President Moon makes last-ditch effort to realize North Korea talks within tenure

President Moon Jae-in delivers a speech during a ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the foundation of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea at Myeongdong Cathedral in downtown Seoul, Nov. 25. Yonhap

By Nam Hyun-woo

Park Sun-won, first deputy head of the National Intelligence Service / Courtesy of Cheong Wa Dae
South Korean President Moon Jae-in is making a last-ditch effort to realize tangible progress in his proposal to declare a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War, which he believes will be a powerful enticement to bring North Korea back to denuclearization talks.

As part of his efforts, the President replaced three out of four deputy heads at the country's spy agency to refresh its behind-the-scenes communications with Pyongyang over the end-of-war declaration.

Cheong Wa Dae announced Friday that Moon named three new deputy heads of the National Intelligence Service (NIS). The NIS has four deputy heads who report directly to NIS Director Park Jie-won, with the first in charge of overseas/North Korea, the second in counter-espionage, the third scientific intelligence, and another for planning and coordination. The President replaced all but the third deputy head in charge of scientific intelligence.

New first deputy head Park Sun-won is known as a North Korea specialist. He had been deputy head of planning and coordination and served as presidential secretary for unification during the 2003-08 Roh Moo-hyun administration.

Park is credited with facilitating the 2007 inter-Korean summit between Roh and then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Along with current presidential national security adviser Suh Hoon, Park is known to have played a pivotal role in working-level discussions between the two Koreas.

He also reportedly served as a messenger between the U.S. and North Korea during the 2019 summit between then-U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

"Along with the perspective as a security strategist, he also has a reformative mindset," presidential senior secretary for public communication Park Soo-hyun said in a statement. "We expect his contribution to lead to a breakthrough in the inter-Korean and the U.S.-North Korea stalemate."

Moon's spy agency reshuffle is interpreted as his last-ditch effort to see tangible progress in declaring a formal end to the war. As the conflict ended in an armistice and not a peace treaty, Moon has been championing this idea under the belief that a formal declaration of peace would be a powerful enticement to bring the North back to the stalled talks, even though it is a non-binding political statement and does not affect the current state of the Korean Peninsula.

Since Moon floated the proposal again in September, South Korea has been coordinating with the U.S. over the content of the declaration, and multiple South Korean officials said the discussion is now in its final stage.

"Regarding the progress of the end-of-war declaration and its timing, the coordination between South Korea and the U.S. is now in its final stage," a senior official at the Ministry of Unification said on Nov. 24. Unification Minister Lee In-young and First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choi Jong-kun have also made similar remarks.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects a construction site in Samjiyon, Ryanggang Province, in this photo carried by the regime's official Korean Central News Agency, Nov. 16. Yonhap

Against this backdrop, Moon's appointing of Park is interpreted as an order to engage North Korea with the draft version of the end-of-war declaration.

The draft version is expected to include clauses that the declaration will not affect the armistice status between the two Koreas, thus the United Nations Command in South Korea and the U.S. Forces Korea will stay as they are today.

In this case, however, there is still a chance that the North will not agree with the declaration. Regarding Moon's proposal, Pyongyang has been demanding Seoul stop its joint military exercises with the U.S. and acknowledge its weapons development programs as preconditions.

Since these are not conditions that both Washington and Seoul can accept, attention is growing on what other favors will be offered to North Korea.

"We don't have to be too strict about interpreting North Korea's precondition," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

"If Seoul and Washington can show a certain level of sincerity, Pyongyang may engage in talks for the end-of-war declaration. For example, a high-level U.S. figure can officially say that the U.S. does not have a hostile policy toward North Korea. South Korea and the U.S. can also say they will not deploy additional ballistic missile defense systems or other strategic weapons on South Korean soil."

Nam Hyun-woo

Top 10 Stories


Sign up for eNewsletter