SEOUL – South Korean President Moon Jae-in has a message for the United States: President Biden must engage with North Korea now.
In an interview with the New York Times, Moon urged the US leader to start negotiations with the government of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un after two years in which diplomatic progress stalled, or even reversed. Denuclearization, the South Korean president said, was a “matter of survival” for his country.
He also urged the United States to cooperate with China on North Korea and other issues of global concern, including climate change. The deterioration of relations between the superpowers, he said, could undermine any negotiations on denuclearization.
“If the tensions between the United States and China escalate, North Korea can take advantage and benefit from it,” Moon said.
It was partly a plea, partly a sales pitch from Mr. Moon, who sat down with The Times as the United States tries to rebuild relations in the region in a bid to counter the influence of China and North Korea to strengthen its nuclear arsenal. Mr. Moon, who is due to meet with Biden next month in Washington, appears poised to resume the role of mediator between the two sides.
In the interview, Mr. Moon was proud of his skillful diplomatic maneuvers in 2018, when he pushed the two unpredictable leaders of North Korea and the United States to meet in person. He was also pragmatic, tacitly acknowledging that his work to achieve denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula has since collapsed.
President Donald J. Trump left office without removing a single North Korean nuclear warhead. Mr. Kim resumed weapons testing.
“He beat around the bush and failed to get through it,” Moon said of Mr. Trump’s efforts on North Korea. “The most important starting point for both governments is to have the will to dialogue and to sit down face to face as soon as possible.”
Now in his final year in office, Mr. Moon is determined to start all over again – and knows he faces a very different leader in Mr. Biden.
Mr. Moon capitalized on Mr. Trump’s style, emphasizing personality-driven “top-down diplomacy” through one-on-one meetings with Mr. Kim. Mr Biden, he said, was returning to the traditional “bottom-up” approach in which negotiators haggle over details before seeking approval from their bosses.
“I hope Biden will remain as a historic president who has made substantial and irreversible progress towards complete denuclearization and a peace settlement on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said in the interview with Sangchunjae, a traditional hanok on the grounds of the executive residence, Blue House.
Mr. Moon’s visit to Washington comes at a crucial time. The Biden administration is completing its review of North Korea’s policy, one of the most pressing geopolitical issues for the United States.
Mr. Biden began to overturn many of his predecessor’s foreign policy decisions. But Mr. Moon warned that it would be a mistake to kill off the 2018 Singapore Accord between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim, which set broad goals for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
“I believe if we build on what President Trump left behind, we will see this effort come to fruition under Biden’s leadership,” he said.
Moon called on the United States and North Korea to move in “gradual and phased” steps towards denuclearization, “simultaneously” exchanging concessions and incentives along the way. It was a well-worn script for Mr. Moon, who occasionally paused during the interview to refer to his notes and punctuated his speech with small, resolute hand gestures.
Some former US negotiators and Mr. Moon’s conservative critics reject such a strategy, saying North Korea would slow down and undermine international sanctions, Washington’s best lever against the impoverished country. In his annual threat assessment released last week, the director of national intelligence for the United States said that Mr. Kim “believes that over time he will gain the acceptance and respect of the international community as a nuclear power”.
But Mr. Moon’s team argues that the phased approach is the most realistic, albeit flawed. According to its administration, North Korea would never give up its arsenal in one quick deal, lest the regime lose its only bargaining chip with Washington.
The key, Moon said, is for the United States and North Korea to develop a “mutually reliable roadmap”.
American negotiators under Mr. Trump never got to this point. The two sides could not even agree on a first step for the North and what reward Washington would offer in return.
Mr. Moon is striving not only to save his “Korean Peninsula peace process” but also arguably his greatest diplomatic legacy.
As his North Korean policy faltered, critics called him a naive pacifist who gambled too much on Mr. Kim’s unproven commitment to denuclearization.
“His good intentions had bad consequences,” said Kim Sung-han, a professor at Korea University. “His mediation has not worked and we have no progress in denuclearization. His time is running out. “
Since the negotiations have stalled, Mr. Moon’s problems at home have grown. His approval ratings have plunged to record levels amid real estate and other scandals. This month, angry voters inflicted crushing defeats on his Democratic Party in mayoral elections in South Korea’s two largest cities.
It’s a fortuitous turn of fortune since the start of his administration, when Mr. Moon turned a frightening geopolitical crisis into a signature political initiative.
“When I took office in 2017, we were really concerned about the possibility of war breaking out again on the Korean Peninsula,” he said.
Four days into its tenure, North Korea launched its Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile which it said could target Hawaii and Alaska. Then the North tested a hydrogen bomb and three intercontinental ballistic missiles. In response, Mr. Trump threatened “with fire and fury” as groups of US Navy carriers marched to the peninsula.
Mr. Moon’s first diplomatic victory came when Mr. Kim accepted his invitation to send a delegation to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Soon after, Mr. Moon met Mr. Kim at the heavily armed Inter-Korean border.
During the meeting, Moon said the North Korean dictator hinted that disarmament was a real possibility. “If security can be guaranteed without nuclear weapons, why would it be difficult for me to keep them even at the cost of sanctions?” Mr. Moon recalled that Mr. Kim had said.
He said he made the speech to Mr. Trump, imploring him to meet with Mr. Kim. At their made-for-television summit in Singapore, Mr. Trump pledged “security guarantees” for North Korea, while Mr. Kim pledged to “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
“It is clearly an achievement for President Trump to have organized the very first summit meeting between North Korea and the United States,” he said.
But Mr. Moon also lamented that Mr. Trump never followed through, after saying “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” When Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump met again in 2019 in Hanoi, Vietnam, negotiations went nowhere and the men left with no agreement on how to move the Singapore deal forward.
While Mr. Moon was careful to praise Mr. Trump, he also seemed frustrated with the former president’s erratic behavior and Twitter’s diplomacy. Mr. Trump has canceled or reduced the annual joint military exercises the United States conducts with the South and demanded what Mr. Moon called an “excessive amount” to keep 28,500 American troops in South Korea.
Mr Moon said he decided to put negotiations on the so-called defense cost-sharing agreement on hold in the final months of his tenure. South Korea was prepared to pay more, given its growing economic size, but Mr. Trump’s demands violated the foundation of relations between the two countries.
“His request lacked reasonable and rational calculation,” Mr. Moon said.
The fact, he said, that Washington and Seoul could strike a deal within 46 days of Mr. Biden’s inauguration was “clear testimony to the importance President Biden attaches to” the alliance.
Moon is optimistic about the progress the new US leader can make on North Korea, although any meaningful progress may be unrealistic, given deep mistrust between Washington and Pyongyang.
Mr Biden said last month that he was “ready for some form of diplomacy” with North Korea, but that “it must be conditioned on the end result of denuclearization.”
North Korea offered ideas on a phased approach starting with the demolition of its only known nuclear test site, followed by the dismantling of a rocket motor test facility and the Yongbyon nuclear complex north of Pyongyang.
Mr Moon said he believed such measures, if paired with US concessions, could lead to the withdrawal of the North’s most valuable assets, such as ICBMs. In this scenario, he said, the movement towards complete denuclearization becomes “irreversible”.
“This dialogue and diplomacy can lead to denuclearization,” he said. “If both sides learn from the failure of Hanoi and come together for more realistic ideas, I am confident they can find a solution.”