Moon Jae-in will be remembered in history books as one of the three South Korean presidents who met with their North Korean counterpart – the other two being Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008). Throughout his electoral campaign, Moon vowed to revive the engagement policy and restore economic cooperation with Pyongyang, after his predecessor – Park Geun-hye (2013-2017) – had severed all contacts with North Korea in 2016, as a result of the fourth nuclear test and various missile launches. Hence, when Moon controversially stated - during his electoral campaign in 2017 - that he would consider visiting Pyongyang before Washington if elected president, he caused astonishment. Such incredulity was not only due to high tension on the Korean Peninsula but also to fear of possible repercussions for Seoul-Washington relations. However, when Moon was sworn in as president, on May 9th, 2017, in the wake of the political turmoil South Korea endured under Park Geun-hye, he immediately assumed a more moderate position by finally accepting the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD), by visiting Washington as his first trip abroad as president, and, above all, by joining the international community in imposing international sanctions against Pyongyang’s nuclear test and missile launches. If during 2017, due to North Korea’s continuous military provocations, Moon Jae-in largely adopted the posture of imposing maximum pressure on North Korea (backed by the United States and the international community’s sanctions) the following year has marked a policy recalibration toward ‘engagement’. Even though such renewed engagement would not be possible without Kim Jong-un’s sudden willingness to restore a dialogue with the international community, it is worth acknowledging that Moon has behaved as the real demiurge of a renovated cooperation with Pyongyang. In this sense, the third inter-Korean meeting marks an important step for the two Koreas, possibly starting a new era in their relations.
It seems evident, however, that Moon’s strategy is different from the one Kim and Roh pursued. When he became president, in February 1998, Kim Dae-jung introduced his vision of peaceful coexistence and phased unification with Pyongyang (the Sunshine Policy), trying to convince the regime that he had no intention of absorbing North Korea. Despite military provocations, Kim endured in his efforts by shipping rice and fertilizers, supporting Hyundai’s Mount Kumgang business projects and cooperating with US President Clinton to relax sanctions. These measures led to a rapprochement between the two countries, reaching a climax in the historical summit held in Pyongyang in June 2000 between Kim Dae-jung and the then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. In addition, several hundred separated families had the opportunity to reunite the following August, and the two governments jointly created an industrial complex in Kaesong, in North Korea’s territory.
Although Clinton’s successor, president George W. Bush, strenuously opposed the Sunshine Policy, South Korea’s following president, Roh Moo-hyun, maintained it, although under the name of Policy of Peace and Prosperity. Roh opened the Kaesong industrial complex in 2004, decided to expand economic ties with North Korea and had no difficulties in opposing Washington’s firm stance against Pyongyang, even in the wake of the disclosure of Pyongyang’s program of clandestine uranium enrichment for nuclear weapons. In October 2007, the second inter-Korean summit between Roh and Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang led to the ratification of the Peace Declaration, which confirmed the willingness to cooperate at different levels and in different fields.
Ten years of Sunshine Policy brought about shades and lights. Without any doubts, its implementation favored the relaxation in inter-Korean relations, gave way to economic cooperation and promoted people-to-people exchanges. On the other hand, it has always suffered from allegations of being a unilateral approach, unable to induce any substantial modifications in Pyongyang’s attitude. Moreover, the policy was dramatically criticized when it was discovered that the North Korean regime had received $500 million as a final condition for participation prior to the 2000 summit.
Having served as chief presidential secretary for one year under president Roh Moo-hyun, Moon was perfectly aware of the major flaws of the Sunshine Policy and did not want to become the main prey of South Korean conservatives by re-igniting it or, even worse, by launching a Sunshine Policy 2.0. As a demonstration of this, it is worth emphasizing that the South-North summit will not take place in Pyongyang, as the previous two did, but in Panmunjeom, a site of extreme historical value and, more importantly, absolutely neutral. Moon, at this stage, does not want to be considered as the ‘usual’ South Korean progressive president who grants the honors of war to the leader of the North by visiting him at home.
Compared to Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun’s strategy, Moon has chosen a different path, at least as regards two major aspects of his strategy. The first one is represented by concessions. The current South Korean head of State has chosen a ‘vigilant’ attitude and has decided not to make any preemptive economic concessions to North Korea before the summit. Although the South Korean government decided, last September, to send to Pyongyang $8 million worth of humanitarian aid – products for children and pregnant women, vaccines and medical treatments – through the World Food Program and UNICEF, that move only confirmed that Moon’s aim is to help North Koreans in need instead of contributing to support the North Korean regime. Moon does not want to be portrayed as the one pouring money across the border without getting anything in return.
The second aspect is Moon Jae-in’s strong interest in securing international – or multilateral – support for his engagement doctrine. Unlike his political mentor Roh, Moon has not tried to create any distance with the US. On the contrary, he has chosen to shower up his American counterpart with praise by publicly acknowledging the importance of the US ‘maximum pressure’ policy in bringing back North Korea to the negotiation table. Similarly, in accordance with the international community, Moon has always explicitly supported the implementation of sanctions, hence backing the American stance. Moon does not want to enter into conflict with the US administration or to see his strategy immolated because of their different vision as it happened with his predecessors when George W. Bush opposed the Sunshine Policy (during the final phase of Kim Dae-jung’s presidential mandate and during Roh Moo-hyun’s term). At a certain point, Moon will have to bear the responsibility to show to his country that he is not taking orders from Washington, but he is rather working in cooperation with it. Should the inter-Korean summit and the subsequent US-North Korea meeting produce constructive results, this suspicion will vanish and other summits will follow.
Domestically, Moon is navigating in flat waters. Unlike the 2000s, the perception South Koreans have of Moon’s engagement is that it has already contributed to lowering the tension. In addition, Moon is working strenuously to try to convince the skeptics and the conservatives that his strategy is contingent upon North Korea’s immediate and continuing acceptance of the rules of the game.
Moon has a gigantic responsibility. He is genuinely willing to create the basis for a renovated and continuing relationship with Pyongyang, which is of course also dependent on the goodwill of his counterpart. If an agreement is reached during the summit, will it be part of a peace treaty or rather a separate document? Moon would be charged with the task of making sure that a written agreement would not turn into another ‘dead letter’ as it happened when Lee Myung-bak became president in 2008, completely abandoning the (many or few) good results produced by the two previous liberal administrations. Possibly, the Moonshine Policy could stand for a colossal turning point in the relations between the two Koreas and survive the impervious pressures exerted by future South Korean governments. Moon in the meantime could be remembered as the ‘hero’ of North-South rapprochement.