Will the South Korea Summit Lead to Negotiations with North Korea?

June 23, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Donald TrumpNorth KoreaSouth KoreaTaiwanMoon Jae-inSummit

Will the South Korea Summit Lead to Negotiations with North Korea?

By demonstrating goodwill, Seoul would have the moral high ground, even if Pyongyang does not accept Seoul’s hand of friendship and cooperation.

As South Korean President Moon Jae-in gears up for a June 29–30 summit with Donald Trump, his ardent desire is to engage North Korea and revive the “sunshine” policies of his progressive predecessors, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, could be a major source of friction. This sentiment comes at a moment when the United States and the international community are seeking to toughen UN National Security Council sanctions and put maximum pressure on Pyongyang.

This runs the risk of not only confrontation with the Trump administration and new tensions in the U.S.-ROK alliance, but it could also undermine efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula—and violate UN Security Council sanctions. If Moon reopens the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which sent about $50 million a year to Kim Jong-un’s coffers and Mount Kumgang tourism, it will not lead to North-South reconciliation, but only help fund Kim’s missile and nuclear program. Also, it will be a diplomatic train wreck when Moon meets with Trump. Estimates are that over the past two decades, South Korea has sent some $7 billion to North Korea, with little to show for it.

President Moon is rightly as concerned about the threat from North Korea’s missile tests and nuclear weapons program as is the United States. But despite the fact that upon his election and initial offers to reengage North Korea, Pyongyang’s response was a series of missile tests, not the hand of friendship. Moon appears to think that “smiley face diplomacy” will somehow produce results that have been elusive for since 1991.

Yet the past quarter-century of diplomacy with North Korea shows that it doesn’t matter if you are nice to its officials and shower them with goodies or are hostile and nasty, the result is the same: they are determined to obtain a sophisticated nuclear and missile capability. Think of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visiting Pyongyang or President Clinton’s signing meeting in the White House with North Korea’s top military leader, Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, and signing non-hostility communique. Think of Kim Dae-jung showering Kim Jong-il with hundreds of millions of dollars. What evidence is there that more such friendly gestures will produce a different outcome? Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

That said, there is a smart way for the Moon administration to pursue North-South reconciliation without undermining either U.S.-led pressure diplomacy or risking tensions in the U.S.-ROK alliance. How? Simply, frame his Nordpolitik as “people-to-people” diplomacy and pursue it assertively. What does that mean? It means that Seoul would continue to pursue policies designed to pressure Pyongyang to return to the Six-Party negotiating table on a state-to-state basis. At the same time, Seoul would offer sports, cultural, educational exchanges and expand divided family visits. For example, Seoul could encourage universities and technical institutes to offer to train North Korean MBAs, lawyers, financial managers, accountants, tourism managers, agricultural specialists and other such occupations. This could be done outside a government framework by encouraging and incentivizing private institutions and NGOs.

Similarly, President Moon could pursue an opening based on the example of Cross-Straits Diplomacy accomplished by former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou. Moon could propose—in addition to divided family visits—mail exchanges, opening phone lines, air travel, perhaps even environmental cooperation.

Wait. You say, North Korea is a closed, brutal, tightly-controlled police state and it would never allow such North-South activities for fear of undermining the Kim family dynasty. Probably so. But that is precisely the point. By demonstrating its goodwill, Seoul would have the moral high ground, even if Pyongyang does not accept Seoul’s hand of friendship and cooperation. We have already seen Pyongyang reject an NGO’s offer to provide humanitarian aid in recent weeks.

All this underscores a much larger truth, one that the Moon administration should take seriously: reconciliation by definition, must be a two-way street. Putting the various offers suggested in this piece on the table—and leaving them on the table—puts the ball in Pyongyang’s court. Reciprocity need not be one-to-one or equal. But there must be some reciprocity. That is a sensible basis to explore North-South reconciliation.

Robert Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight Strategy and Risks Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the under secretary of state for global affairs (2001–04), he was a member of the U.S. State Department Policy Planning Staff (2004–08) and he was part of the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group (2008–12). He tweets at @RManning4.


An earlier version of this article appeared in the Korean daily Joongang Ilbo.

Image: Moon Jae-in is the nineteenth president of the Republic of Korea.