President Moon Jae-in speaks on the phone with German Prime Minister Angela Merkel at the Blue House on Sept. 4. The president spent most of the day discussing responses of the international community to North Korea’s sixth nuclear test with world leaders
President Moon Jae-in said on Sept. 5 that he sees the present moment as “not a time for dialogue, but a time for strong denunciations and pressure in response to North Korea’s dangerous provocations.”
The message stood in stark contrast to the one delivered in a July 6 speech in Germany at the invitation of the Körber Foundation, when Moon stressed that the “need for [inter-Korean] dialogue is more urgent than ever before.” Many are now questioning whether Pyongyang’s sixth nuclear test has prompted an about-face in North Korea policy by Moon, who previously said he hoped to use inter-Korean relations as a means of taking the initiative on Korean Peninsula issues and encouraging action by other countries.
Moon’s remarks came in an interview with Russia’s TASS news agency a day ahead of his scheduled attendance of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok and a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sept. 6. While he stressed that he would “not shy away from dialogue at any level if it can solve the North Korean nuclear issue,” Moon also sent the clear message that “now is not the time for dialogue.”
While Moon had previously adopted a combined approach of sanctions and attempts at dialogue, he appears to be rapidly shifting focus toward a hardline response in the wake of the North’s recent nuclear test. It’s a move that has many voicing fears that the Moon administration is backtracking on its push for a “peaceful resolution” at a time when US President Donald Trump is emphasizing maximum pressure and dismissing dialogue with North Korea as futile.
“We are not attempting to bring down the North Korean regime or achieve unification [of Korea] by absorption. We are working to resolve the nuclear issue while guaranteeing the [security of] the North Korean regime, and we want to build a robust peace regime on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said in the TASS interview.
At the same time, he also said that “achieving a peaceful resolution [to the nuclear issue] will require North Korea to stop additional nuclear and possible provocations, and I believe the international community needs to apply tougher sanctions and pressure to make that happen.”
The remarks were very different from those made in the Körber Foundation speech, where Moon laid out his full vision for the new administration’s North Korea policy after taking office.
“Now that the vicious cycle of military tensions has reached its limit, the need for dialogue is more urgent than ever before,” he declared at the time.
Moon also said in the speech that he was “prepared to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un anywhere and at any time if the right conditions are met and an opportunity arises to make a change in the tensions and antagonism on the Korean Peninsula.”
“Dialogue” and “peace,” two words that had previously appeared like mantras after every conversation or meeting between Moon and Trump, were completely absent from a press release issued by the Blue House after their telephone conversation the day before. Instead, the first line of the briefing referred to the US’s “abrupt agreement to remove limits on the weight of South Korean missile warheads according to the South Korea-US missile guidelines.”
In place of references to a “peaceful, dialogue-based resolution” to the North Korean nuclear issue, the two leaders characterized North Korea’s sixth nuclear test as a “serious provocation of a different order from the past” and reaffirmed the US’s “ironclad pledge to defend the Republic of Korea,” while announcing their plans to pursue the “toughest possible pressure and sanctions” against the North and a “tougher UN Security Council resolution for sanctions.”
Regarding the change, a Blue House source said the briefing had “merely made separate reference to the agreement to lift warhead weight [restrictions] because it accounted for a larger part [of the conversation].”
“President Moon consistently talked about [a peaceful dialogue-based resolution] throughout his conversation with President Trump, and with an agreement already reached at one stage that there was ‘no need for dialogue for the sake of dialogue,’ this was not a case of different views by the two leaders,” the source added.
Moon’s “not the time for dialogue” remarks also appeared aimed at maintaining leadership in North Korea policy by preemptively quieting accusations by conservatives about “incompetence at national security,” which have been rearing their head as the North Korean nuclear crisis mounts. Analysts suggested they may have further been based on a conclusion that by remaining on more or less the same page with Trump in dismissing the usefulness of dialogue, the administration may be able to quiet calls for a preemptive strike.
But others said that in the absence of any “creative solutions” for peace on the peninsula as requested from the Blue House and government agencies, the tactical U-turn could end up deepening the same dependence on US and China diplomacy that Moon has been trying to get away from.
“A ‘conditional dialogue’ approach is the same in direction and substance as the policies during the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations, which did nothing at all in the name of ‘strategic patience,’” said an inter-Korean relations expert who worked with Moon’s camp during the presidential election.
The expert also said Moon’s remarks “could end up an obstacle in getting inter-Korean dialogue off the ground in the future.”
By Lee Jung-ae and Noh Ji-won, staff reporters
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