Just hours before South Korean President Moon Jae-in was set to appear in his first televised interview with a local broadcaster on May 9 marking his second anniversary of presidency, North Korea fired two short-range missiles.
The surprising move came less than a week after it launched multiple projectiles into the East Sea on May 4.
During what could have been a celebratory interview looking back on his past two years, Moon warned the North that such military actions would only heighten tensions on the Korean Peninsula. But he appeared cautious to call it a “provocation” and lightly touched on the possibilities of Pyongyang violating inter-Korean agreements and UN resolutions.
The liberal president, who favors engagement with North Korea, has earned the title of “negotiator,” as he brought the leaders of North Korea and the United States into the nuclear dialogue in the last two years.
But after the talks between Washington and Pyongyang collapsed, only confirming the gap in positions at the Hanoi summit in February, Moon is now faced with the daunting task of breaking the impasse.
“It is not easy, but the Moon Administration should be more proactive in the nuclear talks,” a government official who refused to be named, told The Korea Herald, pointing that the government appears to be struggling not to get on the nerves of North, while trying to persuade the US.
Moving on from historical summits
Soon after he kicked off his presidency in May 2017, Moon has actively sought to engage with North Korea by having it participate in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
The reconciliatory mood spread quickly, and he became the first president to hold three summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and crossed the Military Demarcation Line to visit Pyongyang. Amid the diplomatic thaw also came the unprecedented summit between US President Donald Trump and Kim.
The two Korean leaders became signatories of two joint declarations in Panmujom and Pyongyang in 2018, which vowed cessation of military hostilities, increase of inter-Korean exchanges and denuclearization of North Korea.
But a year later, little progress has been made and Pyongyang’s resumption of military activities have reminded how easily such diplomatic efforts can be toppled by the communist regime.
On May 4, North Korea fired multiple projectiles into the East Sea, calling it a “regular strike drill.” Five days later, it launched projectiles again, which Seoul confirmed as “short-range missiles.”
The South Korean government, however, did not clarify whether they were ballistic or cruise missiles, seemingly reluctant to admit that the North violated United Nations Security Council resolutions that ban it from launching any type of ballistic missiles.
Instead of condemning Pyongyang for firing missiles aimed at almost all parts of South Korea in the range of about 500 kilometers, the Moon Administration is taking a “low-key” approach, while moving to provide food aid.
The South Korean government decided to donate $8 million to international agencies, including World Food Program, for aid projects in North Korea on May. 17.
On the same day, the government also allowed a group of South Korean business owners to visit the Kaesong industrial park in North Korea to check their assets that were been left behind since it closed abruptly in February 2016.
“I think the government is expecting that Pyongyang will be more sincere in summits if we provide humanitarian aid,” Shin Beom-chul, a senior researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies told The Korea Herald.
“While humanitarian aid is needed, (the government) should be cautious in believing that the North would change.”
Pyongyang remains unresponsive to requests from Seoul, and appears to be oblivious of the promises it made in the inter-Korean agreements.
While the two Koreas agreed to start a joint recovery project of war remains in the Arrowhead Ridge on April 1, it is now being carried out only on the south. Other plans that did not designate a deadline, such as hosting regular reunion events for separated families of the North and South, are being delayed.
“Judging from the North Korean actions since Hanoi, Kim is not interested in improving inter-Korean ties,” Jung Pak, a senior fellow and the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies at the Brookings Institution said.
A senior official from a government research institute, who refused to be named, said that the situation is unfavorable for the Moon Administration.
“Economic cooperation is virtually impossible without approval from the US, as sanctions are in place,” the official said.
“To keep Pyongyang in the dialogue, (Seoul) can take measures such as providing humanitarian aid and, maybe suggest holding joint sports events or historical excavations — though North Korea will likely not take those options.”
“Frankly speaking, I do not think there is much the current administration can do.”
Shin of Asan Institute said the government should demonstrate that it has strong principles.
“As a liberal government, it can continue to try to engage with North Korea. But it is crucial that it recognizes that the nuclear talks prolong,” Shin said.
“(The government should) open dialogue channels for our security interests, but make sure that it strictly demands denuclearization and enforces sanctions,” Shin said.
The North Korean leader has set a year-end deadline for nuclear negotiations in his parliamentary speech in April.
To break the impasse, Moon should provide a mediated settlement that can persuade both Washington and Pyongyang, said former Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok, who served under former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun.
“Kim is planning long-term economic development plans and has made investments with a goal of rapid growth,” Lee said in an interview with local magazine Shindonga on Sunday. He stressed the role of South Korea to mediate talks that will make the North change its attitude.
“North Korea already said it can give up the Yongbyon nuclear facility (in the Hanoi summit). Adding all other facilities related to nuclear arms and intercontinental missiles would work (for sanctions relief),” Lee said
According to a local poll conducted by Realmeter, 52.2 percent of 505 respondents supported the Moon Administration’s North Korea policy, while 44.7 percent opposed it.
The poll conducted on May 7, was released on May 8.