President Moon Jae-in’s blind pursuit of his peace agenda for the Korean Peninsula has only emboldened North Korea, while making it harder for South Korea to remain aligned with the US on efforts to bring about the complete denuclearization of the North. In particular, Moon’s apparent hope of yet another meeting with the totalitarian regime’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, before Moon leaves office in May next year seems to have led Seoul to play into Pyongyang’s hands.
In a statement issued Tuesday, Kim Jong-un’s influential sister Kim Yo-jong lambasted the South for conducting joint military drills with the US. She threatened that the North could scrap the inter-Korean military accord signed in 2018 to ease cross-border tensions, and could break up the body that serves as its channel of dialogue with the South.
Her statement -- carried by the Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party -- added that it would not be easy to see the return of the warm spring days three years ago, which it said the South “strongly wants.” This apparently referred to the euphoric mood formed through three rounds of summit talks between Moon and the North Korean ruler in 2018.
The statement also warned the new US administration of President Joe Biden not to engage in hostile acts toward the North, saying it had better not do things that would “keep it from getting a good night’s sleep” for the next four years.
The latest message from Pyongyang is disappointing and embarrassing for Seoul, which had asked Washington to scale down the allies’ springtime combined exercise, which ended Thursday, to avoid irking the North. Accordingly, the exercise consisted of a computer-simulated war game involving no troops or equipment on the field.
Still, the Moon administration has refrained from countering Pyongyang’s criticism of the South Korea-US joint drills, focusing instead on efforts to enhance inter-Korean reconciliation. In what critics see as remarks attuned to the North’s position, the Unification Ministry said later Tuesday that joint military drills by the allies should never be allowed to heighten tensions on the peninsula, and vowed to continue to work to improve relations between the two Koreas.
An unnamed senior administration official was also quoted by a local daily as saying that Seoul intends to reaffirm the 2018 declarations by the leaders of the two Koreas and put them on the path toward implementation during the remainder of Moon’s tenure. To this end, the official said, the two leaders might meet again in Seoul, Pyongyang or the border village of Panmunjom, while a video call or an exchange of letters could also be considered.
Inter-Korean ties remain stalled since a 2019 summit between Kim Jong-un and then-US President Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam, ended without a deal on the North’s denuclearization. The Moon administration has tried in vain to revive its peace agenda by taking a string of actions to pander to Pyongyang, including the introduction of legislation to punish North Korean defectors and their supporters here for flying anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border into the North.
The recalcitrant regime in Pyongyang appears adamant about rejecting offers of dialogue from Seoul and Washington until it obtains significant relief from the US-led international sanctions in return for a partial lifting of its nuclear arsenal. The statement by the North Korean leader’s sister, released in time for a visit to Seoul by top US diplomatic and defense officials, is seen as an attempt to put pressure on Seoul to persuade Washington to reach a nuclear deal with Pyongyang on Pyongyang’s terms.
Concerns have been raised by security experts here and abroad that the Moon government might seek to circumvent the sanctions framework to resume cross-border projects at the risk of undermining the alliance with the US. During a meeting with their South Korean counterparts in Seoul on Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin emphasized the importance of close cooperation between the allies to ensure the North’s denuclearization and keep an assertive China in check.
Critics say the Moon administration may be further tempted to revive the conciliatory mood between the two Koreas three years ago in hopes of swaying voter sentiment in favor of a ruling party candidate ahead of the next presidential election a year from now. But this approach, which is so out of step with Washington, would only encourage the North to stick to its intransigent stance and could stand in the way of the North’s denuclearization and lasting peace on the peninsula.