Former South Korean Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun speaks with VOA from his office at the National Unification Advisory Council in Seoul, Nov. 28, 2019.
Former South Korean Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun speaks with VOA from his office at the National Unification Advisory Council in Seoul, Nov. 28, 2019.

SEOUL - A senior adviser to South Korea's president expressed a broad range of frustrations at U.S. policy toward North Korea, saying Washington has not adequately empowered Seoul to play a mediating role with Pyongyang.

In an interview with VOA, Jeong Se-Hyun, who advises South Korean President Moon Jae-in on unification issues, also said the U.S. should offer more incentives to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

"Don't act as if you're offering a carrot while really you are using a stick," said Jeong. "North Korea must first be given carrots. Then if that doesn't work, you use a whip."

Jeong's comments come just ahead of North Korea's end-of-year deadline for the U.S. to offer more concessions in nuclear talks. The North has threatened to resume long-range missile or nuclear tests — steps which could upend two years of diplomacy.

A return to major tensions on the Korean peninsula would be a political gut punch for President Moon, who has made outreach to North Korea a signature policy goal.

Amid the breakdown in talks, North Korea has lashed out at its neighbor to the south, calling it a "meddlesome mediator" and refusing to participate in inter-Korean projects.

"The problem is not that North Korea rejects the South Korean government's mediator role," Jeong said, "but that the U.S. must empower the South Korean government to promote it. Only then can the U.S. president achieve his political objectives."

Jeong is a former South Korean unification minister and current executive vice chair of the National Unification Advisory Council — a position equivalent to that of a Cabinet-level minister.

His direct criticism of U.S. policy is a departure from the comments of most South Korean officials, who publicly insist the U.S.-South Korean approach to Pyongyang remains unified.

However, South Korean officials have for months privately complained about the slow pace of the nuclear talks, saying the U.S. refusal to relax sanctions has prevented Seoul from implementing inter-Korean agreements reached in 2018.

Policy failing?

A projectile is fired during North Korea's missile tests in this undated picture released by North Korea's Central News Agency (KCNA), Nov. 28, 2019.

The South Korean government faces growing criticism in Seoul and Washington that its approach to North Korea is failing, especially since Pyongyang began a flurry of missile and rocket tests while abandoning working-level nuclear talks and sidelining Seoul.

Many South Korean conservatives accuse Moon of being too accommodating to North Korea, and placing South Korea's national security at risk.

"Everyone wants to see improved inter-Korean relations. However, with the South Korean government trying not to upset the North, North Korea is escalating tensions and provocations to the point it can threaten people's lives and safety," said a recent editorial in the conservative Dong-a-Ilbo newspaper.

The Moon administration has consistently highlighted the benefits of dialogue with North Korea, even as Pyongyang ramps up provocations toward Seoul.

"Must the leader of one of the world's biggest economies kowtow so humbly before a Third-World dictator?" asked another editorial in the Chosun Ilbo, a major South Korean daily.

Talks stalled

Talks with North Korea broke down in February, after a summit in Hanoi between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended without a deal. In October, North Korea walked away from working-level nuclear talks, blaming what it called Washington's "hostile policy."

"North Korean officials have long complained about a so-called U.S. 'hostile policy' toward the DPRK. Now they are combining Kim's artificial year-end deadline for a new U.S. approach with a demand that the 'hostile policy' must be dropped before denuclearization talks can continue. This reflects North Korea's muddled strategy and lack of seriousness about denuclearization," said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

"Pyongyang should return to working-level talks and specify the exact policies it wants removed in exchange for denuclearization progress," Easley said.

Many in South Korea's government would like the U.S. to adopt a "step-by-step" approach, whereby North Korea is rewarded for incremental steps to give up its nuclear program.

Alliance strained

FILE - A U.S. soldier stands guard in front of their Air F-16 fighter jet at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Jan. 10, 2016.

The alliance between Seoul and Washington has also been strained over how to split the cost of the U.S. military presence in South Korea.

Trump reportedly wants Seoul to pay five times its current contribution toward the cost of maintaining the U.S. troops. He has long said the U.S. "gets nothing" from the current arrangement.

In Jeong's view, Trump is underestimating the value of U.S. troops in the region, which he says underpin U.S. global dominance.

"Trump may be a real estate expert, but he doesn't seem to understand much about international politics," he said when asked about the cost-sharing issue.

The current U.S.-South Korea military cost-sharing deal is set to expire at the end of the year — the same time as North Korea's deadline — creating a sense of urgency in Seoul's political and diplomatic circles.

Trump has downplayed North Korea's end-of-year ultimatum. He has refused to relax sanctions until the North agrees to give up all its nuclear weapons.

The current U.S. strategy amounts to "waiting for Kim Jong Un to throw everything away and kneel down," Jeong says, warning that North Korea will likely move ahead with its threatened "new path" if Washington does not change its approach.

Provocations

As North Korea's deadline nears, there have been almost daily reminders that the situation could soon become more unstable.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Changrindo defensive position on the west front, in this undated picture released by North Korea's Central News Agency (KCNA), Nov. 25, 2019.

Late last month, Kim visited an island near the disputed inter-Korean sea border and ordered troops there to conduct an artillery exercise. South Korea condemned the drill as a violation of an agreement reached at a Pyongyang summit last year.

On Wednesday, South Korea's military fired warning shots toward a North Korean merchant boat that had violated the sea border. The ship apparently had engine problems, South Korean officials said.

On Thursday, North Korea launched two more short-range missiles - its 13th round of weapons tests since May.

On Saturday, North Korea warned it may soon launch a "real ballistic missile" that flies under the "nose" of Japan.

Growing impatience

Jeong conceded that North Korea may have violated inter-Korean military agreements, in particular by conducting the recent artillery drill, but says the U.S. is failing to "read between the lines" of North Korean actions.

"It is a problem that America never considers the implied diplomatic messages in North Korea's military provocations," Jeong said.

"I feel so frustrated about that," he added.

In Jeong's view, North Korea may have conducted the artillery drill to test "Seoul's willingness to abide by inter-Korean agreements.

Moon, who has two and a half years left in office, has seen his approval rating sink to between 40 and 50 percent. That is much lower than his peak of around 80% in the early days of his presidency, but still much higher than many of his predecessors at this point in their terms.

Despite the stalled North Korea talks, around 38% of South Koreans continue to support "dialogue and compromise" with Kim Jong Un, compared to 26% who oppose it, according to a poll conducted last month by the government-funded Korean Institute for National Unification.

Moon's approach to North Korea is risky from a domestic political perspective, especially ahead of South Korea's legislative elections in April 2020, says Shin Beom-chul of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

"The power of Moon's outreach has faded, since North Korea totally ignores and bypasses the South," said Shin. "This will very likely hurt Moon politically, since his outreach to North Korea bore no fruit in 2019."

Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.