In South Korea-US relations, is the (honey)moon over?
Moon Jae-in's policies toward North Korea seem increasingly based on wishful thinking. Is the Seoul-Washington alliance in jeopardy?
A number of recent events illustrate the independent path Seoul is taking with North Korea, and it is clear the United States and South Korea are not marching to the same beat – or even reading from the same sheet.
The sounds of discord are growing.
Despite the mounting preponderance of evidence that Pyongyang has no intention of surrendering its nuclear weapons and missiles of varying ranges, Seoul is removing the phrase “the North Korean regime and army are our enemy” from its upcoming Defense White Paper.
Seoul has also agreed to “temporarily” deactivate some of its guard posts in and around the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) as a show of good faith, despite the fact that the North has far more guard posts and can numerically match the south’s reduction with little to no effect on its own security.
Cart before the horse
South Korean President Moon Jae-in wants to open a liaison office in the North Korean city of Kaesong, just over the DMZ. This is not really an issue of sanctions, as some worry, but one of timing. As long as negotiations over North Korea’s denuclearization are floundering, the US is against such an action. Even so, Seoul pooh-poohs the difference of opinion.
The Moon administration is also looking into joint ventures with the North, many of which are likely to run afoul of sanctions. Certain players within the South Korean private sector, too, are anxious to start work on projects involving the North. With the South Korean economy in the doldrums, lucrative business opportunities are seen as financial lifelines.
Even banks are gearing up to offer financial products focused on North Korea. Offerings range from trust funds with beneficiaries in the North to unification-based investments. The roadblocks posed by sanctions for these projects are seen as either circumventable or surmountable.
Both the North and the South want a peace treaty, something that the North could use as a tool to overturn sanctions and that the South could use to justify economic involvement with the North. Already, the optimism brought about by the Trump-Kim summit has weakened the sanctions regimen as China and Russia are openly flaunting their disregard for trade limitations.
In fact, the Moon administration has tagged 1.1 trillion won – nearly US$1 billion – for spending on the North in next year’s budget. That is a staggering amount, an increase of more than 14% over the current year’s allocation. Almost half is intended for rail and road infrastructure in the North.
That would indeed be money well-spent on projects to support a nascent market economy and would eventually benefit all citizens in the North, not just Pyongyang’s elites. But such projects are still premature. Little of this sits well with US President Trump, whose policy continues to be “maximum pressure.”
Wishful thinking, stalled economy
All of these intended actions are based upon wishful thinking. Consider for a moment all the promises hyped by Moon and his associates regarding Pyongyang’s willingness to denuclearize before the June summit between Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un.
Ignoring for the moment that no one has yet to define the term denuclearize in a way that is mutually acceptable to the US and North Korea, a timetable for whatever denuclearization might come to mean has yet to be established. Seoul’s hoopla has turned out to be nothing more than the South viewing the North through rose-colored glasses.
Pyongyang has stated that it has no intention of giving up its “treasured sword.” Moreover, there has been no action to back up the North’s previously stated intentions. Worse, US intelligence reports that, despite words to the contrary, Pyongyang continues to develop fissile material and build more intercontinental ballistic missiles.
So why is Moon so keen to engage with Pyongyang? One answer may be the direction of the South Korean economy.
Inconveniently for the Moon administration, data from the government’s own Statistics Korea show that the wage gap between the rich and the poor is widening and that employment growth is at the worst level in more than eight years.
Worse, the effects of Moon’s minimum wage increase have had exactly the same effect they have had in progressive American cities that passed such legislation: employers of low-end jobs are not hiring and hours of work for such personnel are being reduced. The rate of unemployment among the young (15 to 29 years of age), the demographic most affected, is more than 10%.
The commissioner of the government’s data agency, who was the bearer of those bad tidings, has been fired from her government post, strongly suggesting that Moon’s programs are politically driven.
An uneasy alliance
However, there is possibly another reason for Moon wanting rapid rapport with the North. When one considers his background – having been intimately involved in previous liberal South Korean governments and being perceived as being anti-American early on in his political career – it should be no surprise if Moon, as the leader of an emerging middle power, is somewhat more of a North Korean sympathizer than an ardent American ally.
Moon’s actions and intentions make coordination of effective action with the US regarding North Korea difficult. All of this suits Kim Jong Un as he recognizes the opportunity to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington.
Clearly the two professed allies do not see North Korea in the same way. Moon’s primary goal is the peace and reconciliation on the peninsula. Trump’s is the denuclearization of North Korea.
That disconnect is now public. The result is that Pyongyang is emboldened to entice a left-leaning South Korean administration to distance itself from the hard-right US. Thus, absent a quick resumption of negotiations – fruitful negotiations – the situation on the Korean Peninsula is likely to get worse before it gets better – if it ever does.