Moon stresses inter-Korean cooperation over N. Korea-US dialogue in press conference

Posted on : 2020-01-15 17:23 KST Modified on : 2020-01-15 17:23 KST
S. Korean president says Seoul, Washington have “no disagreement” on South-North dialogue
South Korean President Moon Jae-in gives a New Year’s press conference at the Blue House on Jan. 14. (Blue House photo pool)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in gives a New Year’s press conference at the Blue House on Jan. 14. (Blue House photo pool)

“Rather than only watching North Korea-US dialogue, we need to cooperate with North Korea on as many things as possible,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in said during a New Year’s press conference at the Blue House on Jan. 14. While responding to five questions about inter-Korean relations and North Korea-US relations, Moon made four remarks to the effect that he will no longer be focusing exclusively on North Korea-US dialogue. “Since inter-Korean relations are a Korean matter, we need to take more of the initiative in developing them,” Moon added.

The gist of these remarks is that inter-Korean relations should be the driver of the peace process on the Korean Peninsula — a previously held position to which Moon intends to return, departing from the position he adopted last year of prioritizing North Korea-US relations and putting inter-Korean relations on the back burner. Moon voiced the idea that inter-Korean relations should play a driving role in his Liberation Day congratulatory address on Aug. 15, 2018, when he said, “Inter-Korean relations are not a secondary outcome of the improvement of North Korea-US relations. If anything, the development of inter-Korean relations is a dynamo powering the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. In these remarks, Moon expressed his determination to reach a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations more clearly than in his New Year’s address on Jan. 7.

One noteworthy point is that Moon said there is “no disagreement between South Korea and the US” over his call for maximum inter-Korean cooperation. That can be interpreted as meaning that Blue House National Security Office Director Chung Eui-yong reached some kind of understanding in his meetings with US President Donald Trump and senior officials in the American government in Washington on Jan. 7-9.

Individual tourism for improving inter-Korean relations without violating sanctions

A striking aspect of Moon’s plan for improving inter-Korean relations is his remark that “I think that individual tourism and other such things could certainly be explored without violating international sanctions.” While Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul had hinted at the idea of exploring individual tourism at the end of last year, this was the first time that Moon directly, and publicly, expressed his intention to do so.

Tourism doesn’t fall under the UN Security Council’s sanctions on North Korea. Furthermore, it also dovetails with North Korea’s three major constructions projects (the Wonsan-Kalma coastal tourist zone, the Yangdok hot spring cultural resort, and the Samjiyon County project) aimed at revitalizing the tourism industry, which North Korean leader Kim Jong-un envisions as a major way to bring in foreign currency and investment. This could lead the way to reviving tourism at Mt. Kumgang. In short, Moon unveiled a plan to surmount the impasse in inter-Korean relations through individual tourism, which would have the practical effect of easing sanctions and ideally setting the mood for resuming North Korea-US negotiations.

Moon also spoke cautiously, but firmly, of the need to ease sanctions. This would serve two functions: as a way to reward North Korea for taking meaningful steps toward denuclearization and as the groundwork for improving inter-Korean relations. Moon offered the following examples: “The US and the international community would obviously have to take corresponding measures if North Korea takes meaningful steps toward denuclearization, and that could include easing sanctions on North Korea.”

“If inter-Korean cooperation requires approval for an exemption from UN sanctions, we should be able to work on that, too,” Moon said. “Since inter-Korean relations are a Korean matter, we need to take more of the initiative in developing them.” These remarks detail Moon’s intention of moving more aggressively toward easing sanctions in order to reach a breakthrough in improving inter-Korean relations.

Finding the silver lining in Trump’s letter to Kim Jong-un and in Kim Kye-gwan’s statement

Moon also strove to find a positive meaning in Trump’s personal letter to Kim Jong-un and in a statement released by Kim Kye-gwan, advisor of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, on Jan. 11. According to Moon, Trump’s birthday greetings to Kim mean that Trump “still regards North Korea as his most important foreign policy object” and “is committed to maintaining friendly relations with the North Korean leader and continuing dialogue.” He interpreted Kim’s statement as showing that “North Korea is holding open the door to dialogue and wants to engage in dialogue.”

This has led Moon to “feel more hopeful about the possibility of success in North Korea-US dialogue.” But Moon also reminded his audience of this year’s US presidential election, scheduled for Nov. 3. “I don’t think North Korea and the US have much time,” Moon said, reflecting his view that speed is essential.

“North Korea’s message made clear that denuclearization is a matter for North Korea and the US to discuss. It hasn’t sent any message rejecting inter-Korean dialogue aimed at cooperation and the development of inter-Korean relations,” Moon said.

Moons’ interpretations are quite optimistic, given the apparent state of inter-Korean and North Korea-US relations. But as Moon observed, “There’s more to foreign policy than meets the eye.” He made that point twice, once at the beginning and again at the end of his press conference, suggesting that there is movement behind the scenes.

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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