South Korean President Moon Jae-in still has the opportunity to use the remaining time in his five-year term and supermajority in the National Assembly to pivot away from a focus on unilateral reconciliation with North Korea to stabilizing South Korea’s position in East Asia.
Improving South Korea’s relations with key states would not only preserve Moon’s legacy but also setup a potential successor from the Democratic Party for success. Of course, this is easier said than done, but North Korea has made clear that South Korea under the Moon Administration does not have the unilateral leverage or power to elicit a change in its stance despite frequent, consistent, and well-meaning attempts by Seoul.
Moon continues to assert that Kim Jong-un is willing to denuclearize and commit to peace, and has named Chung Eui-yong as his new foreign minister to continue pushing for progress, but it is difficult to share his optimism. Six months after Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, condemned groups sending leaflets across the border as “human scum,” Moon’s Democratic Party adopted legislation that imposes fines and jail terms on citizens who send leaflets or other items into North Korea via balloons. Nonetheless, Kim Yo-jong still harshly criticized South Korea in a recent statement released during the 8th Party Congress in North Korea—hardly the progress Moon is looking for despite pushing through such a controversial bill.
Unfortunately, this is just one of many acts of intransigence from Pyongyang: North Korea also blew up the inter-Korean liaison office in June 2020 and killed a South Korean official before burning his body in September 2020. Though the latter incident was potentially an accident, and Kim offered a rare personal apology to South Korea, it did not result in any meaningful progress between the two countries.
The lack of success with North Korea is compounding other difficulties facing the Moon Administration. In early January, Moon’s approval rating fell to an all-time low, and South Korea’s relations with other countries are hardly picturesque: U.S.-South Korean relations faltered under the Trump Administration, South Korea and Japan continue to grapple with historical issues, and Chinese President Xi Jinping has not made a state visit to South Korea since 2014 despite meeting with Kim a total of five times in the past several years.
Rather than waiting on progress with North Korea, there are several foreign policy agendas to which Moon can dedicate his remaining time.
He can lay the groundwork for a productive relationship with President Joe Biden and his administration that is not entirely based on addressing North Korea. Biden will certainly be more receptive to coronavirus-related and alliance-based cooperation than President Trump was and Moon’s efforts to combat climate change will also receive a much more favorable reception in Democrat-held Washington. This may begin with resolving cost-sharing negotiations over U.S. forces stationed in Korea, but the limits of Washington-Seoul cooperation should not be defined by issues related to North Korea.
Closer to home, Moon can use the 2021 Olympics to focus on alleviating shaky relations with Japan instead of pushing for diplomatic meetings with North Korea. It is possible that the games will be cancelled, but if they do happen, it is more worthwhile to use the occasion to rebuild ties with a fellow democracy.
Lastly, Moon can continue to expand his outreach to Southeast Asia under his “New Southern Policy Plus.” Like South Korea, Southeast Asian nations worry about being caught in the middle of U.S.-China competition. Seoul can continue to compound on regional trust in flagship companies like Samsung and double-down on cooperation between South Korea’s navy and those of other states to increase maritime security and capacity-building in Asia.
In a period of U.S.-China competition, South Korea is frequently compared to a “shrimp” caught between two “whales,” but this saying gives the ROK too little credit: South Korea’s coronavirus response means its gross national income per capita is projected to surpass Italy’s, seven South Korean firms made the Financial Times’ list of 2020’s 100 top companies in the world, and its cultural export power is not to be underestimated.
Moon does not need to abandon his willingness to reconcile with North Korea, but he should recognize when it is not producing results and pivot accordingly. Doing so would not rule out efforts made in conjunction with President Biden, but would allow Moon to refocus on other matters while Washington gets its house in order.
Axel P. Catellier is an MA Candidate at the Georgetown University Master of Arts in Asian Studies (MASIA) Program. Follow him on Twitter at @CatellierAxel.