The Korea Herald


Delving into presidential hopefuls’ N. Korea policy: What’s in the box?

Lee and Yoon differ on sequencing of denuclearization, sanctions relief, peace building

By Ji Da-gyum

Published : Nov. 29, 2021 - 14:42

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Main opposition People Power Party presidential candidate Yoon Seok-youl (L) and ruling Democratic Party presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung (R). (Yonhap) Main opposition People Power Party presidential candidate Yoon Seok-youl (L) and ruling Democratic Party presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung (R). (Yonhap)
North Korea policy is one of the main dividers between progressives and conservatives in South Korean politics, and the two leading presidential candidates -- Lee Jae-myung and Yoon Seok-youl -- are poles apart on how to secure stability and peace on the Korean Peninsula. They also disagree on the fundamental causes of the current strained inter-Korean relations.

But Yoon and Lee both dismiss the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons as an impractical option and endorse the idea of providing humanitarian aid to the people of North Korea irrespective of the political situation. So what are their visions for North Korea policy? What are the differences and similarities?

1. Denuclearization: How to achieve it
Lee and Yoon both favor a “step-by-step” approach toward denuclearization based on reciprocal commitments. But the two diverge on their approach to reciprocity -- on how and when to reward Pyongyang for any potential denuclearization steps.

Yoon: Substantial denuclearization steps a precondition
Yoon’s presidential campaign announced in November that it would “present a predictable step-by-step road map for denuclearization” and take the initiative in international cooperation to achieve that goal.

Yoon believes nuclear negotiations can proceed primarily within the trilateral framework of the two Koreas and the US, rather than a four- or six-party format, which requires prior arrangements for meetings. To that end, Yoon proposes to establish a liaison office either in Panmunjom or Washington to run trilateral communication channels.

The essence of Yoon’s denuclearization approach is to ask for “verifiable” and “substantial” denuclearization measures first, and then reciprocate with economic support and other rewards, an official with Yoon’s campaign who wished to remain anonymous told The Korea Herald.

When asked if the camp takes a “denuclearization first, rewards later” approach, the official said Seoul could take reciprocal measures in the process of achieving complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.

But “economic support can be provided if North Korea makes substantial progress in denuclearization, such as a verifiable freeze on nuclear programs,” the official added.

The official said Yoon’s strategy is to reward Pyongyang for substantial denuclearization measures, and that it cannot be defined as either a “big deal” or “small deal” approach.

On sanctions, Yoon’s stance is in line with the Biden administration’s approach.

“I think it is desirable to entice North Korea to voluntarily move toward denuclearization, making it realize that the possession of nuclear weapons is rather detrimental to its security and economy,” Yoon said in an interview with Monthly Chosun Magazine earlier this month, adding that the international community should “thoroughly implement sanctions” while pushing for nuclear negotiations.

Lee Jae-myung, the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea,speaks during a meeting with foreign correspondents at the Press Center in Seoul on Nov. 25.(Yonhap) Lee Jae-myung, the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea,speaks during a meeting with foreign correspondents at the Press Center in Seoul on Nov. 25.(Yonhap)

Lee: Small deal, simultaneous actions, sanctions relief
Lee supports the pursuit of a small deal and an “action for action, simultaneous” approach to denuclearization, which is more favored by China, North Korea and Russia.

Lee’s campaign underscores that corresponding measures should be taken incrementally and in a synchronized manner in exchange for denuclearization steps from North Korea, as part of a process of building trust.

Notably, the Lee camp proposes easing economic sanctions against North Korea with a “snapback” provision.

In a recent conference with the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Lee said he would come up with a meticulous plan and lead efforts to narrow the gap on the sequencing of denuclearization measures and rewards.

Lee also said an appeasement policy is currently more effective than a hard-line, sanctions-oriented policy. He cast doubt on whether the hard-line policy of sanctions and pressure has been as effective as Western countries had hoped, and said the Kim Dae-jung government’s Sunshine Policy brought about stability on the peninsula.

Lee, however, dismisses the Trump administration’s all-or-nothing approach and its “grand bargain” scenario as unfeasible, while endorsing Trump’s top-down approach. Lee said he would seek to resolve nuclear issues by directly engaging in leader-level dialogue with US President Joe Biden and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

2. Peace building: How to achieve peace and stability
Lee and Yoon advocate different paths toward securing peace and stability on the peninsula. Lee proposes economic cooperation as the key to creating a virtuous cycle of peace and economic development, and he hopes to establish a “peace economy.”

