Talks between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (right) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have stalled. Photo: AFP / KCNA via KNS

South Korean President Moon Jae-in may well be one of the nicest guys in international politics – but that did not stop North Korea on Friday morning slamming his latest peace offering.

The North took issue with his “wayward acts” and made clear it had “no intention” of returning to peace talks.

Friday morning’s propaganda barrage came the same day North Korea test-fired two more short-range missiles – its sixth such test in a month – while South Korean and US troops undertake summer military exercises.

While the North refrains from long-range tests that threaten the US – and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s bromance with US President Donald Trump – the class of missiles fired into the Sea of Japan represent real threats to South Korea.

And after Moon dangled the carrot of reunification in his Liberation Day speech on Thursday, one expert said that South Korea’s vindictive political culture, long historical memories and abrogation of agreements served notice to the North’s elite that they can never safely reunify with the South due to the soaring risks of retroactive justice.

Moon offers a vision

On Thursday, in his August 15 speech, Moon talked up peace initiatives. “Now is the time for both Koreas and the United States to focus on resuming working-level negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington at the earliest possible date,” he said. Once the dialog is successful, “inter-Korean relations will also make significant strides,” he said.

Such strides would deliver colossal economic benefits, he suggested.

“We aim to establish a peace economy in which prosperity is achieved through peace, and also complete our liberation through the unification of the peninsula,” Moon said. “If we combine the capabilities of the two Koreas, even while maintaining our respective political systems, it will be possible to create a unified market of 80 million people” – leading to the peninsula becoming a G6 economy.

But Moon did not limit himself to economic cooperation. He also raised the political Holy Grail of the peninsula – the reunification of a country divided by great power fiat after the Japanese surrender in 1945.

Moon pledged to establish a foundation upon which the two Koreas could achieve “peace and reunification by 2045.” Adding an emotive flourish in a country where many continue to despise Japan for its 1910-1945 colonial rule, Moon stated that reunification “is the road to overtaking Japan and guiding it toward a cooperative order in East Asia.”

Amid talk of such glorious possibilities, Moon downplayed Pyongyang’s missile tests.

“Some people express skepticism regarding the wisdom of talking up a peace economy when North Korea is firing missiles,” he said, but added that the North was using the tests as a negotiating tactic. The “… ultimate goal that these actions serve is dialog, not confrontation.”

North Korea was unimpressed.

Pyongyang returns fire

A statement on Friday morning put out by Pyongyang’s agency for inter-Korean affairs, the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC), and monitored by specialist media NKNews, put the boot into Moon’s offerings by refusing to countenance peace talks, let alone reunification.

The CPRC said Pyongyang had “no intention” of returning to talks. “We have nothing to talk about any more with the south Korean authorities nor have any idea to sit with them again.”

It went on to ask, rhetorically, whether Seoul had “any face to talk about dialog, atmosphere, peace economy and peacekeeping mechanism?”

The CPRC turned to irony to critique Moon – who, it said, “often talks peace,” but is now acquiring F35 stealth fighters and other high-tech military equipment. “Is he going to make an excuse that the drones and fighters being purchased from the US are just for spreading agrochemicals and for circus flights?” it asked.

Making clear that Pyongyang had carefully picked through South Korean defense documents, it continued: “How can he explain the ‘mid-term defence plan’ aiming at developing and securing the capabilities of precision-guided weapons, electromagnetic impulse shells, multi-purpose large transport ships, etc, whose missions are to strike the entire region of the northern half of the Republic.”

The tone of the North Korean comments was a major U-turn from one year ago.

Last April, the Korean leaders met for the first time and signed a wide-ranging “Panmunjom Declaration” at the truce village in the DMZ, where they both displayed a surprising bonhomie. A second summit followed in the same location, before Moon and a large delegation traveled to Pyongyang in September for a visit that included – in an unprecedented development – Moon addressing tens of thousands of North Koreans at a mass games stadium.

Relations have nose-dived since.

A mooted Kim visit to Seoul in December failed to transpire – no reason was given for Kim’s no-show – and Moon’s repeated suggestions for another summit have been ignored. “Implementation of the historic Panmunjom declaration is now at a deadlock and the power for the north-south dialog is divested,” the CPRC stated.

Why the missile tests?

Pyongyang apparently seeks to display its displeasure with the ongoing military drills via missile tests, but – having bypassed Seoul and won a beachhead in Washington – is reluctant to risk the latter relationship. Hence, the missiles are short-range models that threaten South Korea, not the United States.

“They prioritize the special relationship between Trump and Kim,” Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Asan Institute, told Asia Times.

Moon’s placement of inter-Korean relations at the center of his presidency is one reason for Pyongyang’s irritation, while Moon’s inability to offer the North any economic benefits is another.

“North Korea sees that the Moon administration is making use of inter-Korea stability for political advantage at home, and North Korea is not too happy with this,” Go added. “They want to be compensated for their ‘good’ behavior – they want financial or political concessions – but South Korea cannot do it as our hands are tied because of the sanctions.”

Moreover, a long-practiced Pyongyang strategy is to drive a wedge between the democracies arrayed against it in Northeast Asia.

“Because of the sanctions regime, there does not seem to be much that Kim wants from Seoul that Moon can readily provide,” Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said in an email to Asia Times.

“North Korea thus aims to stoke ideological divisions in the south and separate Seoul from its partners in Washington and Tokyo.”

The ideologically unified Pyongyang is also well placed to exploit divisions in ideologically riven Seoul. “North Korea makes it exceedingly difficult to build trust when it interprets restraint as weakness and looks to exploit divisions within South Korea,” said Easley.

On a broader level, Pyongyang’s hard-line leftist regime may look down upon South Korea’s far more moderate and genteel left – which the ever-amicable Moon represents.

“If you look at the European communists, they always preferred to deal with a right-winger as they represented what the ‘real’ enemy stood for: they were contemptuous of the European left-wing which they say as ‘communism lite,’” said Mike Breen, a biographer of Kim Jong Il. “I think there may be an element of that.”

Breen also said that South Korean is – unwittingly – sending signals to the North Korean elite that reunification embeds intolerable personal risks for its leaders.

South Korea’s harsh political culture sees its ex-presidents inevitably suffer post-office disasters – exiles, suicides and jailings. Moreover, Seoul’s Supreme Court – citing international human rights standards – last year found in favor of plaintiffs whose cases date back to 1944-45.

An angry Tokyo insisted that those cases had been resolved with a treaty and compensation in 1965.

This combination of factors suggests that no amnesty offered by South Korea to the North’s leaders could be trusted over the long term.

“The North Koreans have to be extremely careful on integration [with South Korea]. Look what happens to every ex-president here, and look at what is happening with South Korea now, looking at claims from 80 years ago,” said Breen, who is also the author of The New Koreans. “Every single Kim could end up in jail.”

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