The Koreas are talking again — Moon is for real, but what about Kim?
The Koreas have announced measures to restore cross-border talks and links. For the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, diplomacy could be about to take hold in the Korean Peninsula. Even better: The announcement by the two countries means that real, working-level negotiations toward an agreement, rather than made-for-TV, Trumpian summits, could lead to proper diplomacy in the Korean Peninsula.
We know that South Korean President Moon Jae-in is committed to inter-Korean negotiations. Ever since taking office, he has made clear that he sees diplomacy as the only path to promote reconciliation and peace between the Koreas. In his first summit with President Biden, Moon made North Korea his top priority.
Thankfully for Moon, the Biden administration has indicated repeatedly that it is open to engagement with Pyongyang. Even more relevant, Washington appears ready to take a realistic approach and settle for an arms control deal as a first step to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program. In exchange, the Biden administration would open the door to inter-Korean economic cooperation.
The problem, then, lies with Pyongyang.
North Korea truly has become a hermit kingdom since the pandemic hit, closing its borders and driving foreign diplomats and aid workers to leave the country. Pyongyang also has hurled all sorts of insults at Moon and Seoul more generally. And North Korea has been lukewarm at best in response to Biden’s diplomatic overtures.
So the question is whether North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is really interested in engagement between the two Koreas. The answer seems to be yes.
Surely a key reason that Pyongyang has decided to change its approach towards Seoul is its dire economic situation. Kim himself has confirmed reports of food shortages. North Korea apparently is yet to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, at least officially. And trade with China has ground to halt. Better relations with South Korea could mean aid and vaccines in the near future — as well as better economic prospects in the long run, if inter-Korean economic cooperation takes hold.
In addition, Kim is probably at least intrigued by Biden’s talk of diplomacy. This is no “strategic patience” redux, a policy whereby the Obama administration essentially neglected North Korea while in office. Inter-Korean economic relations won’t move forward unless Washington agrees to sanctions waivers that will allow for South Korean investment in the North. But the Biden administration is consulting on North Korea policy with Seoul, which former President Trump never did. Pyongyang, therefore, cannot play Washington against Seoul. It needs engagement with both countries if it is going to test Biden’s commitment to diplomacy.
With Biden and Moon seeking a diplomatic solution to the North Korean issue and Kim having good reasons of his own to seek negotiations, there is a window of opportunity for diplomacy. Certainly, North Korea has proved to be an unreliable negotiation partner. But Kim surely understands that only diplomacy can help North Korea leave behind the economic struggles exacerbated by the pandemic. So, whether out of a genuine belief in diplomacy or out of self-interest, Pyongyang is opening the door to diplomacy.
But, certainly, when it comes to North Korea, we have been here before. Every U.S. president since Bill Clinton has engaged in some sort of negotiation with North Korea. Pessimists will point out that there is no reason to think that any potential negotiation under Biden will produce a different outcome.
Optimists, however, will point out the rare combination of liberal administrations in Washington and Seoul, plus a pandemic that has changed North Korea’s calculus. Moon’s bet is that this combination can convince North Korea that diplomacy is the path it should take.
If this happens and the two Koreas kick-start a sustainable diplomatic process while Washington and Pyongyang also engage in talks, the scene would then be set for the new South Korean president taking office next year to also prioritize diplomacy. In other words, Moon hopes to create the conditions for his successor to have to follow his path — regardless of personal preferences.
The ball, thus, is in Pyongyang’s court. If Kim is really ready for diplomacy, as per North Korea’s announcement on Tuesday, Moon will respond. If he doesn’t, South Korea may turn away from negotiations for years to come.
Ramon Pacheco Pardo is KF-VUB Korea Chair at Vrije Universiteit Brussel and professor in International Relations at King’s College, London. Follow him on Twitter @rpachecopardo.