Moon Jae-in Is the Grown-Up at the Table
Stuck between Trump and Kim, the South Korean president is still showing the way forward.
Amid the endless melodrama of Korean peace negotiations, spare a thought for South Korea’s Moon Jae-in. Since taking office in May 2017, Moon moved heaven and earth to save his country from a nuclear war. To do so, he only had to bring together two of the world’s most volatile personalities—U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un—and have them meet in person twice. Right up to the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, it appeared that Moon was headed toward a spectacular success.
But since the Hanoi summit fell apart, Seoul has suffered blowback from both directions. Pyongyang fell into its old habits of standing up South Koreans, abruptly leaving the joint liaison office in the North Korean city of Kaesong on March 22 and then returning just as abruptly three days later. Meanwhile in Washington, foreign-policy circles that were already suspicious of Moon’s efforts are increasingly more open about their contempt toward the South Korean president, treating his initiatives for joint inter-Korean projects as a traitorous effort to weaken the sanctions pressure against North Korea.
This is quite unfortunate, as South Korea’s ideas for denuclearizing North Korea deserve a serious look—not only because it is the greatest stakeholder in a potential nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula but also because the Moon administration has the most realistic and sensible plan for diplomacy, of which the inter-Korean projects are an integral part. The United States should be looking at integrating the South’s projects, not ignoring them.
The Hanoi summit fell apart as both North Korea and the United States entered the summit with maximalist demands, with no alternative smaller deals on the table. In the working-level talks leading up to the summit, North Korean delegates demanded that the United States remove strategic assets from Hawaii and Guam—a delusional request, even as an opening gambit. The U.S. negotiators made clear that even the demand that North Korea ultimately made at the Hanoi summit—namely that the United States lift the five United Nations sanctions in exchange for dismantling the nuclear facility in Yongbyon—would be a nonstarter, as those sanctions provide most of the U.S. leverage. Yet on meeting with Trump in Hanoi, Kim made the same demand with no fallback position. It’s not clear why. Perhaps Kim thought he could pull a fast one by Trump, or the Pyongyang brain trust was drinking its own Kool-Aid as to the value of the Yongbyon nuclear facility, an aging complex that would likely have to be scuttled soon at any rate.
The United States did better—but not by much. Leading up to the summit, many observers were optimistic that the Trump administration had finally come around to the view of most nonproliferation experts: that denuclearization of North Korea would be a long and complex process that may last more than a decade. In a speech given at Stanford University on Jan. 31, the U.S. special representative to North Korea, Stephen Biegun, dismissed this strategy, which he characterized as “you do everything first and then we’ll begin to think about whether or not we’re going to do anything in response.”
Trump also gave similar signals, repeatedly saying, when it comes to North Korea’s denuclearization, “Speed is not important to me” and “I’m in no rush.” Yet once in Hanoi, Trump—with a helping hand from his hawkish national security advisor, John Bolton—reverted to form. At one point, Trump demanded that North Korea transfer all nuclear weapons and fissile materials to the United States and abandon chemical and biological weapons as well. Such a demand for North Korea’s unilateral disarmament was precisely what Biegun had dismissed in his Stanford speech less than a month before the summit. It was not a negotiation but a call for surrender.
The Hanoi summit was not a total failure, since it at least clarified the parameters of what is being offered and the asking price of each party. The summit also showed a deal was within reach, putting to bed the persistent claim in Washington foreign-policy circles that no deal with North Korea can be possible. In the post-summit press conference, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho stated the negotiation came down to “one more step” that the U.S. delegates demanded in addition to the demolition of the Yongbyon facility. In an interview given in Russia, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui claimed that Trump was willing to consider sanctions relief on a “snapback” basis, making the relief reversible if North Korea did not make progress in denuclearization. It appears that, despite the initial maximalist stances, the two countries managed to narrow the gap but could not quite overcome the difference in the initial asking prices.
Here, Moon’s plan could mediate the sticker shock. He laid out his approach in a speech he gave in Berlin in July 2017: first build a “peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula by improving North Korea’s relationship with South Korea and the United States and then pursue step-by-step denuclearization as trust is cultivated among the parties. Joint inter-Korean economic projects are a key mechanism for the parties to build trust, along with cultural exchanges and regular meetings of separated families.
The inter-Korean projects include the Kaesong Industrial Complex, tourism at Mount Kumgang, and an inter-Korean railway. As the two Koreas form an economic relationship, the repeated interactions arising from such a relationship would gradually lead to a measure of trust between the two countries. In addition, the inter-Korean economic relationship would pry North Korea away from economic dependence on China, decreasing Beijing’s leverage over Pyongyang.
Inter-Korean economic projects represent a compromise that both the United States and North Korea can accept. As a result of the Hanoi summit, North Korea is now aware that across-the-board economic sanctions relief in exchange for Yongbyon dismantlement is out of reach. Inter-Korean projects, then, are the next best option and actually possible. The United States need not lift sanctions wholesale to have the inter-Korean projects progress. It merely needs to grant sanctions exemptions to those projects, allowing the sanctions to take effect once again if North Korea does not follow through with its promised denuclearization steps.
A plausible deal aimed at North Korea’s denuclearization can look like the following: North Korea would freeze all production of long-range missiles and fissile materials, dismantle Yongbyon, and allow U.S. inspectors on the ground to ensure compliance. Pyongyang would also host a U.S. liaison office, which could look after the safety of the U.S. inspectors. In exchange, the United States would grant exemptions to South Korea-led joint economic projects, declare the formal end of the Korean War, and host a North Korean liaison office in Washington. As U.S. inspectors identify additional nuclear facilities in North Korea and oversee their dismantlement, the United States would gradually normalize the relationship with North Korea and ease sanctions on a snapback basis. The end result, in the best-case scenario, would be to have the denuclearized North Korea be another version of Poland or Vietnam—a former enemy that is now a U.S. security interest.
Many in Washington would look askance at this proposed deal because they indulge in the wishful thinking that the United States can economically hamper North Korea to the verge of collapse, compelling Kim to wave a white flag and acquiesce to U.S. demands. They may as well wish that Kim suddenly drops dead. It is true that sanctions are working against North Korea to a point—otherwise, Kim would not have demanded sanctions relief at the Hanoi summit. It is likewise true that North Korea’s trade with China, practically its only trade partner, plummeted in 2018 to $2.4 billion from a peak of nearly $7 billion in 2014.
But while the sanctions are enough to cause significant discomfort to North Korea, they are a long way away from pushing the country to collapse. After all, North Korea did not collapse in 1999, when its trade with China was only $350 million while recovering from a disastrous famine that killed more than 300,000 people. The Kim regime also has several ways to soften the blow of the sanctions. Recently, the U.N. Panel of Experts issued a report identifying the numerous tactics through which North Korea evades sanctions, including shell companies, ship-to-ship transfers, and hacking foreign banks. Domestically, it is experimenting with private ownership of houses, which would effectively transfer private wealth to the regime that formally owns those houses. And with each passing moment, North Korea produces more nuclear weapons, making the task of denuclearization that much harder.
The time for a deal is now, with Kim still reeling from the failure to secure an accord in Hanoi. The aborted summit was unusually humiliating for Kim, who made the 60-hour trek from Pyongyang to the Vietnamese capital via train. Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom who defected to South Korea in 2016, noted that Kim displayed hubris by bringing too large a retinue, expecting a favorable result. When the summit failed, Thae pointed out, Kim lost the mantle of infallibility that the three generations of North Korean leaders have claimed for themselves in the eyes of those who attended the summit—and possibly throughout the North Korean regime in the long run. Shrewd negotiators recognize when their adversaries are cornered and offer a face-saving measure that would turn the deal toward their favor. The inter-Korean economic projects can be that measure.