During his presidential campaign, President Moon stated that “he would say no the the Americans“if necessary, and this marked a difference with the Park Geun-Hye government, which he portrayed as in lock step with the United States.
But we should not forget that reality is frequently different from rhetoric: in both Koreas, the influence of their powerful allies has always been present, and it has further affected the way in which they acted both at an internal and at an external level.
Recent events can demonstrate this fact too: for example, the decision of the South Korean president Moon Jae-In to ultimate the installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) caused a prompt reaction from China.
The THAAD is an American anti-ballistic missile defense system, and it has been provided to South Korea by the United States to intercept and eventually destroy ballistic missiles fired by North Korea towards the Southern part of the Peninsula.
After the decision to deploy the THAAD system, China expressed concerns for its own national security, and when South Korea finalized the project, it reacted by introducing unofficial economic sanctions.
On November 11, 2017, South Korean President Moon Jae-In and Chinese President Xi Jingping reached an agreement to “normalize exchanges” and to end the diplomatic conflict which surrounded the THAAD affaire.
Essentially, Seoul agreed to accept military constraints in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. The military constrains are known as the “three no’s” and consist of the acceptance by South Korea of:
- Not deploying any further anti-ballistic system
- Not joining a region-wide US missile defense system
- Not joining a military alliance involving South Korea, the US and Japan
As some political analysts have noticed, Moon Jae-In might have been playing a better strategy, for example by fostering South Korean ties with Japan and the United States, but this would have alienated Moon by his base, since the political left is strongly anti-American and anti-Japanese. Furthermore, the general sentiment is that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, hence to submit to a Chinese interference would certainly be considered better than being subject to a hypothetical American meddling.
Apart from the defense aspect, the Moon government is being active at a diplomatic level too; for example, an important diplomatic step which Moon Jae-In took was the dialogue initiated with North Korea in the occasion of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olimpic games.
This led to a series of inter-Korean talks, the first of which was held on the 9th of January 2018.
President Moon and Kim Jong-Un were not present at the talks, but important representatives from the highest levels of both governments -including South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-Gyon and North Korean chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, Ri Son- Gwon- took part to them.
Besides the Olympic issue, some important points were discussed during the meeting: first of all, the South Korean delegation mentioned further denuclearization talks between the two countries in its opening statement, but the North Korean delegation expressed skepticism at this proposal.
Second of all, the two countries pledged to solve national problems on their own, without the interference of third countries.
Third of all, there has been the proposal to reunite North and South Korean relatives in the occasion of the Lunar New Year and to let the Korean Red Cross Societies discuss on this topic.
Furthermore, regarding the Olympic issue, some “symbolic” proposals were made: to let a North Korean delegation participate to it, the possibility to let the cheerleading groups of the two countries perform as one, and to let the two countries march together in the Opening Ceremonies.
This last proposal was accepted during the second round of talks, which was held yesterday.
The new inter-Korean talks (the first to be held after 25 months) led to multiple reactions in the international community: the USA express their satisfaction, and give their harsh economic sanctions the credit for having contributed to soften North Korea’s stance vis-à-vis South Korea.
A similar position is shared by the United Kingdom Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, who welcomes the truce between the two Koreas, and considers the harsh sanctions imposed by the United Nations Resolution 2397 as a crucial factor which contributed to a partial change in the North Korean attitude. But he also underlined that the real target must be the end of the nuclear program and the condemnation of Pyongyang’s latest nuclear tests.
Japan is more skeptical regarding the “new” North Korean engaging attitude, and it considers it as a strategy to take time to better develop its nuclear program.
President Moon’s peaceful engagement through the Olympic issue is more in line with the declarations he made during his presidential campaign, and it vaguely echoes the previous attempts of former presidents Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-hyun to pacifically start a dialogue with North Korea through the “Sunshine Policy”.
Named after Aesop’s fable about the sun and the wind competing to convince a traveler to remove his cloak, the theory at the base of the Sunshine Policy was that an engagement through economic development, tourism, and cultural exchange would lead to a more open North Korea.
The Sunshine Policy led to important results at a diplomatic level; first of all, we should mention the first Inter-Korean Summit between Kim Dae-Jung and Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang in 2000. Then, they signed a Joint declaration which significantly had as a first article a provision on reconciliation through ‘independent’ resolution on the issue of reunification.
As the author Seng Hyok-Lee explains: “Kim Dae-jung’s visit to Pyongyang in 2000 had two immediate repercussions in South Korea: (i) the surge of pan-Korean nationalist sentiment, and (ii) a hopeful expectation that the Cold War in the Korean Peninsula was finally coming to an end.”
The visit had a predictable great media resonance, and, as Seng Hyok-Lee further noticed, it caused a temporary positive shift of perception of North Korea in the mind of South Korean people: “The summit in 2000 convinced many South Koreans that North Korea was not simply an eccentric rogue state to be contained, as they had been told to believe during the Cold War, but an equal that deserved political space for dialogue and negotiations. The country was even swept away by the ‘friendly’ image of Kim Jong-Il’s smiling face and mannerisms on live television, causing a heightening of ‘one-nation’ sentiment.”
Also at an economic level, major steps were taken: in 2003, under the Roh Moo-Hyun administration, the Kaesong Industrial Region was established to allow South Korean enterprises to invest in North Korea. Furthermore, the Mt. Kumgang Tourism Project was established in order to improve the touristic exchanges between the two countries.
Thanks to these initiatives, South Korea emerged as the second largest trading partner for North Korea behind China.
But, on the other hand, the Sunshine Policy caused the deterioration of the relation between South Korea, Japan and the United States, and the negative consequences of the lack of a common vision on the North Korean problem started to emerge in the context of the Six Party Talks, which essentially resulted in a failure in diplomacy.
There is a widespread opinion which considers Moon Jae-In as the “ideological successor” of the two presidents who pursued the Sunshine Policy. Two observations are essential in this regard; first of all, President Moon is the son of two North Korean refugees, he was a human rights lawyer before assuming his office as president, and he was chief presidential secretary to then-President Roh Moo-Hyun. All these aspects might have influenced him in assuming a more “communicative” and engaging posture towards North Korea.
Second of all, we should not underestimate the positive results which Sunshine Policy brought in the Korean Peninsula: chief among them was a genuine reduction of the tension and fear of war in the Peninsula. And, notwithstanding the willingness to create a dialogue with North Korea, “Sunshine Policy administrations” have always maintained the capacity to punish the eventual bad behaviors from part of their neighbor. Indeed, when North Korea’s navy crossed the maritime border between the two Koreas in 1999, and again in 2002, the South Korean navy responded with force and killed dozens of North Korean seamen. In contrast, when North Korea sank a South Korean corvette in 2010 and killed 46 sailors, the conservative Lee Myung-Bak administration responded with just a verbal warning.
In this sense, the Sunshine Policy can be considered as a success which the Moon administration might would like to reiterate.