SEOUL — South Korea’s new president said Wednesday that he would be willing to hold talks in Washington and Pyongyang in efforts to ease the North Korean nuclear crisis, wasting no time in embarking on a new approach to dealing with Kim Jong Un’s regime.
The offer of shuttle diplomacy by Moon Jae-in came shortly after he was sworn in as president after winning a snap election triggered by the impeachment of former conservative leader Park Geun-hye.
Moon had vowed on the campaign trail to resume engagement with North Korea, a sharp change from the hard-line approach taken by South Korea’s past two governments — and by the international community — in response to North Korea’s nuclear tests and missile launches.
“I will try to solve the security crisis urgently,” Moon said at the National Assembly in Seoul. “If needed, I will fly to straight to Washington. I will also go to Beijing and Tokyo and even Pyongyang in the right circumstances.”
Reinforcing his stance, Moon appointed two top aides with experience in dealing with North Korea.
He nominated Suh Hoon, a former intelligence official who arranged the two inter-Korean presidential summits held in the 2000s, to lead the National Intelligence Service.
Suh lived in North Korea for two years beginning in 1997 to run an energy project that was part of a 1994 denuclearization deal with North Korea. He met the North’s leader at the time, Kim Jong Il, during North-South summits in 2000 and 2007.
Moon also appointed as his chief of staff a former lawmaker who, as a student, went to North Korea to meet the state’s founder, Kim Il Sung.
Moon’s first words and actions as president show his determination to revive the South Korean “sunshine policy” of engaging North Korea rather than isolating it.
But this would put South Korea at odds with the United States, where President Trump has vowed to use “maximum pressure” to force the North to give up its nuclear weapons program, and with an international community that is largely supportive of tougher sanctions.
The sunshine policy was started in 1998 by Kim Dae-jung, a former pro-democracy activist who became South Korea’s first liberal president.
The policy got its name from an Aesop fable in which the wind and the sun compete to make a traveler take off his coat. The sun gently warms the traveler and succeeds, the moral of the fable being that gentle persuasion works better than force.
Kim Dae-jung engaged Pyongyang by laying the groundwork for a tourism project at mountain on the North Korean side of the border which South Koreans were allowed to visit. After his summit with Kim Jong Il, families separated when the peninsula was divided were allowed to meet for reunions. Kim won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his efforts.
His successor, Roh Moo-hyun, continued the policy, opening a joint industrial park near the inter-Korean border where North Koreans would work in South Korean-owned factories, helping both sides. Roh went to Pyongyang for his own summit with Kim Jong Il near the end of his tenure in 2007.
Moon, who had started a law firm with Roh, served as his chief of staff in the presidential Blue House and was involved in North Korea policy during this time.
But the two conservative presidents who succeeded Kim and Roh abandoned the sunshine policy, instead promoting direct and multilateral sanctions to punish North Korea for its nuclear ambitions.
After North Korea’s fourth nuclear test last year, Park closed the joint industrial park, declaring that the money was going directly to the North Korean regime. In the 12 years that the complex was in operation, North Korea had made a total of about $560 million from the site, her government said.
During his campaign, Moon said that he would seek to reopen the industrial park and tourism projects, and would be willing to met Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang if necessary.
Returning to an engagement approach would “increase of predictability and permanence of inter-Korean policies” and help the South Korean economy, Moon said.
But reviving such inter-Korean cooperation will be difficult, analysts say.
For starters, the world is a very different place now than it was in 1997.
Then, North Korea did not have a proven nuclear weapons program. Now, it has conducted five nuclear tests and Kim Jong Un seems hellbent on developing missiles that can deliver nuclear warheads to the United States.
Plus, North Korean attacks on South Korea — including the sinking of the Cheonan naval corvette in 2010 and the shelling of a South Korean island, which together claimed 50 lives — have sapped a lot of the South Korean energy to be nice to North Korea.
Increasingly strict sanctions have been imposed through the United Nations in response to North Korea’s nuclear tests and missile launches, and both the United States and South Korea have also imposed direct prohibitions on dealing with North Korea.
“The international community has moved decisively toward a more sanctions and less engagement approach with North Korea and even South Korea’s own domestic laws will make grandiose unaccountable inter-Korean engagement more difficult,” Marcus Noland and Kent Boydston of the Peterson Institute for International Economics wrote in an analysis.
If South Korea was to say that special considerations apply on the peninsula, the Moon administration would “bring South Korea into immediate diplomatic conflict with the U.S. and undercut China’s already tepid willingness to implement sanctions,” they wrote.
Even raising the specter of a sunshine policy approach will complicate the international community’s efforts to make North Korea give up its nuclear program, said David Straub, a former official in the State Department who worked on North Korea.
“It’s a real challenge to the American-led effort to put maximum pressure on North Korea,” said Straub, who is now at the Sejong Institute, a think tank devoted to North Korea, outside Seoul.
Moon’s policy is much closer to China’s than to the United States’ policy, he noted.
“South Korea has tremendous influence in the international community on this issue, and that in itself is a challenge for President Trump,” Straub said, noting that Kim Dae-jung and Roh both bad-mouthed President George W. Bush’s approach at that time.
But Lee Jong-seok, who served as unification minister during the Roh administration, said a decade of sanctions had not worked.
“It’s now time for the U.S. to review its policy of imposing pressure on North Korea over its nuclear program. Has North Korea recognized its wrongdoings as a result of this policy of applying strong pressure?” Lee asked.
Moon recognized that pressure alone was not sufficient for resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, but that the key was in pursuing both dialogue and pressure, he said.
“President Moon will combine sanctions and dialogue, but which comes first will be decided after talking to relevant nations like the U.S. and China,” Lee said. “South Korea can’t unilaterally hold talks while everyone else is sanctioning North Korea.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed reporting.