South Korea has begun to step up efforts for dialogue with North Korea. The Ministry of Unification on Monday approved four civic groups’ applications for contact with North Koreans to carry out their inter-Korean projects, just three days after giving the green light to eight groups.
The total approved points of contact with North Koreans has increased to 15 since the inauguration of the Moon Jae-in administration on May 10.
The figure is expected to keep rising in line with the government’s stance that it will consider civilian exchanges with the North flexibly and regardless of political situation, provided the exchanges are within the framework of international sanctions against Pyongyang
The approvals came less than 12 hours after the US Department of the Treasury announced additional unilateral sanctions on Pyongyang. They also came before the UN Security Council’s vote on a US-proposed draft to blacklist more North Korean individuals and entities.
South Korea’s National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun is reportedly working to invite his North Korean counterpart to the second Eurasia Parliamentary Speakers’ meeting to be held in Seoul from June 26-28. Chung extended the invitation to Choe Thae-bok, chairman of the North’s Supreme People’s Assembly.
If he comes, Choe will be the highest-ranking North Korean official to visit South Korea since October 2014. His visit could be taken as a sign showing Pyongyang’s interest in dialogue, but the possibility is low, considering Seoul’s efforts for civilian contact are only just beginning and that the North on Sunday slammed the UN sanctions resolution adopted last Friday in response to its recent missile launches.
The approval for civic groups making contact with the North came despite tighter sanctions, indicating the Moon administration is determined to seek dialogue. It is shifting the focus of its North Korea policy from punitive action to dialogue.
Washington cannot help but feel uneasy, as it has been leading international sanctions against Pyongyang. There are fundamental differences between the Moon and Trump administrations regarding North Korea. For Trump, denuclearization is the most urgent problem, while Moon weighs unification as well.
There is a possibility that Moon’s push for dialogue could cause conflicts with the US’ position that now is not the time for dialogue.
Worse still, Seoul has signaled it may put the brakes on the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system. Chung Eui-yong, chief of South Korea’s national security office, said the completion of its deployment might take longer than anticipated, as the Seoul government needs to assess its environmental impact more thoroughly.
Chung and US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster reportedly agreed in principle to both pressure and dialogue. In reality, however, South Korea and the US are walking out of step with each other.
Moon said in a video message to a forum on Jeju Island on Thursday, “I will try to make the economy bloom on the Korean Peninsula when war threats are gone.”
Pyongyang responded through its official newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, saying it intends to improve ties with the South.
However, there is one thing South Koreans should remember when they hold joint events or meetings in the communist state. Pyongyang will likely use their visits to publicize its regime and cause division in the South, as it has done in the past. It is questionable whether visits to the North will help improve relations and reduce the nuclear threat.
Dialogue for better ties is what South Koreans want, but dialogue for the sake of dialogue can be meaningless -- or even risky.
If it wants international cooperation to remain vital in resolving the North Korean threat, the Moon administration needs to exercise control over the pace of its drive for civilian contacts with North Koreans.