Seoul and Washington are again trying to breathe life into dead-in-the-water contacts with North Korea, with South Korea looking more focused than the United States.
US President Donald Trump is talking about another summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the leading US envoy on peninsula affairs is in Seoul and new blood has been bought into key North-facing roles in South Korea’s cabinet.
But given the failure of working-level meetings to find any common ground since the failure of a 2019 summit in Vietnam between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump, it will be a struggle to make any progress.
Trump, speaking in a TV interview on Tuesday that was widely picked up by South Korean media, said: “I understand [the North Koreans] want to meet and we would certainly do that.”
Prior to Trump’s comments, US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, Washington’s point man on North Korean matters, had arrived in Seoul on Tuesday for a three-day visit for discussions with South Korean officials.
On July 3, meanwhile, South Korea’s Presidential Blue House announced high-powered political appointees to key North Korea-related positions.
President Moon Jae-in’s hand has been strengthened politically by his party’s victory in April legislative elections and his success in battling Covid-19. There are expectations in Seoul that his new team can forge ahead with inter-Korean economic projects, regardless of US dithering and North Korean hostility.
Trump said he would attend another summit with North Korea if it was going to be “helpful,” and noted that it “probably would be” given that he enjoys a “good relationship” with Kim.
Though he did not mention the summit’s timing, it is unclear how much thought Trump had given to his comments, which were made in reply to a reporter. Biegun had earlier poured cold water on any imminent engagement, indicating a possible intra-administration disconnect.
“I’ve seen some recent press reporting that the North Koreans are not prepared to meet with me on this visit,” Biegun said in comments sent to foreign reporters in Seoul on Wednesday. “We did not request a meeting with the North Koreans. This visit is to meet with our close friends and allies, the Republic of Korea.”
Biegun also made clear that Pyongyang was unprepared for discussions with Washington.
“When [North Korean leader Kim Jong Un] appoints a counterpart to me, who is prepared and empowered to negotiate on these issues, they will find us ready at that very moment,” Biegun said. “Dialogue can lead to action, but action is impossible without dialogue.”
Pundits were pessimistic.
“As John Bolton’s memoir confirms, Trump is not interested in peace in the Korea Peninsula,” said Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University. “He may be able to reach some agreement with North Korea, but he is not interested in our problems.”
South Korea’s Moon is unshakably committed to economically engaging the North. But even Moon can have few reasons for optimism at this juncture.
In recent weeks, North Korea blew up the inter-Korean liaison office amid hawkish statements made by Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister and close aide to Kim Jong Un.
And on Tuesday, when Biegun arrived in Seoul, Pyongyang slammed the possibility of further talks with Washington and snarled at Seoul’s self-appointed mediating mission.
The state-run Korea Central News Agency characterized calls for revived dialog as “nonsensical” and said South Korea had lost its relevance as an intermediary.
Still, Moon seems determined to unilaterally forge ahead with inter-Korean engagement. Last week, he announced a cabinet reshuffle.
The former head of the National Intelligence Service, Suh Hoon, will now be the National Security Advisor. But as Suh is a career spook, two new faces are gaining wider attention, and both are high-powered lawmakers with 20 years in the house under their belts.
Park Jie-won and Lee In-young were named, respectively, as head of the National Intelligence Service and Unification Minister.
Speculation among Seoul’s chattering class is that can-do politicians are better equipped to deliver outcomes than bureaucrats and academics. And given Moon’s legislative majority, hearings for the appointees – often political tugs-of-war – should proceed without hitches.
Park, a four-term lawmaker, was chief of staff to the late Kim Dae-jung, the first South Korean president to meet a North Korean leader. Park managed the whole process of their landmark 2000 summit and has been considered a leading North Korea specialist since then.
“Park is a veteran politician who knows North Korea better than anyone,” said Moon Seong-mook, who heads Korea research at the Institute for National Strategy. But questions hang over his past.
“I have concerns over the ‘cash-for-summit’ scandal that Park was involved in,” Moon said.
It was discovered after the 2000 summit, which earned Kim Dae-jung a Nobel Peace Prize, that half a billion US dollars had been secretly channeled from South to North prior to the meeting. Park was jailed for his role in the affair in 2003.
