By Kim Soo-yeon
SEOUL, May 10 (Yonhap) — Moon Jae-in, who is sure to win South Korea’s presidential election, has vowed to restore engagement with North Korea and play an active role in diplomatic efforts to curb its nuclear weapons program, ending nearly a decade of frozen ties and strategic inertia, as he puts it, under his two conservative predecessors.
But his conciliatory ambitions face tough hurdles, experts said. The first benchmark for a dialogue-based approach would be for North Korea to freeze its nuclear and missile tests.
On the campaign trail, Moon vowed to seek a dual-track approach of pushing denuclearization and dialogue with Pyongyang.
“Moon will be willing to hold dialogue with North Korea. I believe North Korea’s halt to refining its nuclear program would be a starting point from which Moon could implement his North Korea policy,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.
This photo taken on May 6, 2017, shows Moon Jae-in, then a candidate of the liberal Democratic Party, on the campaign trail. (Yonhap)
Inter-Korean relations frayed for nine years under the conservative administrations of Moon’s two predecessors, including former President Park Geun-hye, who was ousted in March over corruption charges.
The late former liberal President Kim Dae-jung and his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, pursued an engagement policy with North Korea in 1998-2008, which led to vibrant inter-Korean reconciliatory projects.
Moon, a former chief of staff of Roh, is widely expected to continue such a policy to improve inter-Korean ties.
But the situation on the Korean Peninsula has markedly changed from what it was during Kim and Roh’s leadership as the North’s nuclear and missile programs have advanced.
Pyongyang conducted two nuclear tests last year alone, following those in 2006, 2009 and 2013, in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said in his News Year’s message that his country has entered the final stage of preparing to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of hitting the United States.
“The new administration should first prompt North Korea to suspend its nuclear test and an ICBM launch if it hopes for better ties,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute. “There is a need to hold summits between both sides’ leaders.”
This photo carried by North Korea’s main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, on May 10, 2016, shows the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, at a congress of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)
Experts stressed that Moon should fine-tune Seoul’s stance with the U.S. to persuade the U.S. that his engagement policy would keep pace with the international sanctions regime.
Moon’s assumption of the presidency came amid concerns that South Korea may be marginalized in the process of bringing peace to the peninsula as the U.S. and China appear to be taking the initiative in resolving the North Koren nuclear issue.
The U.S. said it aims to pressure North Korea into dismantling its nuclear and missile programs through sanctions while remaining open to dialogue. U.S. President Donald Trump is pressing China to rein in its unruly neighbor.
“Moon should send a special envoy to the U.S. as soon as possible to adjust the government’s stance with the U.S.,” Cheong said. “If the North pledges to halt an ICBM test, the U.S. would probably understand Seoul’s move for inter-Korean dialogue.”
To create the right mood for talks, some experts called for resuming now-suspended inter-Korean projects — a joint industrial complex in North Korea’s border city of Kaesong and a joint tour program at Mount Kumgang on the North’s east coast.