Just days after being elected, South Korean President Moon Jae-in faced his first North Korean provocation, putting an early test to his stated policy to pursue peaceful dialogue with his defiant nuclear neighbor.
The South Korean leader expressed solidarity with the United States and Japan by condemning North Korea for conducting what is believed to be the successful test of a new two-stage liquid fueled rocket on Sunday capable of flying up to 4,500 kilometers. The North Korean state news agency KCNA on Monday said the test was to verify the capability to carry a "large scale heavy nuclear warhead," and the missile flew 787 kilometers, reaching an altitude of 2,111 kilometers.
President Moon warned Pyongyang that provocations will be met with “stern responses.” He also called for the development of the Korean Air and Missile Defense system to be used in addition to, or in lieu of, the controversial U.S. THAAD missile shield that China objects to as a threatening increase of American military capabilities in the region.
As a candidate Moon promised to pursue negotiations and engagement with Pyongyang. But as the new commander in chief of the military, he stressed that “dialogue is possible only when North Korea changes its behavior.”
Moon’s clarified position on conditional talks seems fundamentally the same as that of U.S. President Donald Trump, and essentially the same as past American and South Korean administrations.
“Seoul and Washington remain on the same page that the ultimate goal, that cannot be compromised, is the dismantlement of North Korea’s WMD (weapons of mass destruction) capability and facilities,” said political analyst Bong Young-shik with the Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul.
North Korea, in defiance of international sanctions, has openly declared itself a de facto nuclear state. The Kim Jong Un government considers its continued efforts to develop a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the U.S. mainland as essential to its survival.
Unless Pyongyang agrees to discuss its eventual disarmament for economic aid and security guarantees, Bong said, Moon will not make any progress to restart talks or reopen cooperative projects like the Kaesong industrial project which had employed 54,000 North Korean workers and provided about $100 million a year to the local economy and the government, before it was closed in 2016.
“The Moon Jae-in government is very well aware of how difficult it is for Seoul to start engaging Pyongyang, because any improvements to inter-Korean economic cooperation has to overcome the obstacle, or the international suspicion, that economic cooperation with North Korea may provide Pyongyang with the financial capacity to further develop WMDs,” Bong said.
The Trump administration has made stopping the development of a North Korean ICBM a top priority and stressed the U.S. would consider military action to take out launching sites and nuclear facilities, if needed. To back up the threat of force, the U.S. Pacific Command recently sent increased military assets to the region, including the USS Carl Vinson nuclear-powered aircraft carrier strike force.
More recently, Washington has emphasized increased cooperation from Beijing to more strictly implement U.N. sanctions against North Korea. But after enforcing a strict ban on North Korean coal and other measures in early April, there are indications China has eased some pressure on its economically dependent ally. There are reports the price of gasoline in North Korea returned to normal after the fear of a Chinese oil embargo dissipated. And the suspension of Air China flights to Pyongyang in April lasted only three weeks.
This week North Korea sent a delegation to the Belt and Road initiative in Beijing. The United States and South Korea also sent representatives to this international economic forum.
The U.S. embassy in Beijing reportedly complained to China's foreign ministry, saying that inviting North Korea sent the wrong message at a time when the world is trying to pressure Pyongyang to halt its nuclear and missile programs.
“The fact that China did not discriminate and invited North Korea to stand on the diplomatic stage shows North Korea's hardline strategy is diplomatically working. I think we have to consider what kind of (additional) sanctions will make North Korea give up its nuclear weapons,” said North Korea analyst and defector Ahn Chan-il, with the World Institute for North Korean Studies.
South Korea diplomacy
South Korea said Monday it will send special envoys to the United States, China, Japan, Russia and Germany to discuss how to deal with the growing North Korean nuclear and missile threat.
Former Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan will head to China. Lee also served in the past as a special envoy to Beijing for former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun, who supported the Sunshine policy of unconditional inter-Korean aid and trade programs that was eventually halted due to the North’s continued nuclear development efforts and other provocations.
Youmi Kim contributed to this report.