President Trump, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (Mandel Ngan/KCNA/KNS/AFP/Getty Images)
After the historic bilateral summit on the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) in late April, many Koreans breathed a sigh of relief. After months of a tense war of words between the United States and North Korea, South Koreans are looking forward to the next steps toward the promise of denuclearization and a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.
But South Koreans are not without skepticism — and the latest threats from North Korea to withdraw from the June summit with President Trump are a reminder that cooperation on the Korean Peninsula won’t be easy to secure. On Wednesday, Pyongyang postponed high-level talks with South Korea, claiming the joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises were in violation of the spirit of April’s Panmunjom Declaration for Peace.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in enjoys an 83 percent approval rating, the highest level ever at the one-year mark in a South Korean presidency. When Seoul hastily decided in January to field a joint North-South Korean women’s ice hockey Olympic team, however, Moon’s approval rating slipped to 63 percent.
Hong Joon-pyo, head of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, remains an outspoken critic of Moon’s policy toward North Korea. And many South Korea experts are divided over prospects for complete denuclearization and the future of Korean security.
This skepticism isn’t new
For decades, South Koreans have debated how to formulate a workable and realistic North Korea policy, while contemplating the possibility of a second Korean War. Clashes in the DMZ, the near-infiltration of the South Korean presidential residence by a group of North Korean commandos, and the North Korean seizure of a U.S. naval ship were all reminders that the Cold War never really went “cold” in East Asia.
In 1994, North Korea threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.” And President Bill Clinton considered a preemptive strike on the Yongbyon nuclear reactor — a last-minute deal averted the crisis.
In the early 2000s, South Koreans felt betrayed when North Korea repaid overtures about peaceful cooperation by continuing a clandestine nuclear weapons program. Not unrelatedly, South Korea’s two consecutive conservative governments that followed maintained a decade of hard-line policies toward North Korea. In other words, South Koreans have had plenty of reasons to harbor suspicions about North Korea.
A final point of concern is that North Korea’s conventional weapons could destroy Seoul within minutes. Short- and medium-range missiles could target all of South Korea — and Japan, another U.S. ally.
Is the third time the charm?
It would be easy to categorize Moon’s emphasis on North-South dialogue as more of the same engagement policies that led to inter-Korean summit meetings in 2000 and 2007. But there are key differences underneath the surface-level similarities — and a sense of renewed direction and activity in South Korea’s outlook toward North Korea.
Here’s what’s different. Past South Korean-led engagement policies jump-started cross-border projects like the Kaesong Industrial Complex. In contrast, Moon’s “Korean Peninsula New Economic Plan” outlines various energy pipeline, transportation and eco-tourism projects to connect multiple stakeholders — including China, Russia, Mongolia and ASEAN. This initiative comes closer to a longer-term vision for “open regionalism,” in contrast to an exclusively Korean or Northeast Asian effort, which have motivated past region-building proposals in East Asia.
Moon has also made a consistent effort to show solidarity with the United States. Our research suggests the ways in which leaders talk about alliance relations affect not only the type and degree of security cooperation among allies, but also their domestic political standing. For example, former president Roh Moo-hyun stressed the importance of South Korea’s foreign policy autonomy and the need to play a “balancer” role in East Asia. But this sometimes came across as an anti-American stance and resulted in strained relations with Washington.
In 2018, Moon has been careful to frame his policy in ways that align with U.S. goals, down to the wording of “complete denuclearization” in the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace. He quickly rejected suggestions that U.S. troops might not be needed after the signing of a permanent peace treaty, assuaging fears among some South Koreans of abandonment by their only ally — the United States.
How Seoul coordinates the next steps will be critical
Success via close coordination has a proven track record. A good example is the Perry process, which saw active coordination by the United States, South Korea and Japan in response to a 1998 North Korean missile launch over Japan. In the process, the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG) strengthened alliance relations and sparked a regionwide pattern of consultation, including regular working-level consultations between the United States and China — and this led to the 2000 U.S.-DPRK Joint Communiqué to end North Korean missile tests.
This sustained coordination, and commitment to the shared goal of preventing war on the Korean Peninsula, will be critical to the success of any future peace agreements. Given past failures, some critics dismiss complete Korean denuclearization as a “pipe dream.” The process of verifying and irreversibly dismantling the North Korean nuclear programs could be a more arduous task than containing the Iranian nuclear program.
And the presence of so many different interests in the Korean Peninsula remains the greatest hurdle to Moon’s vision. Like it or not, South Korea’s economic prosperity and sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula are intertwined with regional and global security priorities.
The current South Korean government seems to recognize this, even if it is not able to control all of the unpredictable moving parts. In a recent column, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha emphasized “diversification” of foreign policy and the need to strengthen cooperation with key regional and global partners.
Charting the road ahead, then, means building the foundation for sustainable cooperation among multiple stakeholders, in addition to defusing the immediate nuclear crisis. The latest China-Japan-South Korea “hotline” agreement, perhaps, is an example of a positive spillover, initiated by crisis on the Korean Peninsula, and a small but important step that helps pave the way for future cooperation in East Asia.
Editor’s note: This article was updated to correct the spelling of Minister Kang Kyung-wha.
Il Hyun Cho is an assistant professor in the Department of Government and Law and the Asian Studies Program at Lafayette College, and the author of “Global Rogues and Regional Orders: The Multidimensional Challenge of North Korea and Iran.”
Seo-Hyun Park is an associate professor in the Department of Government and Law at Lafayette College, and the author of “Sovereignty and Status in East Asian International Relations.”