[Interview] Former Moon advisor says US should focus on NK nuclear issue, not human rights when it comes to NK

Posted on : 2021-03-10 17:05 KST Modified on : 2021-03-10 17:05 KST
Moon Chung-in calls on South Korea and Japan to push for a shift from conflict to cooperation
Moon Chung-in, chairman of the Sejong Institute, speaks during an interview with the Hankyoreh in the Seoul office of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament on Feb. 18. (Park Jong-shik/The Hankyoreh)
Moon Chung-in, chairman of the Sejong Institute, speaks during an interview with the Hankyoreh in the Seoul office of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament on Feb. 18. (Park Jong-shik/The Hankyoreh)

“If the human rights issue is put at the forefront, there’s a big risk that negotiations with North Korea will break down. We need to focus on resolving the nuclear issue,” said Moon Chung-in, chairman of the Sejong Institute, in an interview Monday with the Hankyoreh. Moon’s remarks were aimed at US President Joe Biden, who is currently reviewing US policy toward North Korea.

Moon advised the US to focus on resolving the nuclear issue, rather than the human rights issue. “If the US emphasizes human rights, North Korea will reject dialogue, regarding that emphasis as a hostile act aimed at regime change,” he said.

Moon voiced his concern that the Biden administration has exhibited a tendency to endorse human rights as a key foreign policy value as well as a way to apply pressure to countries like China that the US finds hard to handle.

In the interview, Moon also addressed South Korea-Japan relations, which have been growing progressively worse, in another challenge for the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

“Since the Biden administration values alliances and Japan, the Japan factor will grow more important in the years to come,” Moon Chung-in said, calling on South Korea and Japan to push for a shift from conflict to cooperation in their relationship.

“If the US and China move into an adversarial relationship along the lines of a new cold war, it will make the situation on the Korean Peninsula extremely difficult,” Moon Chung-in said, repeatedly calling on the Moon administration in South Korea to exercise wisdom and find a strategic balance.

Moon Chung-in served as special advisor on unification, foreign affairs, and security in the Moon administration from Moon Jae-in’s inauguration until Feb. 14, when Moon Chung-in resigned from that post. The next day, he assumed his duties as chairman of the Sejong Institute, a three-year position.

Moon recently published a book titled “Moon Chung-in’s Scenarios for the Future,” in which he analyzes South Korea’s options in the era of COVID-19 and US-China conflict and predicts what choices it will make.

This interview took place in several phases, including an in-person interview at the Gwanghwamun office of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament on Feb. 18 and emails exchanged on Mar. 2 and Mar. 8.

Progress on the nuclear issue could open the door to human rights issues

Hankyoreh (Hani): The Biden administration appears to be focusing on human rights in its foreign policy. How should South Korea respond to that?

Moon Chung-in (Moon): Powerful though the US may be, it can’t resolve North Korea’s human rights issue and its nuclear issue at the same time. It has to make a choice. If the US prioritizes the human rights issue, North Korea will move to expand its nuclear arsenal on the grounds that the US is toughening its ‘policy of hostility.’ In that case, the US would achieve neither of its goals. The nuclear issue can’t be resolved through ‘megaphone diplomacy’ that stresses human rights. On the other hand, if progress on the nuclear issue leads to partial sanctions relief and more person-to-person exchange, it could open the door to improving North Korean human rights.

Hani: What would you say are the keys of the Biden administration’s foreign policy as evidenced thus far?

Moon: The keys are multilateralism, recovering American leadership, restoring alliances, and foreign policy for the middle class. While multilateralism and restoring alliances are a complete reversal from Trump’s foreign policy, the middle class focus is in line with Trump. Foreign policy for the middle class means conducting foreign policy with the goal of benefiting the lives of the American middle class. We need to keep an eye on that.

Hani: The Biden administration’s foreign policy is likely to be focused on China policy.

Moon: There was an interesting piece in the New York Times that pointed to the “three Cs” of cooperation, competition and confrontation. I think Biden will implement a multifaceted China policy in which all three concepts operate simultaneously. There will be cooperation with China in the areas of climate change, infectious disease, weapons of mass destruction, and the North Korean nuclear issue; competition with China in weapons and technology; and confrontation with China in geopolitics and values. While seeking cooperation with China on the North Korean nuclear issue, the US will attempt to block China’s expansion by reinforcing alliances in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Korean Peninsula, and the Straits of Taiwan; the US will also take a very tough stance on the issues of Hong Kong and the Uighurs. Significantly, the Biden administration’s strategy of containing China by strengthening alliances in terms of values (the D10 club of democracies) and geopolitics (Quad and Quad Plus) could narrow South Korea’s options.

