South Korea’s Moon Jae-In Continues to Push for a Peaceful Korean Peninsula
The Korean Peninsula is one of the most volatile regions in the world. While the two Koreas largely maintain a position of “de facto ‘peaceful’ coexistence”, reconciliation between the two states in any meaningful way relies on reunification and the de-escalation of nuclear confrontation between the US and North Korea. Today, reunification and the neutralisation of military threats from the North is of utmost importance to global security. South Korean President Moon Jae-In has been vocal of his intention to achieve reunification without absorbing the North, first by securing peace and then by denuclearising the Peninsula. Moon has achieved some notable milestones during his presidency. However, with less than a year left of his term remaining, recent setbacks may mean that it is possible he will leave office with the North-South relationship severely damaged. If the history of inter-Korean conflict is anything to go by, any success is likely to be short-lived unless the states can halt the cycle of crisis diplomacy.
A Brief History of Inter-Korean Relations
Inter-Korean tensions have been brewing for over 70 years. Following Korea’s independence and the end of World War II, a temporary division of the Korean Peninsula was announced. By 1948, the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had been established. The divide was soon solidified, with each government having declared a claim to the entire peninsula. These mutual claims resulted in a war breaking out between the states from 1950 to 1953, following from which an armistice was reached, and a demilitarised zone (DMZ) established across the peninsula.
Following the war, little to no communication took place between the states. A reconfiguration of Cold War dynamics in East Asia led Seoul and Pyongyang to re-initiate contact. Small signs pointed towards possible diplomatic progress with the establishment of the July 4 Communiqué in 1972. The two states maintained an “on again, off again” relationship for the next two decades, culminating in a series of successful talks that led to various agreements on reconciliation and denuclearisation. This was followed by the ascension of both states to the UN in late 1992. However, this streak of cooperation did not last long. Just as North Korea was opening its borders to external forces in the 1990s, a nuclear standoff with the US once again led Pyongyang to deploy isolationist policies.
The states held their first official summit in 2000. Then South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung labelled it as an attempt to resolve the “Cold-War style of South-North relations”. This was an opportunity for the states to increase cooperation, interdependency and resolve ongoing military conflicts. As a result of the summit, trade routes connecting the two states were established. Ties were also improved through the development of the inter-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), which enabled the South to provide aid to the North, and was also a means of reunifying families divided by the war. Nevertheless, despite this assistance from the South, North Korea continued to develop their nuclear program — a move that clearly indicated a lack of a genuine attempt, on their part, to establish a productive relationship. Before long, the states returned to their turbulent relationship, with the North declaring all inter-Korean agreements to be nullified.
By 2013, both states were under new leadership. North Korea continued to conduct nuclear tests and, in an attempt to counter pressure from US military forces, had declared a “state of war” with South Korea. A small breakthrough came in late 2013 when the South enacted the Trustpolitik policy. However, after an incident in 2015 left two soldiers in the DMZ “seriously injured”, and with the North continuing to conduct nuclear tests, the KIC was shut down by the South and sanctions were tightened. To President Kim Jong-Un’s dismay, the South strengthened diplomatic and military ties with the US and Japan. By the time Moon came into office, the Korean Peninsula was no more stable than it was at the end of the war in 1953.
Moon Jae-in’s Pledge for Reconciliation
As this brief history demonstrates, South Korea’s current President Moon Jae-in has inherited a plethora of complex political issues. Following his inauguration in May 2017, Moon announced his intentions to restart the Korean Peninsula Peace Process and “return to [the] spirit where the South and the North together worked towards reali[s]ing a peaceful peninsula.” Moon’s plan was looking to be fruitful early on in his term. The threat induced by the North’s six nuclear tests and various military drills throughout 2017 had been neutralised by two inter-Korean summits and, in 2018, the very first North Korea-US summit. In that same year, Moon and Kim Jong-Un negotiated the Pyongyang Joint Declaration and the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula, jointly declaring that there would be “no more war and a [that a] new era of peace [was beginning] on the Korean peninsula”.
However, this claim proved to be premature. Negotiations failed between US President Trump and Kim in an early 2019 summit that also stalled inter-Korean communication. In June 2020, North-Korean defectors and activists sent anti-Pyongyang balloons and pamphlets across the border. This prompted a threat from Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korea’s leader, that the North would cut ties altogether. A few days later, Pyongyang terminated all channels of communication and demolished the Kaesong Inter-Korean liaison office. This was a clear message that any progress made so far was on rocky ground.
There’s hope yet…?
Moon’s Presidential term is set to end in March 2022. Polling trends suggest he will be replaced by a conservative leader who is likely to take a more combative stance against the North, leaving little time to fulfil his election promise of a peaceful inter-Korean relationship. If the past is anything to go by, Moon needs to act swiftly to capitalise on any goodwill he has established. The options available for him to re-establish communications are even narrower today, given that US President Biden has no active intentions to engage with North Korean representatives and potential pathways to dialogue continue to be cut off. Nonetheless, Moon has relentlessly pursued his goal, having proudly announced last month that he had been exchanging letters with Kim since April 2021. In corresponding statements, both states announced an intention to recover mutual trust, marking the first inter-Korean communication in 12 months.
It appears Pyongyang is now open to resuming some level of diplomacy. However, it is still too premature to determine whether any tangible results can be achieved in the near future. North Korea has been largely quiet over the last year, focusing instead on domestic issues. The North Korean economy has contracted over 4.5 per cent during this time — the largest downturn under Kim — and he has expressed an aversion to participating in talks until the UN’s, US’ and EU’s sanctions are lifted. Crisis diplomacy has become a vicious cycle in the Peninsula. It has not resulted in any long-term successes thus far, suggesting that summitry with North Korea may be a lost cause. Regardless of whether it is too late to reach a concrete inter-Korean agreement before the end of his term, Moon’s commitment to achieving reconciliation could establish a foundation for future leaders working towards peace.
Chloe Marriott is currently studying a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) and a Bachelor of Global Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia and has engaged in study abroad programs at the University of Leeds (United Kingdom) and Monash University Malaysia. Chloe is the Young Diplomats Society's regional correspondent for East Asia and holds a strong interest in the future of global leadership and the cultural and historical complexities of the region.