North Korea Policy under the New South Korean President: More Continuity than Change

On 9 March, South Koreans voted a conservative, Yoon Suk-yeol, into the presidency to replace the left-leaning Moon Jae-in. Yoon has taken a harder rhetorical line than his predecessor toward Pyongyang. But a dramatic shift in North Korea policy is unlikely.

South Korea is changing political direction. After five years of President Moon Jae-in’s left-leaning government, South Koreans voted on 9 March for a pivot back to conservative leadership. The incoming president, former Chief Prosecutor Yoon Suk-yeol, took the reins on 10 May. Yoon talks of difference. But when it comes to North Korea policy, the changes could well be more modest than his words imply. That is less a reflection of Yoon’s views and more a commentary on Moon’s inability to bring about the dramatic evolution to more friendly inter-Korean relations that he had hoped for.

Prior to taking office, Yoon projected his commitment to change, signalling rejection of the Moon administration’s approach on many issues. In terms of his foreign and security policies, Yoon was quick to indicate that he would pursue a North Korea policy less accommodating to Pyongyang and more assertive in response to provocations, from missile and nuclear tests to small-scale but deadly attacks on South Korean military targets. He also spoke of strengthening the U.S.-South Korea alliance and improving long-neuralgic relations with Japan.

Assessing how much of a shift Yoon might actually make on North Korea, however, needs to be done in the light of a realistic accounting of Moon’s performance. President Moon did not actually accomplish the transformative regional agenda he had pledged to pursue when he took office in 2017. He gave up on his promises for inter-Korean economic engagement without too much of a fight. In spite of his genuine efforts, there was little to show for the inter-Korean rapprochement he fostered in 2018-2019, as evidenced by the regression of inter-Korean relations toward a more antagonistic mean in recent months. Notwithstanding worries among boosters of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, and despite some turbulence on the surface, relations with Washington were smooth throughout Moon’s term. Against this backdrop, Yoon is likely to bring more continuity than change to the fundamentals of inter-Korean relations and engagement with Washington on North Korea issues, even as the peninsula heads into a more tumultuous period.

A Failure to Transform

Following the ouster of former President Park Geun-hye, who in late 2016 was impeached on charges of corruption and abuse of power, Moon came to office with a thumping election win and an attendant reservoir of good-will – but also amid some nervousness about where he would take Seoul’s foreign policy. Some South Korean conservatives expressed concern about the make-up of Moon’s staff. They fretted in particular that, within the new administration, those who prioritised improving inter-Korean relations were in a stronger position to influence policy than the “alliance faction” of those who put a premium on maintaining South Korea’s relationship with the U.S. This in turn, they worried, could create friction with Seoul’s key strategic partner, treaty ally and security guarantor.

While in the final accounting of Moon’s tenure, these concerns proved largely unfounded, he cultivated ties with the U.S. in a way that veered from the traditional path. At the beginning of his presidency, following a year of nuclear sabre-rattling between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Moon seized on both sides’ desire for de-escalation and Trump’s unconventional politics to encourage the historic Singapore summit of June 2018. Moon undoubtedly reasoned that getting a U.S. president in the same room as a North Korean leader for the first time represented the best chance in two decades for a deal on U.S.-North Korea relations. But while the meeting appeared to help entrench a period of calm – with the North Koreans observing a self-imposed moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear testing, and the U.S. and South Korea ratcheting back joint military exercises – there was no meaningful progress toward the main parties’ primary goals: denuclearisation for the U.S., comprehensive sanctions relief for the North and revival of inter-Korean economic projects for the South.

