The latest nuclear test and missile launches in North Korea have left the Moon Jae-in administration taking flak from every side.
Conservatives criticize its “dovish” approach. A progressive lawmaker says the administration has “fallen into Trump’s poodle“. One former unification minister has even likened Moon to Shinzo Abe for taking a harder stance against the North.
The mixed criticism continues in the international scene. While the US President says the Moon administration’s “appeasement” won’t work, the North proclaims “the puppet regime’s North Korea policy is no different from the confrontational policies of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye.”
Conservatives including Mr Trump had ample reason to be suspicious of Moon: he is a political heir to the late ex-President Roh Moo-hyun, who pushed so hard for reconciliation with the North. During the 2017 presidential campaign, Moon stirred controversy for saying he would visit Pyongyang first (before Washington) should he became President.
But the sense of letdown on the left tells otherwise. Things are not going the way they were supposed to.
Not the way
Just look at what Moon has ended up saying since his inauguration. Dialogue/engagement has taken a clear back seat to sanctions/pressure in his public statements.
Even his most forward-looking North Korea policy speech—in Berlin this July—ended up including a warning: “If North Korea does not stop its nuclear provocations, there is no other choice but to further strengthen sanctions and pressure.”
Has Moon about-faced on North Korea to the dismay of his pro-engagement supporters? We know we can’t accomplish everything we say in a job interview, but we just say it anyway. Is this what happened in the Blue House?
Reports right before Moon’s speech in Berlin seem to shed some light in this regard. Early drafts were much stronger on the need for diplomacy and dialogue, but the speech had to be toned down when the North launched missiles two days before.
With Pyongyang ratcheting up the tension, Seoul has no other choice than to be reactive.
No place in the playbook
Moon had probably been expecting the North to answer his calls when he came into office last May. He had been leaving a small window of dialogue open the whole time.
There were, however, no answered calls.
When Pyongyang fired another medium-ranged missile on the 15th, Moon finally closed the window fully, saying “No talks are possible in such a situation”. He also ordered the firing of a South Korean ballistic missile in response. This could also be read as a display of his frustration.
So, why does Pyongyang keep its ears shut to Seoul’s (albeit lukewarm) call for talks? Because Kim Jong Un is the craziest person the world has ever known? (We may never be able to confirm this as he rarely speaks in public, unlike another contender for the title, who resides in the US and likes tweeting.)
The reason is pretty simple to me: there is no longer a place for the South in the North’s playbook.
Kim Jong Un and his entourage—or the collective leadership (we outsiders tend to put too much focus on Kim the individual)—see no value in dealing with the South.
His father Kim Jong Il sought cooperation with Seoul, with Kaesong Industrial Complex an exemplary case. In retrospect, Kim Jong Il might have been revealing a rather romantic ideal of national-unity-über-alles when he made a serious concession by pulling down a military base in exchange for the complex.
But his legacy has been in a coma for over a year since ex-President Park ordered the closure of the complex.
His son and his entourage seem to have very different ideas on the future of the peninsula. The new generation of realists have seemingly come to the conclusion that there is no point in clinging onto the idea of unification as an ultimate national goal.
In 2015, Pyongyang put itself into a different time zone to Seoul. This move was indeed not practical in itself but Pyongyang made it clear to everyone on the peninsula and around the world that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a different nation to the Republic of Korea.
No driver’s seat
Pyongyang is seeking direct negotiations with the US. Perhaps it learned a lesson in incidents like the US attack on Banco Delta Asia that when you want a real deal, it’s better to come at the big boy directly.
All the provocations from Pyongyang are calls for talks with the US and the US will no longer be able to ignore them. Because Pyongyang now has nuclear weapons within reach.
No one knows how the story will unfold but one thing is clear. Contrary to what Moon has said about the crisis, South Korea won’t be able to sit at the wheel.
Which is hardly Moon’s fault. With nuclear weapons in sight, the stakes have just become too big for the reins to remain on this small peninsula.
Trying too hard to stay in the driver’s seat would prove to be a delusion and a misjudgment.