Still, his North Korean contacts should be useful in his new role as spy chief, for there is a duality in the role of Seoul’s intelligence service. While it is charged with espionage and counter-espionage, senior spooks have also taken part in secret meetings with their North Korean counterparts to dampen tensions and kick-start dialog.
Many members of the Moon administration entered politics as leftist students battling the right-wing military dictatorship of the 1980s and Unification Minister nominee Lee In-young was the first president of the Association of National University Student Representatives.
He shifted from street to chamber with the current Democratic Party and served as floor leader from May 2019 to May 2020. He sat on the foreign affairs and inter-Korean committees and has been active in pro-unification civic groups.
With the US consistent that it will not lift sanctions against North Korea unless it gives up its nuclear arms, Seoul has little wriggle room to placate Pyongyang. Could the new blood generate better outcomes?
“Under UN sanctions, we cannot do anything the North wants us to do,” Moon, the expert, told Asia Times. “However, as two veteran politicians were named as new national security team members, I think they can bring dramatic outcomes on North Korea issues.”
Unification Minister nominee Lee has already raised questions over a key body, the South Korea-US Working Group, launched in 2018 to discuss possible sanctions exemptions related to inter-Korean projects.
It has been criticized by former South Korean unification ministers for its failures to win US approvals, thereby preventing inter-Korean exchange and cooperation – to South Korean frustration and North Korean anger.
“I think we can review what we have done in the Korea-US Working Group and take necessary measures,” Lee told the media on Monday. “I think we should distinguish what we can do through the Korea-US Working Group from what we can do by ourselves.”
Americans may differ, and Biegun was vague. “We look forward to fully supporting the government of the Republic of Korea as it advances its goals with North Korea on inter-Korean cooperation,” he said on Wednesday, without mentioning any economic projects.
Some domestic media pounced on Biegun’s remark, assuming that Washington would green-light two flagship inter-Korea projects, the Mount Kumgang tourism resort and the Kaesong Industrial Complex.
Both situated north of the DMZ, they married South Korean capital with North Korea manpower. However, Mount Kumgang was shuttered in 2008 after a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier and Kaesong was closed amid inter-Korean tensions in 2016.
Other voices have also weighed in. Seol-Hoon, a Democratic Party lawmaker, said on Wednesday at a party meeting that the most realistic solution to improving inter-Korean relations is individual South Korea tourism to North Korea.
Seol added that Seoul could restart operations at Mount Kumgang and Kaesong, emphasizing that the government needs to find creative ways to engage without violating UN sanctions.
Kim Joon-hyung, Chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, told local media on July 2 that the US had not expressed concerns over Mount Kumgang tourism or the oft-planned reconnection of inter-Korean rail lines.
The latter has immense potential for South Korea as it would link the country’s rail network with the Eurasian continent. There are also plans and hopes for parallel highways and pipeline connections.
But experts were uncertain of the North’s willingness to play ball.
“As individual tourism is not subject to UN sanctions, and it is a project that we can pursue independently, the two Koreas can implement it immediately when both have a will,” said Moon. “But I don’t think it is realistic, given the North’s recent reactions.”
Moon has raised the issue of independent tourism but received no positive response from the North. It is unclear why he did not pursue the step earlier in his term when inter-Korean relations were rosy.
Trump, now besieged by Covid-19, massive unemployment and civil unrest, lags behind Democratic Party Candidate Joe Biden in polls ahead of the November election.
Would he take time to have a summit with Kim? One expert speculated that the unconventional Trump might take a gamble.
“Normally a US president would not take such a gambit ahead of an election, but down in polls, Trump has the incentive to go ever further off-script,” said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
And Pyongyang could respond favorably to Trump with minimal risk.
“North Korea is capable of making reversible denuclearization steps in exchange for difficult-to-reverse sanctions relief and South Korean investment,” said Easley. “After pocketing immediate gains, Pyongyang could return to cheating on its denuclearization commitments during a Biden administration.”
If Trump is re-elected, it also has a playbook in place.
“Kim would likely increase efforts to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul by appealing to Trump’s alliance cost-cutting preferences and Moon’s enthusiasm for inter-Korean projects,” Easley said.