From 22 to 26 September 2019, President of the Republic of Korea was in New York. His visit included speaking at the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly and participating in yet another U.S.-South Korea Summit (9th in two and a half years).
Initially, ROK’s Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon was supposed to attend the U.N. General Assembly. But then Moon Jae-in decided to go to New York himself. In the opinion of South Korea’s media outlets, he was planning on offering help in re-establishing dialogue between the DPRK and the United States, as due to disagreements between Washington and Pyongyang, Moon Jae-in’s role as mediator, capable of listening to each side and convincing whichever party to make certain concessions, had become more important.
In reality, Seoul and Washington had more crucial issues to discuss, such as their disagreements. For example, the United States has expressed its dissatisfaction on more than one occasion with ROK’s decision to withdraw from the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan. In addition, South Korea needed to resolve yet another complex issue: budget allocation on U.S. military troops stationed in the Republic of Korea.
South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha stated that the parties would hold negotiations to agree on a mutually acceptable definition of denuclearization, and that Moon Jae-in would ask Donald Trump to consider a step-by-step approach to it.
On 23 September, Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump met for 65 minutes. The duration of their talks is important if we consider how formal the meeting was, and, therefore, how much time was allotted to interpret what was said. In comparison, for instance, negotiations between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump lasted a couple of hours.
The two sides discussed the situation on the Korean Peninsula and how the alliance between the ROK and the United States would evolve in the future. Moon Jae-in expressed hope that working negotiations between the DPRK and the USA to prepare for their third bilateral summit would start in the near future. However, having emphasized his good relationship with Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump suggested continuing to monitor the unfolding situation, and noted that only time would tell whether they would be able to reach an agreement with North Korea or not.
On 24 September, Moon Jae-in gave his third ever speech at the U.N. General Assembly. South Korea’s leader was expected to talk about Seoul’s efforts to ensure conditions were favorable for mutual prosperity of ROK and North Korea and for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. In fact, his speech was a great example of populist rhetoric, and we will focus on it in a separate article.
Moon Jae-in gave a talk at the UN Climate Action Summit, where he announced that, as a responsible full-fledged member of the international community, the ROK was prepared to double its contribution to the Green Climate Fund (GCF) from $100 million (from 2015 to 2018) to $200 million (from 2020 to 2023), and that the summit of Partnering for Green Growth and the Global Goals 2030 (P4G) would be held in June of next year in Seoul. South Korea’s President also talked about plans to develop the hydrogen economy and suggested establishing an International Day for Blue Sky, highlighting the importance of “facilitating international cooperation on air pollution”, which, according to WHO (the World Health Organization) data, leads to avoidable deaths of 7 million people a year.
The meeting between Moon Jae-in and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres is also worthy of note. During their talks, ROK’s President said that the South Korean government was prepared to increase humanitarian aid to the DPRK once progress was made in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Immediately afterwards Republic of Korea’s media outlets reported that South Korea was planning on giving $8 million in humanitarian aid to North Korea. In addition, Seoul Metropolitan Government announced its intention to provide the DPRK with food aid worth $1 million. The humanitarian aid was to be delivered via UN bodies to support programs aimed at solving the issue of poor nutrition facing children and pregnant women in North Korea (where millions of residents experience food shortages due to natural disasters and international sanctions).
However, as early as 1 October, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Unification stated that the government plans to provide 50,000 tons of rice as humanitarian aid to the DPRK had been cancelled.
Truth be told, South Korea’s hypocrisy is already starting to irritate the author of this article. At first, all the media outlets announce to the public that Seoul is discussing the possibility of sending humanitarian aid/ rice/ medicine to the DPRK, but then, in the end, nothing is delivered.
In addition, during his visit to the United States, Moon Jae-in met with President of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach with whom he discussed issues concerning South and North Korea’s bid to co-host the 2032 Summer Olympics. He also had talks with the leaders of Poland, Denmark and Australia.
But how did the negotiations between the President of ROK and Donald Trump go?
With regards to “promoting dialogue”: South Korea’s media outlets tactfully wrote that the leaders of the two nations reaffirmed their positions on this issue. From the author’s point of view, the statement “the need to restart negotiations between the United States and North Korea as soon as possible to ensure progress is made in the DPRK denuclearization process” is very general in nature. However, when a spokesperson for Moon Jae-in’s administration was asked about removal of North Korea-related sanctions, he replied that they would remain in place.
It has also been reported that neither of the leaders raised the issue of reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Mount Kumgang resort, or of providing security guarantees to Pyongyang. Still, Donald Trump did reiterate that the United States was against the use of military force against the DPRK.
With regards to economic issues: Moon Jae-in stated that negotiations on reviewing terms of the free trade agreement and of increasing South Korea’s investments in the United States were successful. But let us take a closer look at what these agreements actually entail.
Moon Jae-in presented data on the amount of U.S. weaponry bought by the ROK in the last 10 years, and a three-year plan on future purchases. He highlighted that the two sides needed to share these costs in a rational manner. The U.S. President noted the large purchase volumes.
In addition, for the first time since Donald Trump came to power, the ROK signed a big contract (worth $10 billion) on additional deliveries of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the United States. The agreement is valid for 15 years with the possibility of extending it for another 3 years. South Korea imports 1,580,000 tons of gas from the USA, which accounts for 5 % of ROK’s annual needs.
On the same day, i.e. 24 September, Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy Sung Yun-mo had a meeting with U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. He asked his American counterpart for an exemption on products of ROK’s automobile industry from U.S. tariffs, in view of the revised bilateral free trade agreement between the two countries. The request went unanswered, but later on, Wilbur Ross noted that investments made by South Korean companies in the U.S. economy foster closer ties between the two nations. An agreement to establish a joint venture between Hyundai Motor Group and an American automobile manufacturer was also mentioned.
With regards to defense budget: some headway was made on this issue. Moon Jae-in told Donald Trump that he was prepared to allocate more money on defense as long as the United States did not demand an unreasonable increase in spending. However, ROK’s conservatives have been spreading rumors that South Korea will now need to spend 5 times more than before on U.S. military bases, and, in addition, it will need to purchase $64 billion worth of weapons from the United States.
According to the Republic of Korea’s media outlets, Moon Jae-in managed to somewhat smooth tensions between Washington and Seoul over South Korea’s decision to withdraw from the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan.
All of these developments remind one of the previous visit by ROK’s President to the USA, when he was hoping to replace Donald Trump’s “great deal” with a “relatively good one”, but during the negotiations neither party broached this topic. As usual, Moon Jae-in was able to use words to his advantage on the UN podium, but the outcome of the entire visit can be best described by the idiom “Many go out for wool and come home shorn”.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.