Hani: What do you see as the direction of US-China relations and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s strategy toward the US?

Moon: In simple terms, US-China competition will occur on four fronts: geopolitics (a strategic arms race), geoeconomics (the tariff war, unfair trade, and currency competition), techno-nationalism, and democracy and human rights. The US will be applying immense pressure, but China won’t give in without a fight. Xi Jinping thinks the Biden administration won’t be much different from the Trump administration. Xi seems to be preparing for the “protracted war” spoken of by Mao Zedong.

Hani: How important are US-China relations for the Korean Peninsula peace process?

Moon: Peace on the Korean Peninsula isn’t possible until we’ve resolved the North Korean nuclear issue, and for that, Chinese cooperation is absolutely essential. In the end, there need to be good relations between the US and China. Paradoxically, it might be possible to create an opportunity for US-China cooperation in the process of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and building a peace regime.

Hani: What choice should South Korea make?

Moon: Let’s say, for example, that South Korea took part in Quad Plus. If US-China relations deteriorated, the US could ask Seoul for permission to deploy another THAAD battery on the Korean Peninsula or forward deploy intermediate-range missiles aimed at China. That would put South Korea in a position of either wrecking relations with the US if it refuses or wrecking relations with China if it agrees. If China detects hostility from South Korea and decides it has sided with the US, China could set up a trilateral alliance with North Korea and Russia and could resume conventional military aid to North Korea, which it halted in the early 1990s. That would make South Korea’s security environment much worse. There’s a critical need for creative diplomacy to prevent the development of a new cold war between the US and China.

”There’s a critical need for creative diplomacy”

Hani: How do you think North Korean leader Kim Jong-un regards this situation?

Moon: Kim has repeatedly expressed his willingness to improve relations with the US. My understanding is that, even now, he hopes for negotiations and dialogue with the Biden administration. But if the Biden administration disregards or dismisses North Korea’s demands, the North will be forced to move toward China. That would create grave difficulties for inter-Korean relations and a peace regime.

Hani: Kim has held off on military actions, including missile test launches, since the second half of last year. Do you think he’ll stick to that stance?

Moon: Since Kim declared the “completion of the state’s nuclear capability” [on Nov. 29, 2017], he doesn’t seem to have any reason to carry out a military provocation in order to get the US’s attention. I think he’ll stay on the same path for the time being. But there are limits to how long even Kim is willing to wait. Both South Korea and the US need to move quickly in order to prevent a rerun of the crisis in 2017.

Hani: How is the Biden administration’s review of North Korea policy going?

Moon: Since his inauguration, Biden hasn’t made any critical remarks about North Korea. But also notable is the fact that not a single person is openly talking about negotiations either. A fierce debate is underway between those who advocate step-by-step negotiations and the hardliners who think that sanctions should be maintained until the North dismantles its nuclear program. The final decision will be made by Biden, no doubt. But there are three variables, the first two being what North Korea will do and how well the South Korean government can make its case. The third variable is Japan.

Hani: Is Japan such an important variable?

Moon: The Biden administration has repeatedly emphasized that it values Japan and wants to strengthen alliances. But Japan not only prioritizes the issue of the Japanese abductees and insists on the primacy of North Korea’s CVID [complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization], but also argues that North Korea needs to halt all ballistic missile tests, including short-range missiles, while the US focuses on long-range missiles. If Japan’s position gets more of a hearing, it could make trilateral cooperation with the US and South Korea more difficult.

Hani: What do you think about the message to Japan that President Moon Jae-in made in his speech on the March 1 Independence Movement?

Moon: President Moon called for strengthening forward-looking cooperation while taking time to deal with historical issues that involve victims. That’s a position he’s consistently espoused. His remark about restoring cooperation with Japan in order to revitalize Korea-US-Japan relations is both a response to the US and a request for Japan to take part in constructive dialogue. Furthermore, Moon proposed taking the Tokyo Olympics as an opportunity for improving relations between North Korea and Japan, South and North Korea, and North Korea and the US, with the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, held in Feb. 2018, as a role model. He seems to be saying that the Olympics can be used to create new conditions for peace.

Hani: Is there anything you’d like to add as we wrap up?

Moon: It wouldn’t be wise for the Biden administration to start over from scratch. A good starting point would be the joint statement reached by the US and North Korea in Singapore on June 12, 2018, in which they agreed to the normalization of relations, the creation of a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula, and the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Given Biden’s 36 years of experience in the US Senate, he’s fully accustomed to resolving issues through dialogue and negotiations. I think he’ll be more interested in pragmatic solutions than virtue signaling. That’s what I’m counting on.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

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

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