►Setting aside the North’s unprecedented concentration of missile tests this year, its renewed emphasis on tactical nuclear weapons, whose primary target is South Korea, is a bad sign for inter-Korean relations.
► Engagement with North Korea will succeed only if we start with issues that are politically nonsensitive and of interest to Pyongyang, such as humanitarian cooperation or best practices in climate change.
► By slightly recasting its North Korea policy, the Yoon administration could achieve meaningful – however small – progress with North Korea at the government level. At the same time, it could help carve out a safer - and larger - space in which civil society can operate in order to engage the North.
Whither we should go with North Korea is one of the most polarizing policy questions in Seoul and Washington, but experts are in rare agreement on one thing: that Pyongyang will not return to the negotiating table until it has attained all or at least the key five-year defense development goals it outlined during the Eighth Party Congress in January 2021.
Setting aside the North’s unprecedented concentration of missile tests this year, its renewed emphasis on tactical nuclear weapons, whose primary target is South Korea, is a bad sign for inter-Korean relations. Pyongyang’s official recognition of the two Ukrainian breakaway provinces – a remarkable move that in effect ended its careful 30-year balancing act between the West, China and Russia – also reflects Pyongyang’s perception of the choppy waters it must navigate, a reality characterized by a deep political divide with the US, South Korea and Japan on one side, and China and Russia on the other. Again, not great news for anyone waiting for North Korea’s return to the nuclear negotiating table anytime soon.
It is almost a certainty that Pyongyang’s foreign policy calculations and its outlook on the strategic environment in Northeast Asia were at least in part shaped by the advent of South Korea’s conservative Yoon Suk-yeol administration. North Korea traditionally has not taken well to conservative South Korean governments, which tend to take a harder-line approach to Pyongyang and place emphasis on its relations with the US and Japan. The North has voiced disdain for Yoon’s North Korea policy, likening it to former President Lee Myung-bak’s “Vision 3000, Denuclearization, Openness policy,” which envisioned offering economic benefits to Pyongyang in exchange for denuclearization and opening up. Kim Jong Un’s rare criticism of a South Korean president by name during his recent War Veterans Day speech was a clear signal of where Pyongyang stands on the Yoon government.
To be sure, there are elements of concern in Yoon’s North Korea policy from Pyongyang’s perspective, not least of which is the focus on the complete denuclearization of North Korea and keeping international sanctions intact until that has been achieved. The Yoon government’s emphasis on principle and reciprocity is likely also a thorn in the side for North Korea, especially after five years of dealing with the Moon Jae-in administration, whose top policy priority was to improve inter-Korea ties. Furthermore, North Korea is no doubt keeping a suspicious eye on the Yoon administration's moves to establish a North Korean Human Rights Foundation, a project that the preceding Moon government let slide into oblivion.
A closer look at the Yoon government’s North Korea policy, however, shows that, underneath the language about denuclearization, reciprocity in inter-Korean relations and human rights, there is still room for the two Koreas to find common ground. And as is typical with two parties that are at sharp odds over political issues, it starts with cultural exchange and cooperation on problems of common concern. The Yoon government’s policy is to promote mutual understanding, communication and exchange between the two Koreas irrespective of the political climate prevailing on the Korean Peninsula. Examples include mutually allowing access to the other’s mass media, facilitating people-to-people exchanges in the cultural sector and crafting joint responses to fine dust, natural disasters and climate change (dubbed inter-Korean “green detente”).
Engagement with North Korea will succeed only if we start with issues that are politically nonsensitive and of interest to Pyongyang, such as humanitarian cooperation or best practices in climate change. This is not a question of acceding to North Korea – in order to promote dialogue and ease tensions in times of conflict, we need to identify a practicable starting point, one that can work for both sides. We may expand to outreach on the more sensitive issues such as security and human rights, but we can think of advancing to that next level only after trust has been built through dialogue and cooperation on less politically sensitive issues.
In that vein, the South Korean Unification Ministry’s recent unveiling of a plan to gradually lift a decades-long ban on public access to North Korean print and broadcast media is a significant first step toward cooperation and engagement in areas where possible, despite Seoul’s and Pyongyang’s political differences. This latest move by the Yoon administration is reassuring for members of civil society dedicated to engaging the North. First, it shows that the Yoon administration is serious about following through on its promise to promote inter-Korean reconciliation where possible. Second, it shows that Seoul’s policy of creating an atmosphere of reconciliation despite the persisting nuclear problem can actually help create a favorable environment for those individuals and organizations working with North Korea.
That said, to maximize the opportunity for engagement at a government or civil society level, the Yoon government might consider taking a slightly different approach to how it presents the quid pro quo for North Korea’s denuclearization. The Yoon administration has consistently said that it could provide economic assistance to North Korea if it started to take substantial steps toward denuclearization. Rather than emphasizing the economic aspects of denuclearization, it could consider facilitating Washington’s security assurances for Pyongyang. The Yoon government pledged to establish a joint South Korea-North Korea-US joint liaison office in Panmunjom or Washington to operate a regular trilateral dialogue channel. A more tangible and practical proposal could help expedite North Korea’s return to the negotiating table.
It should also be noted that for dialogue or projects with North Korea to be successful, they should not be cast in the light of providing economic assistance but rather how we all may benefit from cooperation and dialogue. While the Yoon administration’s position on decoupling humanitarian assistance from denuclearization is well-intentioned, it may be even better to propose longer-term humanitarian cooperation rather than one-time ad hoc offers of help. For example, instead of offering vaccines, Seoul could consider proposing a project that could fundamentally reshape North Korea’s public health care system.
By slightly recasting its North Korea policy, the Yoon administration could achieve meaningful – however small – progress with North Korea at the government level. At the same time, it could help carve out a safer - and larger - space in which civil society can operate in order to engage the North.
After all, while governments and civil society each have their own areas of expertise and move in different circles, we have one shared goal: defusing tensions and achieving peace on and around the Korean Peninsula.