hen North Korea blew up the Inter-Korean Liaison Office near the border on June 16, the prospect of “a new era of peace and reconciliation,” a vision enshrined in the Panmunjom Declaration signed between Pyongyang and Seoul, appeared to have also gone up in smoke.
Since their first meeting held in April 2018, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have held three bilateral summits aiming to ease tensions. However, after a second summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump collapsed in 2019, the rapprochement that started in 2018 has gradually sunk into oblivion.
The destruction of the liaison office, built near the border in 2018 to help the two Koreas communicate while still officially in a state of war, marked a symbolic end of the rapprochement as Pyongyang became frustrated that none of the sanctions imposed by South Korea and the US had been lifted despite the high-level summits.
In response to the renewed tensions, Moon Jae-in, who had made improving ties with North Korea a central issue of his political legacy, announced a major shake-up of top officials that deal with North Korea.
Suh Hoon, former head of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), was appointed new director of national security at the Blue House. Park Jie-won, a former lawmaker and special envoy to Pyongyang, succeeded Suh as the NIS chief. Lee In-young, a veteran lawmaker, was appointed to serve as the country’s new unification minister to oversee inter-Korea issues.
“[The reshuffle] marks a major change in Moon’s policy toward the North,” said Kwon Ki-sik, chairman of the Korea-China City Friendship Association. Kwon told NewsChina that South Korea’s new security officials have one thing in common: They were supporters and facilitators of the Sunshine Policy during the administration of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung between 1998 and 2003.
Under the Sunshine Policy, South Korea softened its stance against the North through economic assistance and cultural and people-to-people exchanges, which reduced the tension and hostility between the two sides.
For his achievements, Kim Dae-Jung who died in 2009, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000. But after the conservative Lee Myung-bak took the presidency in 2008, South Korea ended the Sunshine Policy and the inter-Korean relationship quickly deteriorated.
According to Kwon, who served as political affairs secretary for Kim Dae-jung and worked with Park Jie-won, Moon shares Kim Dae-jun’s vision of improving ties with the North, but lacks his courage and creativity in realizing that vision. By putting “Kim’s men” in key positions, Moon seeks to be more audacious and creative in breaking the inter-Korea deadlock, Kwon said.
In past years, Moon has served as a mediator for talks between Pyongyang and Washington. But as sanctions imposed by both South Korea and the US remain, North Korea is rejecting South Korea’s role as mediator.
“I doubt North Korea will rely on South Korea anymore in engaging with the US because from Kim Jong-un’s point of view, President Moon couldn’t deliver - he couldn’t convince Trump to make a deal that both sides would agree upon,” said Mark Barry, an independent Asian affairs analyst.
Following Pyongyang’s destruction of the liaison office, Moon called for leaders from North Korea and the US to meet again before the US presidential election in November, a suggestion Pyongyang quickly rejected.
According to North Korea’s State media, Kim Yo-jong, sister of Kim Jong-un, said Pyongyang has no intention of holding talks with the US, because at this point they would only serve US interests.
Kim Yo-jong called the mixed messages of engagement and pressure from Trump and his aides an “intentional scheme or a result of the President’s loose grip of power,” adding that North Korea would shape its policies “to prepare for leaders other than Trump.”
The US also showed little interest in holding another high-level summit. During a June visit to South Korea, US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said that he was not seeking to meet North Korean officials. According to Barry, the US insists that North Korea change its position, and is not making any serious efforts to take things forward. Though Trump has hinted that he would consider another summit with Kim, “he clearly meant after he is reelected, probably in 2021,” Barry said.
Given the deadlock between Washington and Pyongyang, South Korea’s role as mediator is becoming increasingly irrelevant. In an article published by the Stimson Center, a non-profit think tank, Bernhard Seliger, an expert on Korean issues, argued that as existing sanctions leave almost no room for larger government or business initiatives, “The only policy the South Korean government can do on its own is create new avenues for South Koreans to pursue cooperation with the North through the deregulation and support of people-to-people contacts.”
