Moon’s envoy to head to North with challenging task: experts

By Ock Hyun-ju
  • Published : Mar 4, 2018 - 15:56
  • Updated : Mar 4, 2018 - 19:29

With South Korean President Moon Jae-in planning to send a special envoy to North Korea on Monday, the delegation’s pressing task will be convincing Pyongyang to put its nuclear weapons programs on the negotiating table to open talks with the US, experts say.

The presidential office said Sunday that Moon would send a five-member delegation led by Chung Eui-yong, head of the National Security Office, to North Korea. The delegation includes the National Intelligence Service’s chief Suh Hoon and Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung.

Moon’s picks for the delegation show Moon’s determination to broker talks between Pyongyang and Washington and echoes his message that any improvement in inter-Korean ties must go in tandem with progress in relations between North Korea and the US, said a North Korean expert.

“Sending Chung and Suh to the North shows that Moon is determined to create conditions in which the US and North Korea can sit down for talks,” Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Dongguk University, told The Korea Herald.

“Suh and Chung working together in a team will create a synergy as Suh is an expert in dealing with North Korea and Chung in coordinating with the US on any developments with the North.” 

Chung, who joined the foreign service in 1972, is known for his extensive experience in coordinating with the US over a range of diplomacy and security issues. He is known to have been in close contact with his US counterpart H.R. McMaster in the face of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile provocations.

Suh, who joined the spy agency in 1980, played a role in behind-the-scenes negotiations with Pyongyang to arrange two inter-Korean summits in June 2000 and October 2007. He is also known as the South Korean who met with late former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il the most.

National Security Council chief Chung Eui-young (left) and National Intelligence Service Director Suh Hoon. (Yonhap)

The two all accompanied President Moon Jae-in when he met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong and Kim Yong-chul, vice chairman of the Workers’ Party Central Committee during their visits to the South for the Olympics.

The delegation plans to discuss ways to improve inter-Korean relations and create an environment in which North Korea and the US can start a dialogue for denuclearization during their two-day visit. Following the trip, Chung and Suh will travel to the US to brief its officials on what has been discussed with the North “in the near future,” according to the presidential office.

The Moon administration is tasked with narrowing the gap between Pyongyang and Washington about conditions under which they can sit down for talks as the two countries remain far apart over their approaches to resolving the nuclear crisis.

The US wants the communist state to put denuclearization on the negotiating table, while North Korea says that its nuclear weapons are not up for any negotiation.

“The special envoys will have to make their visit to the North a chance to persuade the North to change its firm attitude (that it will not put denuclearization on the negotiating table),” Cha Du-hyeogn, a researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

“They should let the North know that the inter-Korean relations cannot advance without it engaging with the US in dialogue and that the North not talking to the US is only its own loss.”

The move to send special envoys to the North comes after North Korea sent its senior officials to the South during the Olympics in a rare diplomatic breakthrough after a year of tensions heightened by the North’s nuclear and missile provocations.

Kim Yo-jong delivered her brother’s invitation for Moon to come to the North for a summit during her visit in the South for the opening of the Olympics. Kim Yong-chol expressed Pyongyang’s willingness to hold talks with the US during his visit here for the closing of the Winter Games.

Moon responded by stressing the importance of having the right “conditions” for talks with the North while trying to capitalize on the inter-Korean thaw to encourage North Korea and the US into direct talks to end the nuclear stand-off.

Seoul’s efforts to broker talks between the two countries could be seriously challenged when South Korea-US drills resume after the PyeongChang Paralympics end on March 18. The allies agreed to suspend the joint military exercises to ensure calm and safety during the Olympics.

“I think the envoys should gain one of the two things through the visit: They should convince the North to agree on a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests or at least to agree to sit down for talks to explore the other side’s position,” said Shin Beom-chul, professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.

“Without such commitments from the North, there is nothing to explain to the US,” he said, calling it a watershed moment in Seoul’s North Korea policy.