There is concern both in the United States and in some quarters of South Korea about the direction and pace of President Moon Jae-in’s engagement with Pyongyang.
But beyond his leftward political inclination, Moon has reasons for engaging with the North. It is helpful to understand why he is willing to travel a road that is well known, historically, to be risky and unlikely to be unproductive.
Begin with the fact that South Korea is a true democracy and an Asian tiger. This leads to the recognition that it is a burgeoning middle power. Moon, who was elected last spring, prefers that Korea be the master of its destiny – no longer content to automatically assume the role of an American junior partner.
Moon came of age politically under the late, liberal South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, though Moon’s history as a human rights lawyer and activist establish him as a liberal in his own right. He was often seen as being anti-American early in his political career.
That is not to say that Moon does not recognize the strategic importance of Seoul’s relationship with Washington. He does. It is simply that South Korea has its own drum to march to.
Yet Moon feels that given time – and patience – there is no reason why he and US President Donald Trump cannot come to an accommodation of sorts that meets the majority, if not all, of the security requirements of both nations.
With that thinking as his foundation, Moon intends to follow his vision for South Korea and current economic conditions in the South add an element of urgency. Recent figures for South Korea do not inspire confidence. A series of missteps such as minimum wage hikes have exacerbated things and Moon’s approval rating has dipped considerably from a high of 83% to below 50% and his personal income-led growth theory has proved to be ill-advised.
Economic growth is needed to avoid falling into a recession and Moon has seized upon engagement with Pyongyang to improve things, not only in the North but in the South as well. Projects ostensibly intended to benefit North Korea actually serve Moon’s goal of improving the South Korean economy.
To that end, he seeks broad economic engagement with Pyongyang. Not surprisingly, these projects would require South Korean goods and products.
In support of that, the head of the (South) Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation is advocating for greater collaboration between the South’s private sector and the North. Another example is the proposal to establish a joint North-South fishing zone in the Yellow Sea in an area that encompasses the maritime border. The idea is to sell rights to harvest fish in an as yet untapped zone.
But perhaps the most practical projects involve Seoul’s intention to rebuild North Korea’s rail and road infrastructure. This would provide huge benefits for the South’s ailing economy.
There is, however, the problem of sanctions. The projects cited above violate the spirit – if not the letter – of various sanctions against North Korea. But South Korea itself has played rather loosely of late with those sanctions.
Claims of innocence notwithstanding, Seoul has blithely purchased coal that it should have known came from North Korea.
However, the true extent of Moon’s dreams is much greater, and dates back to the administration of the first liberal presidency in South Korea, that of Kim Dae-jung, who held office from 1998-2003. Should the South succeed in establishing a rail and road network in and through the North, Seoul could reap huge benefits from linking with the Eurasian land mass.
In today’s terms, that means joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), through which China intends to connect its eastern manufacturing industries with overland and sea routes to Europe.
South Korea already has extensive trade ties with China, so going the next step by joining the BRI is logical.
South Korea’s manufacturers would gain direct land access through North Korea, via the Russian Far East, to Eurasia. Pyongyang would benefit by having its infrastructure modernized at practically no cost – and it would be able to charge nifty transit fees for all South Korean goods that use its new roads and improved rail lines – a sweet deal for the North.
There is another reason for Moon’s desire for closer relations with Pyongyang: cheap labor. The comparatively few laborers at the inter-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex, which closed in 2016 amid cross-border tensions, fared better working for South Korean companies than they would on their own in the North, but the predominant beneficiaries were the South Korean firms that had cut-rate, grateful laborers.
Such collaborations between North and South Korea do not benefit the vast majority of everyday North Korean citizens.
The Pyongyang regime benefited by heavily skimming the workers’ wages – sometimes by as much as 70%. Projects that benefit primarily the Kim regime and South Korean businesses are hardly the moral high road to improving the lot of the average North Korean.
South Korean opposition parties recognize the risks of being taken for a ride by the North and of seriously damaging relations with their security guarantor – the US. They are united in questioning the wisdom of Moon’s plans to engage with North Korea. Moreover, the costs of helping North Korea will certainly fall upon South Korean taxpayers.
The idea of engaging Pyongyang certainly has merit. When the North is involved in discussions, provocations and hostilities are reduced considerably. Moreover, as long as Kim reaps benefits – at the expense of South Korean citizens – he will likely not do anything to derail his gravy-train.
However, when dealing with historically devious enemies, it is also good to keep in mind American author Shirley Abbott’s warning about sanguine expectations: “. . . delicious, fatuous optimism shaped by the belief that enough good will on the part of people like ourselves [can] repair anything.”