On June 16, Moon Chung-in, professor emeritus at Yonsei University and President Moon Jae-in’s special advisor on unification, foreign affairs and national security, said that the South Korea-US joint military exercises (which include the deployment of US strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula), could be scaled down if North Korea suspends its nuclear and missile activities.
Moon Chung-in made the remarks during a seminar on the topic of “New Administrations and the U.S.-R.O.K. Alliance: Challenges and Way Forward,” which was hosted in Washington by the East Asia Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and during a press conference with South Korean correspondents that followed. With Moon Jae-in’s summit with President Donald Trump scheduled for June 29 and 30, Moon Chung-in’s remarks appear to be a preliminary attempt to direct US government and public opinion toward dialogue.
“The president has made two proposals. The first is that we and the US can discuss reducing the South Korea-US joint military exercises if North Korea suspends its nuclear weapons and missile activities,” Moon said on the topic of North Korea’s nuclear program. “The president was thinking that we could even decrease the American strategic assets that are deployed to the Korean Peninsula [during the exercises].”
“The president‘s other proposal is to link the issue of denuclearizing North Korea with the issue of establishing a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. This issue is much more complicated than the Iranian nuclear negotiations,” Moon Chung-in said. “At any rate, the president has offered two guidelines for pursuing the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
During an event on June 15 commemorating the 17th anniversary of the June 15 Inter-Korean Summit Meeting, President Moon indicated the starting point for negotiations, saying South Korea “could engage in unconditional dialogue if North Korea refrains for additional nuclear and missile provocations” What Moon Chung-in described as “President Moon’s proposals” on June 16 appear to go a step further by offering a specific “payback” for North Korea moving gradually toward denuclearization.
During the subsequent meeting with correspondents, the special advisor went into more detail about the proposal for reducing US strategic assets if North Korea freezes its nuclear program. “There‘s no need to deploy strategic assets such as aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines during the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises. Scaling down the strategic assets that have been forward deployed since the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 and running the exercises the way we used to would likely mitigate the crisis,” he said
“In a way, this kind of thing [the deployment of strategic assets] heightens tensions and aggravates North Korea’s response,” Moon Chung-in said. Drawing upon his observations as a scholar, he noted that “Kim Jong-il tested 18 missiles during the 18 years of his rule, but Kim Jong-un has carried out 35 test launches in just five years.”
“Since the US has forward deployed its strategic assets, North Korea seems to be responding in this way because it thinks that the US will strike if the North shows any weakness,” Moon Chung-in said.
The special advisor’s remarks are similar to the proposal that China made at the beginning of this year for a “double suspension,” asking North Korea to suspend its development of nuclear weapons and missiles and for the US and South Korea to suspend their large-scale military exercises. Moon’s idea is to give both sides what they want, though he would reduce the reward offered to North Korea from suspending the drills to downsizing them. This was likely motivated by the likelihood of pushback from inside South Korea and the US. All this will likely depend on whether the US and North Korea will accept the proposal. When asked about the possibility of American acceptance, Moon Chung-in said, “I don’t see that as a big problem. I think that downsizing is possible if we ask for it.”
“The annual South Korea-US joint exercises are designed to improve the state of readiness to defend South Korea, to protect the region and to maintain stability on the Korean Peninsula,” said Alicia Edwards, a US State Department spokesperson for East Asia, in response to a query from the Hankyoreh on this subject on June 17. The remark appears to reiterate the US’s current position while avoiding a specific response to the idea of downsizing the military drills.
Since last year’s US presidential election, the growing awareness of the urgent need to resolve the North Korea nuclear and missile issue has led some to argue that adjusting the scale and content of the South Korea-US joint military exercises might be necessary to make North Korea feel less threatened. At the same time, there is still considerable support for the hardline position that North Korea must not be rewarded for freezing its nuclear weapons and missile activities, since these are “illegal.” In this context, the next question is whether Moon Chung-in’s remarks will empower American advocates of dialogue with North Korea.
Moon Chung-in does not think it’s very likely that North Korea will accept the proposal, but he emphasized the “need to try,” apparently due to the fact that the offer for downsizing the exercises places less value on North Korea freezing its nuclear program than North Korea does - the North’s original demand is for the US and South Korea to suspend their military exercises. But if this proposal gains momentum, various changes could take place during the negotiations.
By Yi Yong-in, Washington correspondent
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