Currently, people-to-people contact with North Korea is limited by the so-called May 24 Measures. Imposed in 2010 by the Lee Myung-bak administration in response to the North’s attack on the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan, the May 24 Measures forbid almost all trade and investment with North Korea, except for those related to the now-defunct Kaesong Industrial Park and Mount Kumgangsan tours. The measures also prohibit humanitarian aid without government permission.
Lee In-young, the new unification minister, for example, applied eight times to lead a group of South Korean businessmen to visit North Korea. All were rejected by Seoul. The last time was April 30.
Park Jie-won, the new head of the NIS, applied twice to visit Pyongyang for non-governmental activities. The Blue House rejected both.
But in recent months, there are signs that the Blue House will ease sanctions. In a speech made to his senior secretaries after winning the parliamentary majority on April 27, Moon vowed to look for “realisticand realizable” ways to achieve inter-Korean cooperation.
On May 21, the Unification Ministry said that the May 24 Measures had lost their effect and had become “a hindrance on our efforts for inter-Korean exchanges and to establish peace on the Korean Peninsula.” But the ministry remained vague about whether the government would lift the sanctions.
In an interview with South Korean reporters on July 21, Lee In-young said that there should be a separation between what the South Korea-US joint working group can do, referring to the consultative body launched in 2018 to coordinate their policies toward North Korea, and what South Korea can do independently. Lee added that South Korea could pursue humanitarian cooperation with the North first.
Lee’s remarks led many to suspect that Seoul may decouple some of its policies from the US in pursuit of what Kwon called a more “audacious” and “creative” approach to improve its ties with the North.
Kwon told NewsChina that establishing economic ties would be key to any actual progress in inter-Korean cooperation. “Moon and his new advisors could consider resuming tours to Mount Kumgangsan, and conduct cultural and sports exchanges,” Kwon said.
This is what Pyongyang has called on South Korea to do in the past. For years, Pyongyang has criticized the joint working group and called it a sign of South Korea’s subservience to the US. Some critics in South Korea also consider it a roadblock in seeking cross-border exchanges.
Despite its drastic measures, such as blowing up the liaison office, Pyongyang’s subsequent moves appear quite calculated. Just one day after destroying the building amid renewed military threats, North Korea declared in a statement released by its Korean Central News Agency that its next steps would depend on Seoul’s attitude and policy. One week later, Pyongyang suspended its proposed military preparations against the South and has since not condemned the country.
In her statement made on July 6, Kim Yo-jong said Pyongyang has no intention of “threatening the US.”
“As long as they don’t touch us and hurt us, everything will flow as-is,” she said.
Analysts believe that the developments suggest North Korea has shifted policy from the prospect of partially lifted US sanctions. As a result, Pyongyang appears to be seeking more practical ways to develop its economy.
“North Korea may have realized that Trump cannot be convinced to agree to a partial deal,” said Barry, “Like in real estate, Trump owns the whole building, not parts of it. So, he won’t make an interim deal with Kim [Jong-un].”
In response to South Korea’s reshuffling, North Korean state media expressed some interest on July 13 by quoting an editorial published by South Korean-based pro-North media outlet Jaju Sibo, which commented there were high expectations about what Lee In-young and other new officials can achieve in improving ties with the North.
Despite the new rhetoric from South Korean officials, the question remains whether Seoul would defy Washington and lift its sanctions on Pyongyang. Even the original Jaju Sibo article stressed that it would be very difficult for South Korea to stand up to Washington, which would require ¡°philosophy and bravery.”
According to Barry, part of the purpose behind US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun’s visit to South Korea was to remind Seoul not to get ahead of the US in improving ties with North Korea. Barry said the US has veto power over the improvement of inter-Korean relations.
“I don’t see inter-Korean or US-North Korea relations improving until the North sees who becomes the next US president,” Barry said.