President Moon Jae-in’s reshuffle of his national security team last week shows his intention to make continuous efforts to enhance inter-Korean reconciliation while seeking to reassume a role as mediator between the US and North Korea.
He filled key posts in charge of handling security and North Korean affairs with figures who have been deeply involved in cutting deals with the North or have been known for their accommodative stance on the recalcitrant regime.
The move apparently reflects his eagerness to set up a firm framework for lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula during the remainder of his five-year presidency that ends in 2022. But it also raises concern that the Moon administration will set aside the complete denuclearization of the North to carry forward its agenda for cross-border cooperation.
Pyongyang has virtually scrapped conciliatory agreements reached at a string of summits between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2018 by cutting all communication lines with Seoul and demolishing a joint liaison office in its border city of Kaesong last month. Kim shelved plans for further actions against South Korea last week in a move that observers say is partly related to his regime’s difficulties coping with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
Pyongyang has returned to the provocative mode ostensibly in protest over Seoul’s failure to stop North Korean defectors here from sending anti-Kim leaflets across the border. Its ulterior motive, however, appears to put pressure on the Moon administration to go beyond the US-led international sanctions regime against it to revive major inter-Korean projects that used to bring large amounts of cash to the impoverished totalitarian state.
Some aides to Moon and ruling party lawmakers have expressed discontent that Washington’s call for strict sanctions limits the space for Seoul to promote cross-border cooperation.
Moon’s reshuffle of the national security lineup seems to be affected by this atmosphere.
In a statement issued after his appointment as director of national security, Suh Hoon, the country’s top intelligence official, said Seoul would respond prudently to the current situation on the peninsula but would also “prepare to move boldly sometimes.”
Lee In-young, the four-term ruling party lawmaker who has been nominated as unification minister, told reporters he had accepted Moon’s offer of the post with “a sense of urgency that we should again open the door of peace before it’s closed.” He then emphasized the need to resume dialogue between the two Koreas and implement their existing accords.
Cooperating with them in carrying through Moon’s reconciliatory approach to the North will be former legislator Park Jie-won, who was named to succeed Suh as head of the National Intelligence Service, and Lim Jong-seok, former presidential chief of staff, who was appointed as special adviser to the president on diplomatic and security affairs.
Park played a key role in arranging for the first inter-Korean summit in 2000 between then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Lim has been known for his enthusiasm toward closer ties with the North since his days as student movement leader.
The Moon administration’s renewed push to revitalize the inter-Korean peace process may still be held back by stalled negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
In order to make a breakthrough, the new national security team is expected to focus on facilitating another summit between US President Donald Trump and Kim while working to arrange for Moon to meet the North Korean leader again.
Earlier last week, Moon expressed his desire to broker a fourth meeting between Trump and Kim before the US presidential election in November. Former US National Security Adviser John Bolton said in a recent interview with a South Korean daily that Trump could meet with Kim if he believes a summit would help boost his reelection chances.
What is worrisome is that their possible additional summit would not lead to a substantive deal to ensure the North’s complete denuclearization but a half-baked one to ease sanctions in return for a partial scrapping of its nuclear weapons program.
A statement issued by a top North Korean diplomat Saturday said that Pyongyang feels no need to meet with the US for talks, accusing the Trump administration of taking advantage of dialogue between the two countries only as “a tool for grappling with its political crisis.” It can be seen as calling on Washington to come closer to terms set forth by Pyongyang.
Any deal that stops short of ensuring the North’s complete denuclearization would continue to leave the South vulnerable to threats from the Kim regime and make it difficult to establish a lasting peace on the peninsula.