Inter-Korean relations couldn’t get any worse this year.
Until they did.
According to Seoul’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, an unidentified forty-seven-year-old South Korean man who was working aboard a South Korean inspection vessel in the disputed West Sea was spotted drifting on a raft in North Korean waters. What this individual was doing alone in the middle of the water hasn’t been confirmed yet, but it appears he may have been seeking to defect. A North Korean civilian vessel spotted the man and interrogated him as he was bobbing in the water. That interrogation swiftly ended when a North Korean Navy ship entered the area hours later and executed the South Korean shipman on orders from above. Concerned the body may have been carrying the coronavirus, it was later burned.
For the South Korean government, who ordered the killing is far less important than the fact that the killing occurred. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who days ago devoted a portion of his United National General Assembly address on the need for the two Koreas to sign a peace treaty, was shocked and outraged at Pyongyang’s brazen behavior and demanded the North “apologize for an act against humanity.” A South Korean Unification Ministry official said “This act by the North Korean military amounts to pouring cold water over our consistent patience and efforts for inter-Korean reconciliation and peace and runs directly counter to the yearning of our people.”
Translation: you, Mr. Kim Jong-un, are responding to our outstretched hand by spitting in our face.
Unfortunately, incidents like this have happened before. In 2008, North Korean soldiers killed a South Korean tourist who got lost at the Mount Kumgang resort. That episode prompted a stern rebuke from then-South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who then quickly prohibited South Korean tourists from visiting and pulled South Korean workers from the area in a sign of protest. Seoul’s reaction at that time would become representative of Lee’s entire approach towards the North during his tenure, which replaced his predecessor’s sunshine policy with one of diplomatic isolation and firmer security ties to Washington.
Unlike President Lee, Moon Jae-in is personally interested and indeed invested in establishing a fruitful inter-Korean relationship. While Moon has gotten a tad saltier with North Korea’s antics this year, he has always kept the faith that the North Koreans will wake up one morning and finally begin to engage in a constructive matter. Moon is deeply convinced that a more productive North-South relationship is required if the Korean Peninsula has any chance at all to see durable peace in the years ahead. His belief is so strong, in fact, that Moon has been willing to weather political risks in order to salvage whatever dialogue with Pyongyang may still be available. The most recent example was early this summer, when the Moon administration launched legal action against North Korean defectors in the South who were lobbing anti-Pyongyang balloons and leaflets across the border. The optics of the South Korean government limiting the operating space of North Korean defector organizations was naturally uncomfortable from a public relations standpoint—even former U.S. officials sharply condemned the decision. Yet for Moon, the costs of sitting on his hands and angering the Kim dynasty to such heights that it turns its back on diplomacy completely was far higher than the costs of awkward headlines.
Moon Jae-in is a patient man. But he doesn’t have an unlimited quantity of it. Even before the murder of this particular South Korean individual on the high seas, Moon’s inter-Korean initiative was flopping around like a fish out of water. True or not, the Trump administration views the Moon administration has too forgiving of North Korean behavior and far more interested in the peace part of the equation than denuclearization. South Korea’s conservative lawmakers have never thought Moon was a good president from the start and are inherently suspicious of any North Korea policy that relies on the carrot rather than the stick. The North Koreans, meanwhile, have lost trust in Moon’s ability to deliver concessions. The fact that Washington’s sanctions regime largely prevents the Moon administration from fully implementing its own North Korea policy doesn’t give the Blue House much forgiveness as far as Kim Jong-un is concerned.
This week’s deadly encounter in North Korean waters, however, will compound the problem for Moon. The journey to peace between the two Koreas was already an uphill trek; now, the climb is even steeper. With less than two years left in his term, Moon Jae-in is now confronted with a choice: 1) retaliate harshly and possibly see his inter-Korean peace process vanish, or 2) rely on words rather than action and watch as his political stock plummets as South Korean lawmakers denounce him for being insufficiently strong-willed. The South Korean government will have to discover a middle-ground between those two extremes. The clock is ticking.
Daniel R. DePetris is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and a contributor to the National Interest.