President Moon Jae-in’s approach toward North Korea with sanctions and dialogue appears to be hanging by a thread, with Pyongyang’s latest test of an intercontinental ballistic missile depleting his policy options and prompting Washington to harden its line against the unruly regime.
Friday’s late-night liftoff could upset the regional security landscape, as the projectile is forecast to be capable of flying some 10,000 kilometers, placing within its strike range not just Alaska, but most of the contiguous United States.
The test was also seen as another brush-off for Moon’s vision to “take the lead” in peninsular issues unveiled early last month in Berlin. Seoul has since proposed military and humanitarian talks, only to be met with the Kim Jong-un regime’s aloofness and relentless provocations.
Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon acknowledged the changing circumstances, saying that with the ICBM launch the North has reached a “critical point in crossing the red line” and posed a stumbling block for the Berlin initiative.
“Largely the Berlin declaration consists of two parts -- one being a robust warning against North Korea, which continues provocations, and the other a peace plan to be carried out if it ceases provocations and returns to dialogue,” he told reporters Monday.
“Now the security situation on the peninsula encounters a fundamental shift. Of course we have not closed the door to dialogue yet, but we can’t deal with the North as if nothing has ever happened, and we’re consulting on this with relevant countries.”
This handout photo provided by the US Missile Defense Agency shows a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense interceptor being launched from the Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska during a test on Sunday in Alaska. (EPA-Yonhap)
Cheong Wa Dae has nonetheless reaffirmed its commitment to the two-track strategy after the launch, saying it will ramp up sanctions and pressure “to a maximum level,” but the door for dialogue remains open as an “exit.” The president himself called for “wisdom in maintaining the momentum” for the Berlin initiative.
“As a responsible actor directly involved in peninsular matters, we will continue to make efforts for the denuclearization, peace and stability of the peninsula with patience and perseverance,” Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun said at a news briefing, noting its proposal remains unchanged.
“For a peninsula free of nuclear weapons and threats of war, we will work to manage the situation so that the Berlin initiative won’t lose its vigor.”
But Moon’s nascent leadership faces increasingly shriveling room to maneuver. Enraged and frustrated, Washington is likely to ditch any possibility of talks and intensify punitive measures until the regime takes substantive denuclearization steps.
US President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed on the need for “further concrete action” on Pyongyang during a phone call Monday. In New York, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley on Sunday said Washington is “done talking about North Korea” and that “the time for talk is over,” urging Beijing to join in imposing a strong resolution.
For now, the Moon administration has decided to provisionally deploy the four remaining launchers of the US’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile shield, reversing in its own announcement in just 16 hours. The presidential office said it will also seek negotiations with the US to ensure Seoul is capable of loading a warhead of at least 1 ton on its missile. Related ministries are working to formulate independent sanctions against Pyongyang aside from UN Security Council resolutions, Baik said, though there are few options because almost all inter-Korean programs and exchanges have long been at a standstill.
A major adjustment appears to be inevitable in his short- and mid-term road map. Under the plan, Seoul was looking to the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, Gangwon Province, as a major platform to revive inter-Korean dialogue designed to extract a moratorium on the North’s nuclear and missile tests in return for economic incentives, according to Choi Jong-kun, a Yonsei University professor and longtime Moon adviser who now serves as a presidential peace and arms control secretary.
Over the longer term, too, the liberal president is likely to struggle to find a path forward to kick-start his Berlin vision, with the headstrong neighbor inching closer to a full-fledged nuclear weapons state and the world pursuing stronger sanctions and pressure, observers say.
“The administration may have crafted some sort of an action-for-action road map with a specific timeline, but apparently it didn’t take the ICBM tests into account,” a diplomatic source said, asking to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter.
“Things are changing rapidly and you can’t just push ahead as planned even at a time when your counterpart doesn’t seem to care a bit. That way, the plan would end up being one-sided at best, however intelligently crafted.”
This image published Sunday by North Korea's Rodong Sinmun shows citizens celebrating Friday's launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile in front of Pyongyang Station. (Yonhap)
At home, Moon also faces rising calls for a sweeping policy overhaul in the aftermath of the ICBM liftoff, from not only the conservative camp but also a progressive opposition party.
The main opposition far-light Liberty Korea Party accused the president of causing public confusion by doing an about-face on the THAAD deployment and carrying out “inconsistent” North Korea policy.
“The Moon administration has been going back and forth on North Korea policy. When the North fired the Hwasong-14 on July 4, it spoke of stern punishment, and then two days later introduced the Berlin initiative,” floor spokesperson Choung Tae-ok said Monday in a commentary, referring to the maiden ICBM test.
Rep. Lee Hye-hoon, chair of the minor opposition center-right Bareun Party, urged Moon to abandon his “lingering attachment” to the Berlin declaration, calling it an “illusion” to push for nuclear negotiations with a counterpart that has no willingness to talk at all.
Rep. Park Joo-sun, interim chief of the minor opposition center-left People’s Party, warned the government may instigate a “strategic isolation and diplomatic disaster if it continues dual play and amateurish diplomacy,” taking issue with the THAAD turnaround.
By Shin Hyon-hee (email@example.com)