South Korea’s Moon Still Pushing for Talks with North Korea

16 January 2020

South Korea recently gave a message to North Korea from the United States.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un turned 36 years old last week. So the South offered to pass along U.S. President Donald Trump's birthday greetings to Kim.

The move was small, but South Korean officials hope that the birthday wishes could help restart talks between the North and the U.S. government.

However, the offer did not go as planned. North Korea's foreign ministry announced on Saturday it had already received the birthday message. It criticized the South Korean move as a "presumptuous" attempt to become involved in relations between Trump and Kim.

North Korea also made fun of the South for trying to play the part of a mediator.

Over the past year, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has repeatedly attempted to ease tensions with the North Korean government. But the North has largely ignored Moon's efforts.

These results are a severe disappointment to Moon, whose contacts with Kim helped ease the path for the first meeting between the North Korean and U.S. leaders. They met in Singapore in June 2018.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018. Korea Summit Press Pool/Pool via Reuters TPX I
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018. Korea Summit Press Pool/Pool via Reuters TPX I

Hoo Chiew-ping is a Korea expert who is based in Malaysia. He said that Moon is trying to save his peace policy with North Korea, which he considers his legacy. Hoo added, "That legacy is now in ruins."

Moon and Kim met three times in 2018. They agreed to a series of economic and military cooperation projects. The goal was to build trust and, in time, begin the long process of uniting North and South Korea.

However, Moon has not been able to enact most of the agreements because North Korea has refused to limit its nuclear activities. U.S. and United Nations sanctions bar countries from most economic cooperation with the North, such as building railroads.

Since the suspension of nuclear talks, North Korea has strongly criticized the South for not acting on the proposed projects.

What will Moon do?

As South Korea prepares for parliamentary elections in April, there are signs Moon could push for parts of the inter-Korean agreements.

Speaking to reporters at a New Year's press conference, Moon suggested that South Korea could restart tourist visits to the North even with sanctions in place.

In a speech last week, Moon urged his government to work toward restarting two inter-Korean projects that have been suspended for years. They are the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Mount Kumgang resort.

Last week, a South Korean Unification Ministry official said, the "South will expand room for maneuvers and move forward things that can be carried out independently as much as possible."

International sanctions do not ban tourism to North Korea. But they do bar joint businesses and other investment projects.

Henri Feron is with the Center for International Policy. He said that South Korea can point to Chinese tourism in North Korea as an example of economic contact.

"China is flooding North Korea with tourists. It's understandable that South Korea would want to restore its own economic leverage in North Korea," Feron said.

However, after the Moon administration's comments last week, U.S. officials noted the importance of observing international restrictions on the North. The State Department told VOA that all U.N. members are required to follow U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions.

Politics in South Korea

But South Korean domestic politics have influenced Moon's recent comments.

In recent weeks, sides that support increased ties with the North and those that oppose them have urged Moon to change his policy.

Kim Joon Kyung heads South Korea's National Diplomatic Academy. He said it is time for Moon to seek a "breakthrough."

Also, those who want strong action against the North are voicing anger at Moon's efforts to ease relations.

The South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo published an opinion piece that said "Most people have lost count of the snubs and insults" from North Korea.

At the same time, South Koreans appear to be divided on how to deal with their nuclear-armed northern neighbor.

The South Korean opinion research company Realmeter recently released a survey on the issue. It found that 28 percent of South Koreans support Moon's current policy. Twenty-five percent wanted the government to make more compromises, while 36 percent wanted stronger measures against North Korea.

Moon's own ratings have fallen from over 80 percent when he first met Kim to below 50 percent.

Speaking about North Korea's reaction to the U.S. birthday message, Moon raised the issue of the possibility of talks.

"North Korea received the [birthday] letter and gave a swift response," Moon said. He added, "It made clear that the door is not yet closed for talks."

I'm Mario Ritter, Jr.

Bill Gallo reported this story for VOA News. Mario Ritter Jr. adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

presumptuous – adj. failing to observe the limits of what is acceptable

mediator – n. someone who works with opposing sides to get an agreement in a dispute

disappointment – n. dissatisfaction

legacy –n. something that is left to those in the future

sanctions – n. restrictions meant to cause a country to obey international law, usually involving trade

resort – n. a place for vacationers or recreation

maneuver – n. a skillful action or movement

tourism – n. the industry of providing services for foreign visitors

leverage – n. influence or power to get a result

snub – n. to ignore someone in a purposeful and insulting way