Now into his third week as the chief executive, President Moon Jae-in seems to be off to a good start, with his approval ratings exceeding 80 percent. Not all what he says and does is good or assuring, however.
North Korea is one area of such concern. The biggest problem is that Moon and his top aides appear to be rushing to appease North Korea despite the lack of progress in efforts to rein in the rogue state’s nuclear and missile threats.
It would be unsurprising if Moon, whose former boss Roh Moo-hyun inherited Kim Dae-jung’s engagement policy toward the North, takes a similar reconciliatory approach. Some even coined the phrase “Moonshine Policy,” combining the president’s family name and Kim’s Sunshine Policy that earned the late president the Nobel Peace Prize.
To be fair, there may be some positive aspects of engaging the North even in the current situation, but what senior officials are saying shows that the Moon administration is anxious to appease the North in the name of engagement.
One of the first moves is to provide humanitarian aid to the North. Unification Ministry officials made it clear that they will ease up on restrictions on provisions of aid and other civilian exchanges, which have largely been suspended due to a series of security provocations by the North.
Moon’s top aides are heralding more steps. Chung Eui-yong, head of the National Security Office, has indicated resumption of South Koreans’ travel to the Kumgangsan in the North and reopening of the factories run by South Korean firms in the North Korean border city of Kaesong.
Moon Chung-in, another top presidential adviser, echoed Chung’s views in a series of newspaper interviews. A strong advocate of engagement policy toward the North, he specifically suggested “rearranging” the sanctions the Seoul government imposed in 2010 over the North’s torpedoing of the naval corvette Cheonan.
The sanctions -- called May 24 measures after the day of their announcement -- ban North Korean vessels from South Korean ports, prohibit trade between the two Koreas and South Koreans’ travel to the North. They also bar new South Korean investment into the North and halt most aid programs.
Is this then a good time to talk about lifting all or some of the sanctions? Absolutely not, for several good reasons. Most of all, there has been no change in the North’s behavior.
Since Moon took office, the North has fired two ballistic missiles and declared that they have deployed some of the newly tested missiles. They have already vowed to go ahead with the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the US mainland and conduct another nuclear test.
The North’s latest provocations led the UN Security Council to issue yet another statement condemning the North this week and there is talk of additional sanctions. Japanese media reported that Tokyo was considering imposing “secondary boycotts” to add pressure on the North.
It is obvious that lifting the May 24 sanctions and allowing the North to earn foreign currency through the Kumgangsan tour and Kaesong Industrial Complex run counter to the international sanctions.
As one of the key players in tackling the North, South Korea should be the last one to interfere with concerted international efforts to put pressure on Pyongyang to stop its belligerent acts and come to the negotiation table.
President Moon and his aides insist that their plan to engage the North -- like the resumption of humanitarian aid to the North -- will be within the frame of international sanctions on Pyongyang.
But any premature actions may cause loopholes in the sanctions and cracks in the alliance with the US and other members of the international community. Any such development could send the wrong message to the North as well.
All considered, it still is too early to rush reconciliatory moves toward the North. Moreover, any effective policy toward the North should be based on national consensus and support from the international community. Haste may ruin everything and Moon needs time to prevent that.