Even as he was trying to coax the U.S. and North Korea toward a deal that proved elusive, Moon was careful not to rock the boat with Washington. He sought repeatedly to emphasise alliance relations and paid homage to the U.S. contribution to the Korean War on his first official trip to Washington in late June 2017. He also cleaved to a firm position of not going further in economic engagement with Pyongyang than was legally possible under UN Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on North Korea.
” Sanctions proved an insurmountable impediment to economic engagement plans Moon and Kim agreed to. “

Those sanctions proved an insurmountable impediment to economic engagement plans Moon and Kim agreed to at the April 2018 inter-Korean summit at the Korean War truce village, Panmunjom. The plans included reviving tourism at the east coast resort of Mount Kumgang and business at an inter-Korean manufacturing zone at Kaesong in the west, as well as projects – including a Special Peace and Cooperation Zone in the West Sea – that date back to the second inter-Korean summit between the late Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il in October 2007.

Moon tried to get the U.S. to support a more flexible position on sanctions relief, even after the initial promise of Singapore and subsequent leader-level diplomacy began to fade. He felt that by declaring a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, damaging if not entirely destroying its nuclear test site very publicly and restarting repatriations of U.S. and UN soldiers killed in the Korean War, North Korea had gone far enough in meeting U.S. demands in 2018 to deserve greater flexibility. But absent a deal between Pyongyang and Washington, the sanctions remained and Moon could not move forward.

All the while, the South Korean Ministry of National Defence worked closely with the Pentagon and the government raised the country’s defence budget repeatedly. By reducing the scale of combined military exercises in deference to Pyongyang’s sensitivities, Moon may have degraded military readiness to an extent. But in the end, bowing to institutionally ingrained reliance on the U.S. security umbrella and to South Korean public opinion in support of the alliance, he avoided radically stepping up inter-Korean political and economic engagement in ways that would have provoked Washington’s ire. In so doing, Moon steered deliberately clear of sacrificing South Korea’s reputation as a responsible international stakeholder by embarking on inter-Korean economic cooperation that would fly in the face of UN and U.S. sanctions.

A Less Accommodating Style

Having signalled that his initial priorities do not include a serious effort to move the dial on inter-Korean relations, Yoon will, like his predecessor, focus on Seoul’s relationship with Washington. But he will go further. He has vowed to deepen the U.S.-South Korea alliance. This could mean requesting the deployment of additional US THAAD missile defence units to the South, as well as throttling back, though not entirely reversing, the process of transferring wartime operational control to South Korea. Because current arrangements would place South Korean forces under U.S. command at a time of war, operational control transfer is a matter of restoring lost sovereignty for the South Korean left. It is of less importance for the right, which is comparatively comfortable with U.S. influence in South Korea’s military sphere.

Beyond tending to the alliance relationship, Yoon will also take a tougher line with the North. He will be quick to sign on to international condemnation of North Korea’s human rights record in the UN, something that will antagonise Kim and that Moon was reluctant to do. Yoon has also signalled that he will take an “action-for-action” approach to dialogue and cooperation with North Korea, which would be positive if North Korea were to take the first step in that direction, but under current conditions is far more likely to mean that he will be forced to respond to North Korean provocations as and when they come.

Yoon will be less likely than Moon to bend so far in the North’s direction that he is accused of sacrificing principle. In 2019, South Korea drew widespread criticism for secretly repatriating two North Korean fishermen – alleged criminals who faced almost certain execution upon their return – despite their express wishes to come to South Korea, a wish that is normally determinative. Seoul also banned the practice of cross-border balloon leafleting by anti-Pyongyang activists in 2020, raising questions about South Korean civil liberties. Most recently, Moon sent a convivial letter to Kim Jong-un in late April, which read as if North Korea’s unusually active missile testing schedule since January had simply not occurred. Even though these actions were of little if any geopolitical significance, they gave the impression to Moon’s critics of an administration that was prepared to go too far in bowing to North Korean demands.
” The big test of Yoon’s policy will come when he must decide how to respond to the North Korean missile and nuclear tests. “

The big test of Yoon’s policy will come when he must decide how to respond to the North Korean missile and nuclear tests that appear to be coming in the not-too-distant future or to other provocations. Here, he will have a number of options for a proportionate response.

