The Challenges of Engagement



There is a great scene in Tom Sawyer (Chapter Two) where Tom effectively says to Jim: “If you give me your apple, I’ll let you whitewash my fence.” That pretty much sums up the extraordinary game unfolding on the Korean peninsula, as Pyongyang (Tom) is doing everything in its power not only to tame Moon Jae-in (Jim) but even to humiliate him.

Let’s start with the nuclear and missile program. To his credit, President Moon has returned to the first principle of Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy: that provocations would not be tolerated. In a thoughtful speech commemorating the June 2000 summit, he once again expressed a willingness to engage in “unconditional dialogue” if North Korea stopped its nuclear and missile tests and showed a willingness to move toward denuclearization. But since Moon’s election, North Korea has undertaken no fewer than four missile tests. Moreover, it has restated its policy that the South should have no role in any discussion of denuclearization (NKNews coverage here), which should be handled bilaterally with the US rather than in a multilateral setting (a position that the Ministry of Unification quickly rejected).   

But it gets worse. In an important statement (available on Rodong Sinmun) issued by the Committee for Peaceful Reunification of the Country on June 15, the regime outlines a particularly hardline position on North-South relations. It begins with a return to the first of three principles set forth in the July 4, 1972 South-North Joint Communiqué: that unification would be accomplished without the interference of outsiders. Effectively the statement demands that Moon—in advance of his trip to Washington—choose “’by our nation itself’ or ‘south Korea-U.S. alliance.’” Such stark choices are likely to make it harder rather than easier to propose incremental steps like a suspension of exercises.

What about using incremental and humanitarian steps as a way of building trust? Despite the standard product differentiation of incoming presidents, this was essentially the core of Park Geun-hye’s Trustpolitik. The North Koreans have thrown cold water on that too, and in a way suggesting that they are holding out for the larger prize of a reopening of Kaesong and Kumgang. The Moon administration has done exactly the right thing by granting private humanitarian groups the right to engage with the North; that is what NGOs are good at. But the regime quickly denigrated small scale projects and denied entry to the Korean Sharing Movement, explicitly linking the move to continued South Korean support for multilateral sanctions.

After a top Moon Jae-in advisor, Chung-in Moon, made comments about adjusting the post-Cheonan sanctions, a conservative firestorm hit. (I personally think this is a good idea, as it puts the onus on profitable investments on North Korea, rather than on South Korean taxpayers through their insurance of ventures in Kaesong). But you can predict that the North—which wants the apple in the hand, is not likely to see this as much of a concession either.

How about family reunions? The South recently proposed trying to arrange a new reunion in August to mark the anniversary of the end of the Second World War. The North Korean response? Rather than a moral imperative for both sides, family reunions are yet another tactical quid-pro-quo, tied in this instance to the return of the restaurant workers who fled North Korea for freedom in the South. 

Other ideas are being floated as well, including the idea that North-South infrastructure investments be folded under the One Belt One Road paradigm. But again, such prospective gains have not swayed the North Koreans to date and are not likely to.

I am sympathetic with Moon Jae-in’s effort to recalibrate North-South relations. But I am also glad to see that he is standing on principle and that hastily conceived efforts such as summit celebrations in Pyongyang were canceled rather than rushed. This is hard stuff, but eagerness to engage can lead to whitewashing Pyongyang’s fence. I would hold on to my apple if I were Jim.

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