Solution to Korean nuclear crisis needs to start in Korea
New leader Moon Jae-in well placed to bring pieces together, with help of China and US
South Korea’s new president Moon Jae-in: by engaging with all of the actors in the crisis, he is well positioned to bring all the pieces into place. Photograph: Jung Yeon-Je/Reuters
South Korean leader Moon Jae-in’s energetic first days in office, engaging with all the actors in the nuclear crisis bedevilling the Korean Peninsula, has been a reminder that any fix has to at least start with Korea itself.
In the months leading up to Moon’s ascent to the Blue House in Seoul, the North ramped up its nuclear programme with missile tests, US president Donald Trump threatened to step up military action and pressure grew on Pyongyang’s ally China to intervene to solve the problem.
A key element missing from talk of a solution has been South Korea. The country was without a president, as Moon’s predecessor Park Geun-hye had been impeached and jailed and acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn had no real mandate.
No one is saying the crisis can be fixed without multilateral involvement, particularly the US and China, but it has to start with Korea.
“Especially now, when North Korea’s relationship with China is at a nadir, the natural outlet for diplomacy is with South Korea,” said John Delury, an associate professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul.
Pyongyang has continually used fear of attack by the US to justify its nuclear weapons programme. Washington will have to be a key part of any solution, as will China, which continues to prop up the North’s economy.
“US support for Seoul’s initiative will be a critical ingredient in success. For a serious nuclear deal, the United States has to be at the table. But in the meantime, and to help along the process, the new government here in Seoul can play an essential role as catalyst – a role that has been sorely lacking for nearly a decade,” said Delury.
Moon has not been trying to lull anyone into a false sense of security, and recently warned that conflict was likely with North Korea along the land and sea border, despite efforts to make peace.
“It’s like a pilot who tells the passengers to put on their seatbelts before the turbulence hits rather than after the plane starts rocking,” said Delury.
Paul Haenle, a former White House national security council official who now directs the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing, said Moon’s election highlights the importance of South Korea’s role in resolving the issue.
“Given South Korea’s geography, historical and cultural connections, it has a special and unique role to play in this issue,” said Haenle.
“One of the reasons this issue is so challenging is that no one country can solve it alone, and getting all countries’ interests and policies aligned is exceedingly difficult,” said Haenle.
Relations between China and North Korea are at a low point.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Chinese president Xi Jinping have never met – the first instance of the leaders of North Korea and China not meeting since they established ties in 1949 as ideological allies.
Three of the North’s five nuclear tests have taken place during Xi’s administration, a huge irritant to the Chinese leader, and Kim’s government seemingly ignores any warnings.
In February, China banned coal imports from North Korea, a body blow as coal makes up 34 per cent of North Korea’s exports to China.
Although the Pyongyang-Beijing axis is under strain, Beijing’s fraught relations with Seoul could be about to improve.
Moon has indicated that he is prepared to review the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) anti-missile system that the Chinese believe will interfere with the regional balance.
Moon received a lengthy congratulatory phone call from Xi, and his envoys were warmly received at China’s biggest foreign policy event of the year, the One Belt, One Road forum in Beijing last week.
A meeting between Moon and Xi could happen as early as July at a Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, according to Seoul’s envoy to China, Lee Hae-chan. A separate meeting could also be possible in August.
There are signs of possible strains between Washington and Seoul, after Trump said the South Koreans should pay for Thaad and warned he might scrap a trade deal.
Moon is aware that he needs to align his approach to North Korea with Washington, but so far the signs are positive.
Matthew Pottinger, Asia director on the US national security council, recently held a successful visit to set out the terms for a summit in Washington soon.
Moon is well positioned to bring all the pieces into place, as only a responsible neighbour can.