An influential advisor to the South Korean president spoke out on Friday on why North Korea is now behaving so unpredictably and unleashed a verbal barrage against US leadership, diplomacy and bureaucracy as it relates to the flashpoint peninsula.
Moon Chung-in is a special advisor to President Moon Jae-in – no relation – on foreign affairs and national security. He was previously a key behind-the-scenes player in previous South Korean administrations that conducted the “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with North Korea.
Respected as one of the most experienced and incisive players in inter-Korean affairs, Moon is also eagerly sought-after due to his outspoken voice. In a meeting with Seoul-based foreign correspondents on Friday, he did not disappoint on either count.
He said North Korea’s recent aggression toward South Korea was probably due to Pyongyang’s frustration at Seoul’s inability to follow through on commitments. Seoul cannot deal with Pyongyang because it is beholden to international sanctions and its relationship with Washington, Moon said.
Diplomatic and bureaucratic professionals in Washington, Moon said, have not only failed to leverage the goodwill generated between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump, but have deliberately dragged relations into the deep freeze.
As a result, inter-Korean relations are suffering, too.
Developments have shaken many in Seoul in recent weeks as North Korea blew first hot, then cold.
A hardline stance has been taken towards Seoul by high-profile Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Anti-South rallies were held in the North after the launch of propaganda leaflets on balloons over the DMZ.
Then, in rapid succession, Pyongyang halted cross-border communications, blew up a key inter-Korean liaison office and threatened military deployments to sensitive border areas.
However, the tensions were defused by Kim Jong Un, who ordered a postponement of the military deployments.
Asked to make sense of it all, Moon said: “I don’t know, either.”
He did, however, address the contention made by some that Kim Yo Jong is now the number-two player in the regime.
“Her role is never second-in-command. That is an outside journalist’s interpretation,” he said. “In North Korea there is only one leader.”
While he made clear that there is no policy difference between the siblings, as North Korea calibrates escalatory and de-escalatory cycles, he admitted there could be a case for a “good cop, bad cop” routine being implemented by the brother and sister.
And the sister is in a tough position.
“Kim Yo Yong is mandated to deal with inter-Korean relations,” Moon said. After visits to Seoul in 2018, “she made a very good impression on President Moon, and when she went back to North Korea she urged better inter-Korean relations.
“Over the years, she has made a lot of efforts to improve relations and she is accountable for the lack of progress.”
Beholden to international sanctions, South Korea has been unable to undertake any trade or economic cooperation with North Korea, nor can it persuade the US to ease the sanctions.
“Her tough statements on North Korea could be a reflection of that failure,” Moon said.
He saw no immediate cause for alarm in assessing North Korea’s current behavior as deliberate, if speedy, calibration of escalation and de-escalation. However, he warned of the need to prevent accidental military clashes and to re-establish communication hotlines
Suggesting that North Korea has grounds for its angst, Moon reserved his harshest vitriol for the US, making frequent reference to the explosive memoir recently published by Trump’s former, estranged National Security Advisor, John Bolton.
“If you read the Bolton memoir very carefully, you can get an impression that Trump made a decision but could not carry it out,” he said. “Bolton’s book shows that President Trump really liked Kim Jong Un and wanted to give something to him and wanted to prevent additional sanctions.”
However, Trump’s approach was stymied by the deep state. “Bureaucrats in Washington are armed with a denuclearization paradigm (that is) a sequential approach, not a simultaneous one,” Moon said.
That paradigm stipulates that North Korean should first denuclearize before receiving any economic or other benefits.
Given this, “it will be extremely difficult for North Korea to consider approaching President Trump before the election,” Moon said. “If President Trump promises something, he cannot deliver.”
That could change if Trump is re-empowered by electoral victory in November. However, if Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins, the chances of improvements in Pyongyang-Washington relations recede ever further.
“Trump searched for a deal. Joe Biden has taken a much harder line,” Moon said. “It will be much tougher if Joe Biden gets elected.”
Some cornerstone thinking in American diplomacy also came in for a Moon put-down.
“’No reward for bad behavior’ is an American catchphrase, but the US has not rewarded good behavior either,” he said.
Moon listed North Korean’s concessions to the Trump administration: Pyongyang freed three Americans imprisoned in North Korea, returned the remains of US troops killed during the Korean War, demolished its underground nuclear test site, started dismantling a missile test site, and decommissioned of its main nuclear site at Yongbyon on the table.
What North Korea received in return for these multiple steps was negligible, he said.
“Americans think the Trump summits were a reward but no North Korean would believe that,” Moon said. “America has been extremely insensitive to North Korean behavior. This is not the right way to do diplomacy.”
Washington even prevented Seoul from sending humanitarian aid to North Korea, Moon said.
South Korea “was going to give Tamiflu treatments which we wanted to distribute via trucks, but trucks are sanctioned items,” he said. “The South Korean government tried to persuade the US, but they put their foot down.”
Given all the above, Pyongyang may have already given up on US relations, said Moon, who attended 2018’s inter-Koreans summits in both the South and the North.
“In 2018, I saw that Kim Jong Un was willing to denuclearize – and it was not only him but his surrounding staff – based on incentives being provided by the US,” he said. “Now, I am not sure.”
As if the frostiness of North Korea-US relations and their knock-on impact on cross-DMZ relations were not bad enough, Moon also fretted about the widening chasm between Seoul’s sole security partner, Washington, and its leading trade partner, Beijing.
“The US is our ally so our top priority goes to the US but we cannot discard China for the sake of the alliance,” he said. If relations worsen, Seoul will face “an agonizing process,” he said.