24.01.2018 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

What Should Moon Jae-in Do to Establish an Inter-Korean dialogue?


In the previous articles, we have already mentioned about the straddling the fence policy of new President of the Republic of Korea. On the one hand, Moon Jae-in actively lobbies American policy toward the DPRK, and on the other hand constantly demonstrates the volition for dialogue between North Korea and South Korea taking limited steps towards this direction.

The official statements of Seoul as a whole can be summarized in the following points:

  • The main objective of Inter-Korean dialogue is denuclearization as the only way to peace on the Korean peninsula and any format of negotiations on the North Korean nuclear issue is reasonable, while it may help.
  • Seoul is ready to discuss the normalization of relations with Pyongyang if it abandons its nuclear weapons. The level of understanding of the DPRK in this aspect is very little- it seems that not only are the representatives of intelligence discussing about the imminent collapse of the regime, but also Moon Jae-in himself, as they say, believes that the nuclear program of Pyongyang is a bluff and in fact North Korea wants to renew exchange. To put it mildly, it is quite a strange misconception.
  • Government maintains a position on hard “counteraction to provocations” based on South Korea-U.S. alliance. Seoul will react on North Korean nuclear tests with the strongest possible terms including tightening of sanctions.
  •  With all this going on, the South Korean side “does not seek to crush the North Korean regime or achieve reunification through takeover”. Thus, on August 7, 2017, the President of the Republic of Korea said that there would be no second war on the Korean peninsula and recalled that he had received firm assurances from the United States of taking no action without the approval of Seoul.
  • A decision was made to approach the issue of humanitarian contacts flexibly and subject to compliance with anti-North Korean sanctions introduced at the international level. The Republic of Korea supports the preservation of exchanges at non-governmental level without violating UN Security Council resolutions.
  • Humanitarian aid to the needy in the DPRK should be continued regardless of political reasons. Here is a clear step forward – during the tenure of Pak Geun-hye, provision of relief was terminated after the nuclear tests in 2016.

Inter-Korean warming in January 2018 slightly improved the situation. But what Moon Jae-in (if his hands are untied) may offer for his part as an invitation to the next, serious phase of the dialog? Small amount of aid are perceived more as handouts; the topic of separated families is concerning ever fewer part of population; renewing military contacts and restoring hot line is not very much “warming” as the “exit from сold snap to zero”. In the opinion of the author, the President of the Republic of Korea has such options.

First of all, Moon Jae-in could start a new investigation into the incident of the sinking of the corvette “ROKS Cheonan”. Currently, many areas of Inter-Korean cooperation are blocked by the so-called sanctions of 24 May 2010, imposed after the release of the official version of the incident of the corvette sinking as a result of the actions of North Korean submarine. However, after the incident, Russia sent a group of military experts to the ROK whose report was classified. Judging by some leaks, the results did not coincide with the official South Korean version and rather spoke about the tragic coincidence of circumstances related to the fact that the stranded corvette hooked with its propeller a fishing net which dragged the mine lying at the bottom of the sea.

Having requested this report and starting a new investigation “on the newly discovered circumstances”, the Government of the Republic of Korea may come to the conclusion that since the corvette sank as a result of an accident, the sanctions of May 24, 2010 can be lifted as the incident having “no real basis”. At the same time, an opportunity would occur to strike a blow at the then leaders of the army and intelligence services who actually made a provocation by playing the North Korean card.

Secondly, Moon Jae-in could given more transparency to the “case of the thirteen restaurant defectors” that continues to raise questions. At the moment, it is declared that all the girls are under the witness protection program. But, although according to the official version, they all chose the “freedom” none of them participated in the high- profile propaganda activities, which rises suspicion.

It is quite important, as on 21 July 2017, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the DPRK, Tomas Оjеа Quintana specifically visited Seoul to deal with this case and apparently the South Korean version did not satisfy him. As a result, during the press conference Quintana, on the one hand, pointed out the inconsistency of a number of points of clarification on this case,” and on the other hand, demanded the ROK and the DPRK not to use this case for political purposes and focus only on the interests of the refugees and their families.

Perhaps the audience remembers that the author came across a version in which at least some of the waitresses turned out to be in South Korea against their will and the whole escape was partially an intelligence operation organized for the parliamentary elections. If this is the case, Moon Jae-in may as well organize an internal investigation and in accordance to its results “expose all those who violated the laws of the country.” The precedent of such actions already exists- it being the condemnation of the Won Sei-hoon. As a result, the girls who turned out to be in the South against their will are released and sent back, the North will understand this gesture and Moon Jae-in, at the same time, will be able to inflict an additional blow to his enemies in the special services, having solved a number of internal political issues.

Thirdly, Moon Jae-in could toughen the policy with respect to the provoking actions of particular NGOs, which are engaged in launching “propaganda materials” in the DPRK including the Bibles, dollars and flash drives with instructions for organizing resistance. Such unauthorized actions may lead to sudden clashes between the South and the North as such incidents have occurred in the past. In July 4, 2017 Moon Jae-in gave instructions to find a way to stop sending propaganda leaflets to the North, but if the next attempt by Pak Sang hak & Co to destabilize the situation ends with a loud process in respect to those who were previously untouchables, this could turn out to be an evident signal.

Of course, there are more radical steps such as those described by the author earlier  – by disbanding the Committee for the Five Northern Provinces or terminate National Security Law. Judging by how drastically (albeit for different reasons) Moon Jae-in tackled the power structures, in particular, intelligence agency- there are some chances. But as for now, the new President of the Republic of Korea must strengthen his power at the minimum without squandering the credit of trust. In the meantime, let us see how the Olympic Games will be conducted and how the Inter-Korean initiatives associated with them develop into something bigger.

Konstantin Asmolov, candidate of historical sciences, leading researcher of the Center of Korean Studies at the Institute of Far East of the Russian Academy of Sciences, specifically for the internet journal “New Eastern Review”.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”,