Yoon, in contrast, prioritizes steps to strengthen the US’ extended nuclear deterrence, South Korea’s indigenous missile defense capabilities and trilateral military cooperation among South Korea, the US and Japan.

Yoon: Reinforce nuclear deterrence, normalize inter-Korean relations
Yoon emphasizes that enhancing deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats is the “starting point” of pushing Pyongyang toward denuclearization.

The kernel is to reinforce the US’ “extended deterrence” within the South Korea-US alliance. Yoon’s camp plans to establish procedures for Seoul and Washington to consult on the deployment of US nuclear weapons on the peninsula in case of contingencies and to enhance the credibility of the US nuclear umbrella by holding a regular military exercise.

In addition, Yoon proposes strengthening Seoul’s missile defense capabilities as a way to “neutralize” North Korea’s missile and nuclear threats, along with the expeditious deployment of a missile shield system similar to Israel’s Iron Dome and the development of indigenous tactical weapons. In this context, Yoon believes Seoul can decide whether to upgrade the US’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system that is deployed here.

Yoon also underscores the significance of enhancing trilateral cooperation among Seoul, Washington and Tokyo on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

The emphasis on reinforcing deterrence options is part of Yoon’s efforts to normalize inter-Korean relations. He has described the relationship between Pyongyang and Seoul as one between a superior and a subordinate, with Seoul in the weaker position.

Yoon Seok-youl, the presidential candidate of the main opposition People Power Party, speaks during a meeting with foreign correspondents at the Press Center in Seoul on Nov. 12. (Yonhap) Yoon Seok-youl, the presidential candidate of the main opposition People Power Party, speaks during a meeting with foreign correspondents at the Press Center in Seoul on Nov. 12. (Yonhap)

Lee: Pursue pragmatic inter-Korean relations, establish peace economy
In contrast, Lee’s election campaign highlights the importance of inter-Korean economic cooperation as a means to establish peace on the peninsula and develop a mutually beneficial relationship.

Lee’s camp says it will pursue “pragmatic coexistence between the two Koreas by establishing a peace economy system on the Korean Peninsula,” the legacy of the Moon Jae-in government’s peace process initiative.

The Lee camp pledges to create a “virtuous cycle of peace and economy,” which means peace would lead to economic development and economic cooperation would solidify peace.

Seoul and Pyongyang should build up “pragmatic relations” that bring about economic development and improve people’s lives, the Lee camp says, adding that “ideological and systemic competitions no longer have a practical benefit.”

Lee’s pragmatic approach to inter-Korean relations is also reflected in his views on unification. In a meeting with young people earlier this month, Lee said, “It is too late to pursue unification.” He prefers “de facto unification” status and a “pragmatic” approach to unification, he explained, rather than increasing hostility toward each other.

Lee last week emphasized that it is “more pressing and realistic” to seek ways for the two Koreas to prosper together through exchanges and cooperation rather than setting reunification as a short-term goal, in a separate news briefing after his meeting with foreign correspondents.

But the Yoon camp sees upfront denuclearization as a precondition to resuming inter-Korean economic cooperation, and would push for “inter-Korean joint economic development to prepare for the post-denuclearization era.”

3. Points in common: Opposition to tactical nuclear weapons
Lee and Yoon both view the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons on the peninsula as impractical, explaining that Pyongyang could use it as justification for possessing nuclear weapons.

Lee in late August also said it would “lead to strong opposition from neighboring countries and cause serious diplomatic friction.” Yoon has dismissed the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons and NATO’s nuclear-sharing mechanism as breaches of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The two camps also share the view that South Korea should provide humanitarian aid to the North Korean people irrespective of progress on denuclearization or the political situation, and that both sides should expand inter-Korean cultural and people-to-people exchanges. 

But the Yoon camp underlines the importance of providing aid that substantially helps the North Korean people and seeks to implement policy to open and reform Pyongyang in coordination with the international community.

Lee said he would take the initiative in providing humanitarian aid and implementing health and medical cooperation, as well as other cooperative projects that would lead to economic growth and development for the two Koreas.

By Ji Da-gyum (