Concerns are being raised about the possibility of Seoul falling out of step with new US President Joe Biden’s administration in dealing with the nuclear-armed North Korean regime.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in recently made clear his intention to continue to push his peace agenda for the peninsula, which is criticized for having ignored or belittled growing nuclear threats from Pyongyang.
In his New Year’s address, Moon vowed to make a “last-ditch” effort to revive the stalled denuclearization talks between the US and the North and the frozen inter-Korean ties in the remainder of his five-year tenure, which ends in May 2022.
He said in a press conference Monday that he hoped the deadlocked talks with Pyongyang would pick up from the Singapore declaration, referring to the agreement reached at the first summit between Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2018.
The accord, which superficially addressed the North’s denuclearization, failed to lead to a substantive deal in subsequent talks due to differences over how to match Pyongyang’s nuclear disarmament steps with sanctions relief from Washington.
Hours ahead of Biden’s inauguration Wednesday, Moon picked his former national security adviser Chung Eui-yong as his new foreign minister. Chung is known for having played a key role in brokering the Trump-Kim summit. In early 2018, he traveled to Pyongyang as a special envoy of Moon to meet with Kim before flying to Washington to convey Kim’s message to Trump.
Moon’s wish to follow the previous track of engaging with Pyongyang seems detached from signals that key officials in the Biden administration have given on changes in the way the US plans to handle the recalcitrant regime.
Biden’s pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said Tuesday in his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the new administration would review Washington’s entire approach and policy toward North Korea.
“In fact, it’s gotten worse,” he said, suggesting Trump’s top-down manner of dealing with Pyongyang had been counterproductive in achieving the goal of dismantling its nuclear arsenal.
During the latest congress of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party earlier this month, Kim called for continued efforts to further develop the communist state’s nuclear capabilities. Describing the US as “our foremost principal enemy,” he pledged to “answer force with force.”
His threat is seen as an indication the North will abide by the goal of being recognized as a nuclear-armed state by reaching a deal that allows it to make concessions short of full denuclearization in return for a significant lifting of sanctions on the impoverished country.
Blinken said the new administration will begin by looking at what options it has to increase “pressure on North Korea to come to the negotiating table, as well as what other diplomatic initiatives may be possible.” He added that such work would start with close consultations with US allies, particularly South Korea and Japan.
In his confirmation hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee the same day, US Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin said he would seek close cooperation with South Korea, Japan and others to work out a comprehensive way of countering threats from North Korea’s nuclear arms, ballistic missiles and other weapons of mass destruction.
In his inaugural address, Biden pledged to restore the US’ global leadership by working with its allies, saying, “We will be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress and security.”
The Moon government needs to go beyond its preoccupation with inter-Korean reconciliation and respond to Biden’s diplomatic initiative in a way that ensures Seoul’s long-term interests. In particular, it should be well prepared alongside the Biden administration’s push for reconciliation between its two key Asian allies, South Korea and Japan, which have seen their ties sink to new lows over historical issues, in a bid to deal with regional risks posed by North Korea and China.
Moon showed his eagerness to reengage with Pyongyang by suggesting Monday that the two Koreas could discuss joint military exercises between South Korea and the US if necessary. This approach, seen as pandering to demands from Pyongyang, will not be conducive to establishing lasting peace on the peninsula by dismantling the nuclear arsenal of the Kim regime.
In a webinar a day after Moon made the controversial remarks, outgoing US Ambassador to Seoul Harry Harris gave a sensible piece of advice, saying that “hope alone is not a course of action.”