Korea experts encouraged by Moon Jae-in election win, hopeful over prospects for inter-Korean dialogue

moon jaein election
South Korea's new President Moon Jae-In and his wife Kim Jung-Suk salute at a ceremony on May 10, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. Kim Hong-Ji-Pool/Getty Images

Researchers urge Moon Jae-in to form a close working relationship with Donald Trump and to establish a new special envoy role for North Korea policy emulating the “Perry Process”

Researchers from the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) said they are optimistic about the election of South Korean president Moon Jae-in who assumed office last week following waves of protest across the country.

Now that the vacancy left in the wake of former President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment has been filled, the South Korean government needs to work to strengthen bilateral relations with the United States amid escalating tensions in Northeast Asia, they said.

The Moon administration should immediately engage U.S. President Donald Trump and his senior staff at the White House and government agencies, said Kathleen Stephens, the William J. Perry Fellow at Shorenstein APARC.

“Moon would do well to establish a personal relationship with Trump,” said Stephens, who was U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 2008 to 2011. “The new administration must set up a meeting as early as possible and be ready to engage on a range of issues.”

“In a sense, Moon has to play catch-up,” said Shorenstein APARC Director Gi-Wook Shin, who noted that Trump already held in-person meetings with other Asian heads of state in the United States, including summits with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Shin added that a coherent U.S. strategy toward Asia and senior staff appointments in the State and Defense Departments would also aid in supporting the foundation upon which the South Korean and American governments work together on policy challenges, especially North Korea.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities have become more and more advanced over the past few months, and provocations have continued to ratchet up, including its firing of a ballistic missile that landed in the sea near Russia on Sunday and repeat threats to conduct a sixth nuclear test.

The Moon administration must focus on establishing trust and cooperation with the Trump administration because it is the only pathway to finding a resolution to North Korea’s program, said Siegfried Hecker, a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, an additional center in the Freeman Spogli Institute.

“Any solution must be compatible with the interests of Seoul, but it has to be done in concert with Washington to get Pyongyang’s attention,” said Hecker, who served as director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and has traveled to North Korea seven times since 2004 to survey its nuclear facilities.

During the campaign, Moon repeatedly spoke of his proposals to reengage the North Korean regime, such as holding talks with its leader Kim Jong-un and re-opening Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint economic zone on the North Korean side of the border.

Stephens and Shin said Moon’s proposals for North Korean engagement would be a step in the right direction if pursued in due time and led under the direction of a special envoy from South Korea emulating the American “Perry Process.”

The Perry Process, proposed by former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry and implemented in the late 1990s under the Clinton administration, entails the appointment of a senior-level, bipartisan representative to pursue a two-track approach of engagement through joint projects and of continued dialogue on denuclearization with North Korea.

Appointing one person in South Korea to lead North Korea policy would help centralize and streamline its organization, which currently, requires coordination of activities across dozens of government agencies, the two researchers noted.

“We recognize that establishing such a position and filling the position would be far from easy,” said Shin, co-author of the study Tailored Engagement. “But the magnitude of the nuclear crisis requires restructuring the way in which the South Korean government deals with North Korea, achieving domestic consensus, and shoring up international support for its efforts.”

The United States, China, Japan and Russia are the key international countries concerned with the peace and stability of Northeast Asia, yet South Korea has both an acute need and the potential to assume greater leadership of North Korea policy, said Shorenstein APARC Fellow Thomas Fingar.

China, as North Korea’s largest trade partner, exercises influence over North Korea by maintaining a commercial relationship in the hope of avoiding a collapse of the regime, however its leverage only goes so far, he added.

The Moon administration should consider the limits of Chinese influence before making policy decisions regarding North Korea, Fingar said, for example, whether to freeze or remove the U.S. anti-ballistic missile system, Thermal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), deployed last April in South Korea, which the Chinese government strongly opposed.

“There is little that Beijing can or will do that would persuade Pyongyang to be more receptive to initiatives from Seoul than it would otherwise be,” said Fingar, a China specialist who served as chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council. “Seoul should not ‘pay’ much to obtain Chinese assistance because China already supports reengagement and would not do more no matter what Seoul offered as an inducement.”

It is of vital importance the Moon administration seeks to strengthen trilateral cooperation between South Korea, Japan and the United States, and to consider holding a summit to address areas of collaboration, all of which would function alongside the China-Japan-South Korea trilateral structure toward creating stability in the region, according to Daniel Sneider, associate director for research at Shorenstein APARC.

“Such cooperation is essential to the security of the region – without it, the United States cannot fulfill its obligation to defend South Korea against the threat posed by North Korea,” said Sneider, who leads the Divided Memories and Reconciliation research project. “Moreover, it’s in the interest of all three countries to tighten such cooperation to balance the rise of China.”

The Moon administration should, above all else, take time to consider its first steps despite pressures to perform early, said Michael Armacost, a fellow at Shorenstein APARC who held a 24-year career in the U.S. government.

“Getting things right is more important than making a quick splash,” said Armacost, a former U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs. “I would advise any new president to proceed at a deliberate pace, focusing particularly on the key personal issues first, and consulting widely before enunciating major policy departures.”

Related links:

South Korea's election: Shorenstein APARC scholars offer insight

Yonhap News: 미 한반도 전문가 그룹 "한국형 페리 프로세스 필요" (May 16, 2017)

VOA: 미 전문가들 "한국 정부, 미국과 북 핵 협력 중요...대북특사도 임명해야" (May 17, 2017)