Among all those who try to evaluate South Korea’s position in the midst of the latest sharp rise in tensions on the Korean peninsula, the best, yet striking, definition has so far been provided by someone very close to the administration, in the person of Moon Chung-in, special advisor for unification, diplomacy and national security to President Moon Jae-in. In an interview with CNN, Moon Chung-in, who was one of the architects of the Sunshine Policy towards North Korea that was implemented by the first two liberal administrations in South Korean history (1998-2008) – the only ones with a track record of success in defusing military tensions on the Peninsula so far – referred bluntly to an “agonizing” President Moon.
South Korea’s new, liberal president took office just over four months ago with a pledge to foster warmer ties with North Korea, but the renewed escalation in US-DPRK tensions is leaving Moon Jae-in sandwiched between those inclined to diplomatic and to military solutions, also as a result of the sensationalisation and polarisation of the Korean policy environment in the wake of US President Trump‘s over-the-top rhetoric. Throughout his campaign, Moon Jae-in vowed to take a balanced approach following a two-track policy of resuming inter-Korean dialogue, while maintaining pressure and sanctions to change North Korea’s behaviour. Once in office, the South’s administration froze the deployment of the THAAD missile defence system – a move that has now been reversed – and sought to reach out to Pyongyang, envisioning the resumption of military-to-military talks and family reunions. All of this was rebuked by Pyongyang on the grounds that they came from a government that supports the UNSC sanctions regime and conducts joint military exercises with the US. Pyongyang’s brinkmanship then drove the Blue House to adopt an unexpectedly more hawkish line, which some in Moon’s base perceive as the president dismissing the promises he made on the campaign trail. Tightening the screws on North Korea to force the regime to change its strategic calculations has currently overridden the pursuit of dialogue. Indeed, this was stated clearly during a meeting of the National Security Council, convened after the North’s launch of a ballistic missile over Japan on September 15. On that occasion, President Moon said that dialogue with North Korea was now “impossible." But before that, the North’s sixth nuclear test (Sept. 3) had already triggered a “reassessment of the current security situation," as stated by the South Korean Foreign Minister. Indeed, President Moon called on the South Korean military to enhance their capabilities through a range of measures, including completion of planned amendments to the 2012 missile guidelines following Trump and Moon’s decision to abolish existing payload weight limits on South Korean missiles in order to increase deterrence against Pyongyang.
Domestically, the struggle within the Blue House is mirrored in public opinion. Despite frustration and disappointment among progressive voters over Moon’s rhetoric on increasing economic pressure on North Korea, the president continues to enjoy solid approval ratings (currently standing at 69 per cent). Hence, among the South Koreans, support for peace initiatives coexists with nationalistic sentiments and security concerns, leading the majority to be supportive of the harsher rhetoric and the acquisition of more autonomous defence capabilities, including the deployment of THAAD rocket launchers and eventually the reintroduction of US tactical nuclear weapons to the country or even a South Korean nuclear option. While the proposal for Seoul to develop and deploy its own nuclear weapons in response to Pyongyang’s military threats is gaining momentum in the country – 60 per cent approve and 35 per cent oppose the idea, according to Gallup Korea – President Moon continues to unequivocally rule out the possibility, reaffirming the government’s firm stance on a nuclear-free peninsula.
Nonetheless, a more interventionist yet directionless US administration (e.g. the new US ambassador to South Korea has yet to be confirmed) aggravates Moon’s assessment of the current situation on the peninsula. Despite joint military exercises and shared statements confirming each other’s “iron-clad commitment” to the alliance, the US-Korea relationship appears frayed. Although the South Korean leader has tilted more in Washington’s direction in recent weeks, the news of North Korea’s latest nuclear test prompted President Trump to respond through a Twitter broadside. Unlike previous tweets against China’s unwillingness to solve the North Korean issue once and for all, this time caught in the crossfire was Seoul, rebuked for its “appeasement” of Pyongyang. That came after Trump’s late summer musing about dumping the five-year-old free trade agreement with South Korea over what he considered unfair protectionist policies. The act of publicly scolding a democratic and sovereign state with which Washington has shared an alliance for 67 years was largely perceived as paternalistic and misguided. Indeed, this equates to a self-inflicted wound that allows Pyongyang to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea, in so doing advancing its political cause of weakening their relationship.
In electing Moon Jae-in, voters eschewed nearly a decade of conservative rule and Seoul’s intransigent approach towards its northern neighbour. From the outset, however, Moon’s alternating dual-track policy of pressure and dialogue sounded more like the Trustpolitik (never really implemented) of his predecessor Park Geun-hye than South Korea’s above-mentioned “Sunshine Policy". As soon as Moon aligned with the US long-standing – and evidently unrealistic by now – position of requiring North Korea’s unilateral denuclearization as a prerequisite for opening a negotiation table, his overall policy towards the North was doomed to enter into the same quagmire of the previous conservative administrations which allowed the nuclear issue to get in the way of seeking to improve inter-Korean relations. Putting aside any military interventions, the last remaining diplomatic option for the South Korean president to break the standoff might be to mediate for a complete shift by finally acknowledging the limitations of economic sanctions and other forms of pressure and in so doing, giving more credit to those advisors, first of all Moon Chung-in, who support the "dual-freeze," first put forth by China, whereby the North would stop its nuclear and missile programs, and the US and South Korea would stop conducting their joint military exercises.
Francesca Frassineti, ISPI Associate Research Fellow and PhD Candidate at Università di Bologna