In his first US-South Korea summit after inauguration, President Moon Jae In sought US support to “resume inter-Korean dialogue including humanitarian support,” and “South Korea’s leading role in creating the environment for peaceful unification.” Moon obtained agreement from the US to resolve North Korea issues through dialogue, and South Korea’s leading role in the process, under the condition that North Korea’s nuclear development would remain unacceptable.
Accordingly, the Moon government is expected to make efforts to develop inter-Korean relations through the provision of humanitarian support, and develop further dialogue on wider issues including nuclear development. Efforts in resuming exchanges between civic organizations have already been made, and it seems that for Chuseok (Korea’s Thanksgiving Day) in the autumn, a reunion of separated families will be sought. As Chuseok begins on October 4 and the Eulchi-Freedom Guardian exercises (the combined annual military drill between the US and South Korea) will be held on October 8, it is likely that efforts to hold a reunion of separated families will begin in earnest in September.
Along with these public policy efforts, under-the-table contact will also likely be made. Government personnel entrusted with conveying the position of each government can hold private meetings to discuss the possibility of inter-Korean dialogue and the resumption of denuclearization talks. The South Korean government will attempt to mediate denuclearization negotiations between the US and North Korea in this process. As it is crucial for progress toward denuclearization to occur for the Moon government to develop inter-Korean relations beyond humanitarian exchanges, it will likely direct considerable focus toward strategies to advance the negotiation.
North Korea: “Do not interfere with our nuclear weapons program”
However, North Korea’s priorities are vastly different from those of South Korea’s. Although North Korea is also in favor of restoring inter-Korean relations, its position is that the nuclear issue is non-negotiable. The South Korean government must therefore decide whether to favor potential inter-Korean relations over the US-ROK alliance.
North Korea’s position on humanitarian support has also changed from the times of the Kim Dae Jung administration in the late 1990s. In 1998, when the Kim Dae Jung government came to power, the need for international aid for North Korea was urgent, as it was shortly after the “Arduous March” in which several million people died of starvation. At that time, the North was desperate to receive any assistance, be it rice, fertilizer, or other support from private organizations.
Although the country still suffers from chronic shortages, its current situation is not serious enough for it to rely on South Korea. For North Korea, it may be more important to consider the political dimension of whether the restoration of inter-Korean relations beginning with a resumption of civic exchanges will help ease the effect of sanctions. In this regard, humanitarian assistance will not be as influential in improving North-South relations as it once was.
But considering that the South Korean government is willing to take the initiative in restarting dialogue, North Korea will likely use the relationship with South Korea to improve its hand in negotiating with the US.
US encourages South Korea to give it a try
The position of the United States is also different to that of South Korea. The US supports the idea of resuming inter-Korean dialogue and South Korea’s leading role in the process only if it is conducted under the “right conditions.” The US agrees that humanitarian support can be used to initiate inter-Korean exchanges, but in order for the two Koreas to further enhance their relations into economic cooperation, including the restarting of the Kaesung Industrial Complex, North Korea must verifiably terminate its nuclear weapons program first. The US favors negotiations in tandem with sanctions and pressure, and has given South Korea an opportunity to try and resolve the matter. President Trump reportedly told NSC advisor HR McMaster to prepare a variety of strategies including military options in case the negotiation fails.
Although the US recognized South Korea’s leading role in North Korea issues at the summit, the positions of the US, South Korea and North Korea are divergent. In reality, North Korea is continuing its efforts to develop missiles and nuclear weapons with the stated aim of achieving capabilities to strike the US, and the US is taking the firm position that North Korea’s threats against the security of US citizens will not be tolerated. It remains to be seen whether the Moon government will be able to find common ground between these conflicting positions.
*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.