First, he can respond by ordering corresponding action in the form of South Korean weapons tests, or by otherwise ratcheting up military activity. The Moon administration took this tack at the end of March, launching a number of ballistic and tactical missiles within minutes of a North Korean test launch, in a way that ran rather counter to Seoul’s approach in the preceding years. Yoon has the further option of embracing enhanced U.S.-South Korea military exercises. This means that exercises, which Moon had reduced in scale partly in response to the pandemic, would involve more men and equipment, and equally important, would be accompanied by greater publicity surrounding drills that explicitly relate to threats from North Korea.

Secondly, Yoon can respond to any lethal encounters occurring along the demilitarised zone (DMZ) or in the West Sea by ordering restoration of loudspeakers broadcasting anti-North propaganda (and large amounts of news and K-pop) across the inter-Korean border. South Korea adopted this approach in the summer of 2015 after the maiming of two of its soldiers by a mine along the DMZ and kept the speakers in place until North Korea returned to the path of diplomacy in 2018. He also has the option of trying to roll back the aforementioned law that bans cross-border leaflet balloon launches. That would go down appropriately badly in Pyongyang, but since it will not be achievable unless the conservative People’s Power Party takes back the South Korean legislature in April 2024, Yoon’s only option for the time being would be the legally and politically problematic step of not enforcing the law, and possibly even supporting those who undertake balloon launching activities.
” The risk in going down [an] action-for-action road is that inter-Korean relations could well spiral downward. “

The risk in going down this action-for-action road is that inter-Korean relations could well spiral downward. Any of the steps that Yoon might take in response to North Korean actions will, whether or not justified, provide convenient pretexts for Pyongyang to further heighten tensions on the Korean peninsula. Moon sought to avoid a negative spiral by remaining largely passive in the face of North Korean missile launches. Yoon is likely to do the opposite: responding straight away with harshly condemnatory rhetoric and, in due course, a selection from the concrete measures outlined above. Pyongyang will feel compelled to respond.

North Korea has already set the scene for assigning blame to Seoul for future deterioration in relations by quickly publicising an exchange of letters between Moon and Kim Jong-un on 20-21 April, in which the two praised each other’s efforts to bring about improved inter-Korean relations. The juxtaposition of those letters with Yoon’s approach to North Korea will give Pyongyang’s propagandists the space to paint Yoon as the party dragging inter-Korean relations into crisis when the time comes. They will claim that Yoon’s hostility is forcing North Korea’s hand and risks tipping the Korean peninsula into a (potentially nuclear) war. They will very likely underscore this point with provocations, some of which may prove lethal.

This does not mean that the peninsula is careening toward renewed conflict. Indeed, despite the risk of heightened tensions and even more lethal incidents, the fundamentals that govern peninsular relations remain stable. U.S.-South Korean joint containment and deterrence of North Korea have proven effective for decades and that seems unlikely to change. China has never been keen to see deterioration on its eastern flank, much less at a time when it is embroiled in fighting COVID-19, and President Xi Jinping seems set on securing an unprecedented third term in office later in the year. Even though Pyongyang enjoys implacable Chinese and Russian support given the standoff between Moscow and Western powers over Ukraine, they cannot lift UN sanctions by themselves. Perhaps most important, North Korea knows that if it lets the bellicosity it initiates get out of hand, the resulting conflict would pose a grave risk to the endurance of the Kim regime – Pyongyang’s highest priority.

For the foreseeable future, then, the main risk is not war or a tectonic change in the relationships that shape war and peace on the peninsula. North Korea’s long-term goal may be the remote prospect of unification with South Korea on its own terms, but its immediate focus is firmly on survival; it is not seeking a major confrontation. Yoon’s harder-edged approach will create friction and there is highly likely to be an increasing number of deadly incidents on his watch, but he too has every reason to steer clear of an escalation to conflict. But even if the fundamentals of inter-Korean relations remain largely the same, there is always a chance that incidents could build and – if Yoon is reckless or unlucky – tensions escalate dangerously. Yoon will need to keep his eye on that risk as the relationship heads into choppier waters.

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