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President must stand firm

Moon also shouldn’t be obsessed with a summit. Talks are needed, but timing matters.
May 27,2017
President Moon Jae-in formerly addressed North Korea as an “enemy.” During a visit to the defense ministry, the top commander in chief reaffirmed that South Korea’s military would not tolerate any form of enemy provocation. The choice of wording came as a surprise as Moon, during a TV debate among candidates, refused to answer when a conservative rival asked him whether he saw North Korea as a prime enemy state. He could have changed his mind after North Korea fired a ballistic missile three days after he came to office.

Moon, who as candidate vowed to pursue a more engaging policy towards North Korea, is now bombarded with civilian demands for the lifting of sanctions to renew inter-Korean exchanges and humanitarian aid and reopen the joint-venture industrial park in Kaesong. He is being pressured to shift from the hard-line policy of the past nine years under conservative presidents. The outline of the new administration’s North Korean policy may come out by the 17th anniversary of the June 15 Joint Declaration after the historical first inter-Korean summit between then South Korean and North Korean leaders Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il in 2000.

But Moon should not rush in to form a North Korean policy, as doing so could risk the driving force in the initiative on North Korean affairs in the new administration. He should be aware of several factors.

First of all, his blind succession of the engaging policies of past liberal governments could draw strong public protest. Former President Kim Dae-jung was able to hold the first-ever summit through generous exchanges and aid. But the Noble Peace Prize-earning move was later known to have had a hefty price tag of $450 million, which secretly went to Pyongyang in exchange for the summit. The all-giving policy of liberal presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun has lost support. Besides, the bold young ruler Kim Jong-un would hardly give up his nuclear and missile weapons upon being moved by generous offers from Seoul.

Moon, who had helped arrange the inter-Korean summit with Roh and Kim Jong-il in 2007 as his chief of staff, must not think he has the duty to pick up the summit resolutions. Pyongyang, which repeatedly asked Seoul to keep its promise, could raise its voice now that a more liberal president is in office. The construction of railways and highways is a costly project, and the joint development of the West Sea would renew the controversy about yielding the maritime border to the North. The promises Roh had made to Kim during the final months of his term also had been criticized for being half-baked and one-sided.

The reopening of the Kaesong industrial park and Mt. Kumgang tourism program also could be risky as Seoul’s annul payment of more than $100 million for North Korean workers in the industrial complex had been suspected of having gone to Pyongyang instead to finance its weapons program. The tourism program was stopped under the backing of the United States and the United Nations after the shooting and killing of a South Korean tourist. If Seoul changes its policy, it will lose credibility.

The lifting of the May 24, 2010 sanctions on North Korea would also be unjust as Pyongyang has yet to admit any accountability in the sinking of the Cheonan warship that had killed 46 sailors. It refused to apologize or promise never to attempt such an attack again, claiming the sinking was the South’s own doing. How would the top military commander explain the removal of these sanctions to the families of the victims who had died while defending their country on the frontlines? Moon would come under fire for going soft on North Korea for its attack seven years ago while pledging to the victim families of the Gwangju Democratization Movement to hunt down those in charge of the shooting of civilians 37 years ago to the end.

Moon also shouldn’t be over-obsessed with a summit. Talks are needed, but timing matters. It is also wrong for the national spy agency to arrange the talks and lead the illicit fund-raising and transfer for North Korea. For Suh Hoon, a former senior National Intelligence Service (NIS) official who previously had been involved in the two summit meetings, to mention another one upon appointment as the new NIS chief is therefore inappropriate. The 64-year-old South Korean leader must in no way lose dignity in a meeting with the 33-year-old North Korean counterpart. Moon must not forget he was heavily attacked for vowing to visit Pyongyang upon being elected during the campaign.

Inter-Korean relations demand a breakthrough in the standoff. But concessions and conciliatory gestures, despite North Korea’s unrelenting nuclear threats, won’t be able to buy public support. Kim has not carried out another nuclear test in fear of undermining the chances of an inter-Korean dialogue. He stopped after Washington warned of a preemptive attack and Beijing warned of ceasing oil supplies. Seoul must come up with a more inventive way to build dialogue while keeping sanctions. He must not repeat the unquestioning and idealistic engagement policies of Kim and Roh.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 26, Page 32

*The author is head of the JoongAng Ilbo Unification Research Institute and a unification specialist for the JoongAng Ilbo.

Lee Young-jong