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Interim Assessment and Future Challenges of the Moon Jae-in Government Policy for Peace and Prosperity: From Building Confidence among South and North Korea and the U.S., to Realizing Denuclearization
2019.05.07  Tuesday
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Cheong Seong-Chang

Interim Assessment and Future Challenges of the Moon Jae-in Government Policy for Peace and Prosperity:

From Building Confidence among South and North Korea and the U.S., to Realizing Denuclearization and Building a National Consensus


No. 2019-17 (May 7, 2019)

Dr. Cheong Seong-Chang

Vice President for Research Planning, the Sejong Institute



As recently as 2017, North Korea carried out three intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests and a hydrogen bomb test maintaining an obstinate stance that it would never put its nuclear weapons and missiles on the negotiating table. Amid such security crisis, President Moon Jae-in responded firmly to North Korea's military threats through active South Korea-U.S. coordination with President Donald Trump. At the same time, President Moon, with his strong belief that a war should not occur on the Korean peninsula, actively persuaded the U.S. to prevent military tension escalating into war.


North Korea, which had completely rejected dialogues with South Korea and the U.S., has come to sense the serious crisis as it faced the international community's harsh sanctions after its third ICBM test in November 2017. President Moon persuaded North Korea persistently to induce an agreement on North Korea's participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and persuaded the high-level North Korean delegation who visited South Korea in February 2018 to lead Kim Jong-un to pursue a summit with President Trump. Trump's willingness to hold direct talks with Kim, the South Korean government's persistent persuasion of North Korea and Kim Jong-un's determination played important roles in the North Korea-U.S. summit.


Having reached an agreement to host the first-ever North Korea-U.S. summit, President Moon agreed on improving inter-Korean relations, easing military tensions between the two Koreas, establishing a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula and achieving complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula at the Panmunjom Summit with Chairman Kim Jong-un in April 2018. Also, meeting in Pyongyang in September, the two Korea leaders also adopted an agreement in the military domain to eliminate the danger of war on the Korean Peninsula and defuse hostilities.


At North Korea-U.S. summit in June 2018, Kim Jong-un and Trump agreed to improve North Korea-U.S. relations, establish a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, denuclearize the peninsula and repatriate remains of U.S. soldiers. However, North Korea and the U.S. failed to reach an agreement on a roadmap and timeline of denuclearization and corresponding measures as the two sides failed to narrow their differences even up to the 2019 North Korean-U.S. summit in Hanoi.


That is not to say that there has been no meaningful outcome from the three inter-Korean summits and the two North Korea-U.S. summits. Building a considerable amount of trust among two Koreas and the U.S. leaders through the talks has brought stability to the Korean Peninsula and has served as a positive driver for future denuclearization negotiations.


The Moon Jae-in government stably managed the crisis situation on the Korean Peninsula in 2017 and opened the door for inter-Korean talks and North Korea-U.S. dialogue in 2018. The government needs to mobilize all of the society's capabilities and seek national consensus through the formation of a "task force on denuclearization and peace on the Korean peninsula" and "Korean Peninsula Peace and Prosperity Committee (tentative)," a consultative body between the ruling and opposition parties on North Korea policy, instead of continuing to rely on President Moon's firm individual commitment to denuclearization and peace. It will bring about substantial progress in the dismantlement of the Cold War structure on the Korean Peninsula.


The current situation seems pessimistic, considering that no one has a clue of when North Korea and the U.S. will be able to reach an agreement on a comprehensive roadmap of denuclearization and corresponding measures as they have failed to bridge the gap between their stances. To make a breakthrough, Seoul needs to take the initiative in drafting a nuclear agreement between North Korea and the U.S. and present it to them. However, there are obvious limitations in suggesting solutions only with the limited capabilities of the Blue House and the Foreign Ministry. Therefore, the Moon Jae-in government should no longer delay setting up a "task force on denuclearization and peace on the Korean peninsula" under either the Blue House or the Foreign Ministry, which involves a large number of South Korean diplomatic and security experts, North Korea and U.S. experts, nuclear scientists, and nuclear engineers.


The recent change in North Korea's line-up for denuclearization negotiations will positively influence Seoul's efforts to persuade North Korea. Kim Yong-chol, who had been in charge of negotiations on North Korea's denuclearization since 2018, did not accompany Kim Jong-un on his April 24-26 trip to Russia. With Minister of Foreign Affair Ri Yong-ho and the First Vice Minister of Foreign Affair Choe Son-hui present at the summit between Kim and Putin, it is expected that Minister Ri and First Vice Minsiter Choe will lead the negotiations from the North Korean side. Thus, the head of North Korea's denuclearization negotiations has changed from Kim Yong-chol, who has been passive in denuclearization and has represented the interests of the military, to diplomats Ri and Choe, raising the possibility that North Korea may take a more flexible stance in negotiating with the U.S.


However, both Ri Yong-ho and Choe Son-hui are hardline figures. While they will not have to regard the interests of the military like Kim Yong-chol, it would be difficult to present denuclearization measures that are against the military’s interests. Therefore, Seoul needs to make a detailed progress schedule on denuclearization and corresponding measures and deliver it directly to Kim Jong-un through a special envoy or the 6th inter-Korean summit (or the 4th Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un summit) after first reaching an agreement with the U.S. Within President Trump’s current term, Seoul will have to persuade North Korea to agree on a roadmap and timetable of “denuclearization and corresponding measures” with the U.S., asserting that it is in North Korea’s interest as well. If North Korea and the U.S. or two Koreas and the U.S. agree on a specific schedule for denuclearization and corresponding measures and implement the agreements in a timely, synchronous, and phased manner, they will be able to move forward with denuclearization process and also stably improve North Korea-U.S. relations even if a new president is inaugurated in the U.S. in 2021.


For the South Korean government, it is desirable to have significant progress in North Korea’s denuclearization process and also in North Korea’s diplomatic ties with the U.S. established during President Trump's current term. However, Kim Jong-un has already declared his firm stance that the U.S. will not be able to get another good chance as it did last time (such as the Hanoi summit) while he would wait for the bold decision (policy shift) from the U.S. side by the end of this year. Therefore, Seoul should come up with measures to gradually push for the denuclearization of North Korea through a “task force on denuclearization and peace on the Korean peninsula” with a long-term perspective.

President Moon and Chairman Kim agreed “to hold frequent and candid discussions on issues vital to the nation through regular meetings and direct telephone conversations” on April 27, 2018. Based on such agreement, Moon Jae-in government will have to hold the 6th summit at the Panmunjom at an early date or seriously discuss the issue of denuclearization and corresponding measures through a direct telephone call.


To advance the denuclearization of North Korea, it is necessary to complement the existing top-down method, but at the same time, it is critical to strengthen top-down approach through frequent calls and communication between two Korean leaders in order to maximize its effectiveness. It is desirable for President Moon and Chairman Kim to meet at Panmunjom without formality as in the May 26 inter-Korean summit, but additionally they should be able to discuss the level and methodologies of denuclearization on telephone frequently.


Unlike the Presidential Committee for Unification Preparation under the previous administration, the Moon Jae-in administration needs to actively consider forming a "Korean Peninsula Peace and Prosperity Committee" that can contribute to the formation of a national consensus on North Korea policy, integration of public opinion and the establishment of a bipartisan North Korea policy. It is time for the government to make active and sincere efforts to form a bipartisan North Korea policy in order to break the vicious cycle of upending North Korea policy due to a change in leadership.