South Korean President Moon Jae-in holds his New Year press conference at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on January 10, 2019. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je
President Moon Jae- in is in the twilight of his presidency, but told the UN that he would work for inter-Korean reconciliation to the last day of his term.-Photo: AFP

SEOUL – With the summit between US President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in only a week away, Seoul’s rumor mill has been accelerating and its pundits are waxing lyrical.

Moon is scheduled to meet Biden on May 21 in Washington, where the two are expected to put some meat on the bones of a long-dormant North Korean policy. Seoul’s chattering class is abuzz with talk of what may transpire.

South Korean media reported on Monday, without naming sources, that a US offer to explain its policy review toward North Korea has been “well-received.” The South Korean government is unaware of the source of these reports, Asia Times has learned, but they are likely to be good news in the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential mansion.

Team Biden’s months-long review toward North Korea was completed early this month and a very basic outline of likely policy trajectory going forward was released to the media. His pow-wow with Biden offers Moon the perfect pulpit from which to preach the virtues of re-engaging with a state that has long been a black hole for US foreign policy.

But the clock is ticking relentlessly – meaning the upcoming meeting in Washington could be Moon’s last hurrah as a statesman.

Mr Nice Guy

The “Mr Nice Guy” president’s constitutionally-mandated single presidential term expires next year after a March election. Though his approval ratings have bounced back – slightly – from recent historic lows, Moon’s Democratic Party of Korea is still reeling from last month’s by-election wipeout.

That reflects his party’s disastrous Seoul real estate policies – which have uniquely irked both the rich, with high property taxes, and the poor, with sudden rent increases – and quite possibly late-term weariness with the president himself.  

That must be a tough pill to swallow.

Moon navigated his republic adroitly through the pandemic without mandating a single lockdown. Not only did South Korea, with a population of 51 million, suffer only 1,884 deaths nationwide, but it also emerged from 2020 with the best economic performance in the OECD. On Wednesday, it was announced that new jobs created in April were at a seven-year high.

Though the current national vaccination drive is proceeding at a feeble pace, several key sectors of South Korea’s economy, such as semiconductors, electronic devices and online services, boomed during the pandemic. Against this backdrop, Moon has pledged to aim for 4% growth in 2021 – ambitious, but feasible.

But his flagship non-domestic policy lies in tatters. The progressive leader sought to engage North Korea, bring the US to the table, establish a peace regime on the peninsula, get denuclearization underway and start a grand and mighty project: linking North and South logistically and economically.

In 2018, this looked excitingly within reach as Moon beamed amid a succession of triumphs.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in were all smiles when they drove through Pyongyang on September 18, 2018. Relations are no longer so chummy. Photo: AFP

After North Korea made a last-minute entry to the Winter Olympics, held in South Korea, Moon had a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the DMZ, then helped broker a historic first summit between a US president and a North Korean leader.

He ended the year in Pyongyang, reigniting his bromance with Kim and addressing some 100,000 North Koreans in the city’s huge May Day stadium.

These wins led some to whisper about a possible Nobel prize – but South Korea is linked at the hip to the United States.

When then-US President Donald Trump’s ambitious take-it-or-leave-it “grand bargain” deal with North Korea fell flat at a 2019 summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, Pyongyang turned its back on Seoul as well as Washington.

North Korea vented its ire by blowing up a bilateral relations office, firing rhetorical barrages at Seoul, while frizzling regional nerves by test-firing barrages of short-range missiles.  

Against this backdrop, the constant dribble of messages from Moon’s officials – that Seoul is ready for talks at any time, seeks to deliver humanitarian aid to the North and will prosecute those who fly anti-regime propaganda balloons over the DMZ – sound increasingly plaintive.

So there is much to play for in the upcoming meet. For Moon, the big prize will be aligning Seoul and Washington in order to bring both those parties back to a table, or tables, with Pyongyang. That, in turn, would leave a sound policy legacy for his party after Moon exits stage left in 2022.

Reactivating hope

The best way to resume play is toreactivate the year of hope in 2018,” Kim Ki-jung, president of the Institute for National Security Strategy, told foreign reporters in Seoul on Wednesday. 

Given that – at least, according to the scant details of the policy review that have been released – the US “will no longer be coercive or pursue a grand deal, but will be pragmatic and pursue diplomacy, this aligns well with current South Korean policy toward North Korea,” Kim said.

One of Kim’s colleagues was upbeat about the apparent openness of the Biden administration to South Korean input – a significant shift from the unilateral instincts of Trump. And the new administration has not ditched the results that Trump did win – notably, a principles-based bilateral Singapore summit declaration of 2018.

The Biden administration has “chosen an adjusted and pragmatic approach rather than denying existing agreements,” said Sung Ki-young, a senior research fellow at INSS. “This is more than we expected … it emphasizes the importance of alliances and collaborative security.”

Both experts hope that the key offer made by Kim to Trump in Hanoi in 2019 – the scrapping of North Korea’s central nuclear complex at Yongbyon, in return for waivers on certain sanctions – can be resurrected.

Though the facility at Yongbyon is central to North Korean nuclear research and materials production, it is not the country’s only nuclear facility. There are believed to be at least one, possibly two, more uranium enrichment facilities. Extant nuclear warheads – which some estimate in the high dozens, others in the low hundreds – are likely dispersed at secret arsenals around the country.

North Korea is also armed with missile production and chemical and biological weapons facilities. Kim’s refusal to package all weapons of mass destruction into a “grand bargain” led Trump to walk out of the Hanoi summit.

Beyond their engagement with North Korea, Moon and US President Donald Trump had a vexed relationship. Photo: AFP / Saul Loeb

Is Kim ready to deal?

Trump’s “walk” has been widely criticized by both South Korean and US experts, who consider Kim’s offer to have been sound, substantive and pragmatic. It would also have offered the two nations the chance of kick-starting engagement and trust-building processes.

Now, after Kim invested significant political capital in his engagement with Trump, the generality of North Korean statements toward Biden-era Washington suggests Pyongyang may be willing to re-engage with the new US administration.

“North Korea has requested a withdrawal of the US ‘hostile policy,’ but that is a comprehensive and general statement,” said Choi Yong-hwan, a senior research fellow at INSS. “If they mention specific items, it will make it harder to start negotiations, so they are maintaining a ‘wait and see’ attitude toward the US.” 

In this ambiance, experts cautiously predict that near-term North Korean provocations are unlikely.

“They are looking for new opportunities with the Biden administration,” said Kim. “So there is a lower likelihood they will gamble.”

Biden and Moon may see eye-to-eye on re-engaging with North Korea and even urging Kim to repeat his Yongybon for sanctions waiver offer, assuming that is still on the table in Pyongyang. But experts fear that Washington’s criticism of North Korea’s human rights abuses is a potential bilateral stumbling block for Seoul, which prefers to remain mum.

Park Sang-Hak, who heads a group of North Korean defectors, tears a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un during an anti-North Korea rally outside South Korean government complex in Seoul on September 22, 2017. Photo: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP

Human rights are “inside the belief system of the US Democratic Party,” Kim said, but “cannot be a condition of denuclearization – it is quite irrelevant.”

South Korea’s progressive administrations have customarily refrained from criticizing the North’s dire human rights record, believing it to be unproductive, while prioritizing engagement.

Another uncomfortable issue dividing Moon and Biden could be Seoul’s recently instituted legislation that prevents people and civic groups from sending balloons with anti-regime messaging over the DMZ. That legislation has been the subject of US Congressional discussion.

On Wednesday, a high-visibility activist who has defiantly admitted he has broken that law, and is under a related police investigation, vowed to sue Moon.