Moon to seek dialogue with N.K., but Pyongyang’s nukes limit his leeway

SEOUL-- Moon Jae-in, who is sure to win South Korea's presidential election, has vowed to restore engagement with North Korea and play an active role in diplomatic efforts to curb its nuclear weapons program, ending nearly a decade of frozen ties and strategic inertia, as he puts it, under his two conservative predecessors.

But his conciliatory ambitions face tough hurdles, experts said. The first benchmark for a dialogue-based approach would be for North Korea to freeze its nuclear and missile tests.

On the campaign trail, Moon vowed to seek a dual-track approach of pushing denuclearization and dialogue with Pyongyang.

"Moon will be willing to hold dialogue with North Korea. I believe North Korea's halt to refining its nuclear program would be a starting point from which Moon could implement his North Korea policy," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.

Inter-Korean relations frayed for nine years under the conservative administrations of Moon's two predecessors, including former President Park Geun-hye, who was ousted in March over corruption charges.

The late former liberal President Kim Dae-jung and his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, pursued an engagement policy with North Korea in 1998-2008, which led to vibrant inter-Korean reconciliatory projects.

Moon, a former chief of staff of Roh, is widely expected to continue such a policy to improve inter-Korean ties.

But the situation on the Korean Peninsula has markedly changed from what it was during Kim and Roh's leadership as the North's nuclear and missile programs have advanced.

Pyongyang conducted two nuclear tests last year alone, following those in 2006, 2009 and 2013, in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said in his News Year's message that his country has entered the final stage of preparing to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of hitting the United States.

"The new administration should first prompt North Korea to suspend its nuclear test and an ICBM launch if it hopes for better ties," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute. "There is a need to hold summits between both sides' leaders."

Experts stressed that Moon should fine-tune Seoul's stance with the U.S. to persuade the U.S. that his engagement policy would keep pace with the international sanctions regime.

Moon's assumption of the presidency came amid concerns that South Korea may be marginalized in the process of bringing peace to the peninsula as the U.S. and China appear to be taking the initiative in resolving the North Koren nuclear issue.

The U.S. said it aims to pressure North Korea into dismantling its nuclear and missile programs through sanctions while remaining open to dialogue. U.S. President Donald Trump is pressing China to rein in its unruly neighbor.

"Moon should send a special envoy to the U.S. as soon as possible to adjust the government's stance with the U.S.," Cheong said. "If the North pledges to halt an ICBM test, the U.S. would probably understand Seoul's move for inter-Korean dialogue."

To create the right mood for talks, some experts called for resuming now-suspended inter-Korean projects -- a joint industrial complex in North Korea's border city of Kaesong and a joint tour program at Mount Kumgang on the North's east coast.

In February 2016, South Korea shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex in response to a North Korean nuclear test and long-range rocket launch .

The government halted the tour project at Mount Kumgang in July 2008 after a South Korean tourist was killed by a North Korean soldier there.

But a resumption of the factory zone, once hailed as the symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation, is a tricky issue due to the possibility of South Korea violating U.N. sanctions resolutions against the North, analysts say.

Seoul closed the industrial park, saying that the money generated from there is suspected of bankrolling the North's nuclear and missile programs.

Moon struck a cautious note over hasty resumptions of the two projects.

"If North Korea comes to talks for denuclearization after freezing its nukes, we would be able to resume the Kaesong complex and the tour program," Moon told a forum in late April.

"Moon needs to pursue policies that call for better communication with nationals, North Korea and the international community," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

Analysts said that Moon's administration is widely expected to kick-start humanitarian assistance and inter-Korean exchanges in non-political sectors.

In May 2010, South Korea slapped sanctions on North Korea including suspension of economic and cultural exchanges to punish it for the torpedoing of a South Korean warship in March of that year.

The government of Moon's predecessor vowed in 2015 to encourage civic groups to increase exchanges with the North. But Seoul suspended almost all civilian exchanges due to Pyongyang's provocations last year.

"Moon will likely aggressively seek exchanges in non-political sectors such as support for infants and reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War," said Kim at Dongguk University.

Experts said that the government may be able to build a reconciliatory mood this year as South Korea will host the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February 2018. South Korea said it will welcome North Korean participation.

"South Korea should take the lead in handling issues of the peninsula," Yang said. "It needs to fine-tune its stance over its North Korea policy with the U.S. and its neighboring countries and also revive behind-the-scene contact with North Korea."

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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