2018: Moon’s Chance to Shine

Peace Network Korea
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2018: Moon’s Chance to Shine
By Olly Terry
- Researcher at Seoul-based think tank Peace Network
and Assistant Professor at Sungshin Women’s University

2018 may be in its infancy, but it is already serving up cause for optimism for President Moon and his plans for warmer inter-Korean relations. From the very beginning of the year things were looking up when Kim Jong-un expressed willingness to talk to South Korea in his new year’s address. Then on January 4th, it was announced that the joint US-South Korean military drills would be delayed until after the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Very quickly this lead to the reopening of communication lines across the DMZ, and most significantly, the staging of inter-Korean talks just two weeks into the new year on January 9th; the first of their kind for two years. The results of those talks are that North Korea will send its athletes and a top-level delegation to the Olympics. The two sides will also consider holding military talks, as well as planning a possible reunion of divided families during next month’s lunar new year. All this is in sharp contrast to the tumultuous events of 2017 which saw the North’s sixth nuclear test, over 20 missile launches and supplementary, stricter sanctions against Pyongyang, with even China getting onside. So, with the promise 2018 has brought, can South Korea’s liberal president Moon Jae-in make a breakthrough in enhancing inter-Korean relations and implementing his North Korea policy?

Reasons for Moon to be Optimistic

Firstly, the fact that Kim Jong-un’s new year speech contained direct threats towards the US isn’t surprising when one considers Trump’s Twitter rows with the North, combined with the Washington-led recent sanctions against Pyongyang. What was perhaps unexpected was that he chose to adopt a conciliatory tone towards the South and suggested that the two Koreas " should melt the frozen North-South relations, thus adorning this meaningful year as a year to be specially recorded in the history of the nation." Given the strife of 2017 and the icy relations between the North and South who have been out of communication for 2 years, this was certainly surprising, but also has the potential to be momentous for the thawing of North-South relations. The significance of this wasn’t lost on President Moon who described it as a "ground-breaking chance.” While some in the South Korean media have deemed Kim’s rapprochement as nothing more than an attempt to create division within the South, it would have been music to Moon’s ears as his government’s multiple offers for talks had hitherto failed to yield anything but rebuttals. This provides President Moon with a great starting point; communication between Seoul and Pyongyang is a must for any progress towards peace and stability to blossom.

Secondly, the fact that Pyongyang has decided to hold talks with its Southern neighbours without the involvement of the US is noteworthy. In recent years Pyongyang has turned its back on Seoul, and as a “nuclear power” usually only expresses interest in dealing with Washington, forcing its Southern neighbours into a background role. For many Korean Peninsula commentators, any meaningful progress must come a more localized effort, ideally with South Korea taking the lead; recent developments give Moon the opportunity to do just that. President Moon may have struggled to find the right circumstances to implement his plans for relations with the North since his inauguration, but the perfect opportunity to get the ball rolling may have just come his way. Some analysts and officials, such as US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, have seen this is a ploy from Pyongyang to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. However, it could actually open up the opportunity for Moon to facilitate talks between Pyongyang and the US. This would be a smart move from Moon to simultaneously put Seoul in a central role in dealings with North Korea, while also bringing Washington back into the fold and taking a big step towards deescalating tension.

Thirdly, the delay of the joint US-South Korea military drills, albeit temporarily, removes a huge obstacle for thawing inter-Korean tensions. So often the spark for hostilities with the North, the drills are seen as a necessity by the US and the South who deem them key to the national defence of South Korea (and the near-30,000 US military personnel stationed there). The North has often offered deals centred around the cancellation of the drills, such as the nuclear moratorium proposed in January of last year. In the past Seoul and Washington have swatted away any offers involving the drills, steadfast in the belief national security cannot be assured without them. However, the decision to delay the drills until after the Pyeongchang Olympics seems a wise choice. While it may be easy to surmise that the postponement was only due to the Olympics, it does nonetheless show North Korea a potential willingness from Seoul and Washington to be flexible vis-à-vis the drills. Additionally, it lowers the chance of sabre-rattling and provocations from the North during the Olympics. The North has often timed missile launches or aggressive rhetoric to coincide with events of significance in South Korea or the US., for example last year saw missile tests in February when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting the US, and on the July 4th; US Independence Day. This buys President Moon some time to try and make some progress with the North and evaluate what Kim Jong-un’s true motives are.

Drills Decision Key for Long-term Progress

That all sounds promising, especially in the short term, but the fate of the postponed drills looms large and will no doubt give President Moon plenty of food for thought. While Moon has been served up a window of opportunity to try and get started with building closer relations with the North, he will eventually be faced with a crucial decision over the drills. US Defence Secretary James Mattis has stated that he expects the drills will go ahead as planned after the Paralympics, however Moon has time on his side to ponder his options. If he decides to go ahead with the drills post-Olympics as planned, he will likely throw away any goodwill and mutual trust built with Pyongyang and will be back at square one. Alternatively, he could attempt to persuade the US into a couple of alternative options. Further postponing the drills and seeing what can be achieved with the North is one potential. Alternatively, downsizing the drills would also be a big step into calming any Northern anxiety over its national security, while a full out cancellation would be a huge statement of intent that Pyongyang would be unable to ignore and would leave the ball firmly in Kim Jong-un’s court. The naysayers would argue that the drills are fundamental to dealing with North Korea and protecting the nation. However, the drills have been held biannually for decades; what can the US or South Korea really lose from cancelling one round of drills? What will be learnt from these drills that wasn’t already known in previous drills held just a few months ago? Given the massive superiority of the South Korean and American military, in terms of capability and budget, would one cancelled drill really hurt the defence of South Korea or the US, two technologically-advanced, wealthy countries who are up against an ally-less, economically devastated North Korea?

Any approach by President Moon to use the cancellation of drills for a similar freeze on North Korea’s nuclear program and missile tests is likely to yield results; Pyongyang has already shown willingness to deal on this front, moreover China has already stated it would back such a move. What Moon now has some time to consider is whether the drills are so valuable that they cannot be put aside for progressing with inter-Korean relations. Cancelling or downscaling the drills on this occasion doesn’t lock Washington or Seoul into any long-term commitment and as aforementioned, any further inter-Korean talks will perhaps open the door for Moon to get the US and North Korea to talk. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said just last month that the US was open to talks with the North without preconditions (although he was later contradicted by President Trump). Whatever Moon decides, he knows he had to wait a long time for these various conditions to converge to give him the chance to implement his plans for building relations with Pyongyang; who knows when the next chance will come around.

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