The election of Mr. Moon Jae-in as South Korea’s next president could lead to an important and helpful shift in the international community’s approach to halting and reversing North Korea’s increasingly dangerous nuclear and missile programs.
If Moon stays true to the policies outlined in his campaign, South Korea’s approach to North Korea will likely shift from “pressure only” to “pressure with pragmatic engagement.” This could improve the chances for lowering of tensions with North Korea and the resumption of talks designed to verifiably halt and then, later, reverse North Korea’s nuclear program.
As Moon has noted, a policy of only pressure has failed to halt North Korea’s nuclear program. He has also noted, correctly, that if North Korea does not show restraint, the atmosphere for negotiations on denuclearization and the steps toward negotiating a peace treaty with North Korea cannot begin.
Therefore, if North Korea freezes its nuclear facilities and agrees to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, Moon has suggested that he may agree to reopen the Kaeseong Industrial Complex and reduce the scale of U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises as a sign of goodwill. The Kaesong Industrial Complex, launched in 2004, is located inside North Korea. South Korean companies operating in the complex use North Korean laborers to manufacture products, contributing to the North Korean economy. The complex was closed in 2016 as a result of rising tensions between the two countries.
If the new government in Seoul takes these steps, with the support of both Washington and Beijing, the chances of a diplomatic resolution of the growing nuclear crisis may be achieved.
The Trump administration says it will pursue a policy of “maximum pressure and engagement” vis-a-vis North Korea and Chinese President Xi Jingping and his government has suggested a “suspension-for-suspension” approach. So, in fact, Moon’s pro-engagement position could help bring together Chinese and U.S. policies toward North Korea and create a stronger, more unified multilateral approach to resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis.