed friction between Seoul and Tokyo has further complicated the situation.
In the final analysis, one may say that Pyongyang’s recent diplomacy did seek to exploit and deepen the already existing political rifts between the regional stakeholders. Yet, paradoxically the existence of these rifts also gave the North Korean leaders an incentive to switch from a crude policy of nuclear intimidation to a more sophisticated and flexible approach. In those periods when they faced a solidly united US-Japanese-ROK bloc, they usually adopted a confrontational and intractable attitude, because they saw no chance of splitting the bloc by means of selective engagement. Thus it seems that neither a wide divergence of South Korean, US, and Japanese views nor a complete unanimity of opinions might be particularly conducive to regional stability. Instead, the optimal formula might be a situation in which the policies of these three states partially diverge from each other but they keep their disagreements within limits, and consider their “harder” and “softer” approaches to be complementary, rather than mutually exclusive.
Dr. Balázs Szalontai is Associate Professor at Korea University, Sejong Campus,