Close coordination with US key to incorporating S. Korea's preferences into Washington's NK policy
By Do Je-hae
The election of former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has brought new challenges for President Moon Jae-in's engagement-centric North Korea policy.
After the Democratic Party candidate's victory become clear, Cheong Wa Dae arranged a meeting for Moon on Nov. 11 with his close aides who have dealt with North Korea, including former national security adviser Chung Eui-yong and Im Jong-seok, Moon's first chief of staff and currently a special presidential adviser for foreign affairs who also leads the Foundation of Inter-Korea Cooperation. Both Chung and Im undertook crucial roles in realizing a series of summits between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2018, the first of which took place on April 28, 2018, only weeks after the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
To dispel concerns about possible clashes with the Biden administration, Cheong Wa Dae is stressing that Seoul has a wealth of experience working hand in hand with a Democratic administration on North Korea and producing fruitful outcomes, particularly during the Bill Clinton administration and the former liberal administration of the late former President Kim Dae-jung, known for his "Sunshine Policy" of engagement.
But more Koreans are questioning whether the incoming U.S. leader, who while on the campaign trail downplayed the effectiveness of top-down diplomacy preferred by current President Donald Trump, will maintain a similar enthusiasm on the North Korea issue as his predecessor. During the presidential debates dominated by domestic issues and COVID-19, Biden rarely mentioned North Korea and has also stated that he will not meet with Kim unless the North shows sure progress with denuclearization.
Biden's hardline approach to North Korea is expected to bring additional challenges for Moon's resolute pursuit of resuming engagement with North Korea, on top of the clock ticking on his time in office. The coming year is considered to be the final year for him to attempt any meaningful progress on North Korea before his presidency ends in May 2022.
Experts underlined the importance of close coordination with the Biden administration to promote the new U.S. government's understanding of South Korea's position.
"The Moon administration should work with U.S. government officials in charge of North Korea policy once they are appointed or it becomes clear who they will be. This includes the National Security Council, Department of State, Department of Defense and other officials who will deal with North Korea," said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, associate professor in International Relations, Department of European & International Studies, King's College London.
"Biden has indicated that he wants a diplomatic process with Pyongyang that includes proper working-level talks. Thus, these Biden officials will be crucial, whereas their counterparts during the Trump administration were secondary for the president. The Moon government should then have discussions with these officials to make sure that they understand South Korea's position and also for Seoul to understand the Biden administration's priorities. This would result in good coordination, which in turn would make the Moon administration more influential over Washington's North Korea policy."
Above all, the KF-VUB Korea Chair, Institute for European Studies, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, highlighted the urgency of a South Korea-U.S. summit saying, "It makes sense for Moon to discuss directly with him what Seoul's policy is and why. This way, the incoming U.S. president can consider and incorporate Moon's preferences into his North Korea policy. This is based on Biden's promise to work with allies."
Pardo also suggested for the Moon administration to launch a public diplomacy campaign in the U.S. and internationally to reiterate that its policy remains focused on engagement as a way to strengthen inter-Korean relations and try to steer North Korea toward denuclearization. "Public diplomacy helps to steer the conversation toward South Korean priorities. Otherwise, debates tend to focus heavily on the North Korean nuclear issue only," he said.
Some experts say that Seoul should avoid the impression of being out of step with Washington by being overeager on easing sanctions on North Korea without any visible progress in denuclearization.
"South Korea should not come across as too eager or desperate to get U.S.-North Korea talks restarted or be looking to ease sanctions on the North. As the new U.S. administration conducts a presumed North Korea policy review, this is now rather a time to stick together, take stock of where we are and methodically plan next steps," said Sean King, senior vice president at Park Strategies.
Other analysts say South Korea will have limited impact on U.S. policy toward North Korea and suggested Seoul make stronger contributions to working in the context of the trilateral alliance with U.S. and Japan.
"Up until now, the incoming Biden administration has not indicated that North Korea is a priority item. The Moon administration, like all foreign governments, will have very limited ability to influence what ends up as a priority on the U.S. president's agenda, which is determined by U.S. national interests and the domestic political interests of the U.S. president," said Mason Richey, an associate professor of international politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
"To the extent that South Korea can shape U.S. choices in this regard, it will have better chances if it works well with the U.S. in the context of the alliance. For example, the Biden administration would certainly welcome efforts by Seoul to patch up relations with Tokyo, the U.S.' other major ally in the region."