SEOUL - North Korea’s defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons has frustrated South Korea’s effort to reduce regional tensions through dialogue, and complicated relations with both the United States, its closest military ally, and China, its biggest trading partner.
When South Korean President Moon Jae-in took office in May, he pledged to balance engagement with sanctions to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula, in contrast to U.S. President Donald Trump’s emphasis on exerting “maximum pressure” through sanctions and the threat of military action.
But after North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test this week, Moon’s emphasis on dialogue has been called into question by conservatives at home, and by the U.S. president, who derided it as unworkable “appeasement.”
The Moon administration has downplayed any differences with the United States over how to deal with the growing North Korean threat and stressed the two allies remained committed to denuclearization. But Moon has also come out strongly against taking any preventive military action against North Korea that could plunge South Korea into a catastrophic war.
“President Trump might have felt frustration about a seemingly softer stance from the South Korean leadership, but at the same time the Trump administration also agrees that military options are way too risky,” said political analyst Bong Young-shik with the Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul.
This week Moon seemed to take a stronger stance in alignment with the Trump administration’s position. On Tuesday he voiced support for new sanctions that would cut off North Korea’s foreign currency income and oil supplies.
“If North Korea doesn't stop its provocations, we could face an unpredictable situation in the future,” said Moon while meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at an economic summit in the Russian far eastern city of Vladivostok Wednesday.
However Russian and Chinese leaders indicated they may not support new sanctions that have proven to be ineffective in slowing North Korea’s nuclear missile development program. Putin said North Koreans would “eat grass” rather than give into outside pressure to disarm, and has called for talks to resolve the crisis.
The South Korean newspaper the Korea Herald, in an editorial Wednesday, criticized the Moon administration for engaging in “wishful thinking” in pursuing engagement with Pyongyang, and said the “government must take a path it has shunned, which is to put pressure strong enough to wake up the North.”
Han Tae Song, Pyongyang's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, indicated Tuesday that further North Korean missiles and nuclear tests are planned. He said that as long as the United States, “relies on reckless provocations and futile attempts to put pressure on the DPRK,” it will receive more “gift packages.”
President Trump’s comments over the weekend that he is considering withdrawing from the U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with South Korea could also create a rift in the regional security alliance to oppose North Korea’s nuclear missile program.
Trump has repeatedly criticized the five-year-old South Korea-U.S. (KORUS) FTA as a horrible deal for creating a $27 billion U.S. trade deficit with South Korea last year.
The Korea Times newspaper in Seoul, in an editorial Wednesday, called terminating the trade deal a “lose-lose game” that would increase economic losses for both countries from increases in tariffs, and lead to distrust and discord in the alliance.
“The biggest loser of all for Washington, however, will be that of one of its strongest allies in the world, as South Koreans will begin to reassess Korea-U.S. ties,” said the editorial.
A decision to terminate KORUS is not final yet, and several members of the Trump administration are reportedly hoping to persuade the president to work within the existing agreement framework to reduce the U.S. trade deficit with South Korea.
The American Chamber of Commerce in Korea issued a press release Tuesday opposing withdrawing from the FTA, saying such a move could lead to “a deterioration of the relationship between the U.S. and Korea, leading to anti-American sentiment.”
The Moon administration faces the prospects of increased U.S. tariffs at the same time it is experiencing informal sanctions from China for deploying the American THAAD missile defense system.
Beijing has objected to the advanced anti-missile battery high-resolution radar system that can potentially monitor China’s military activities as a threat to its security, and had reportedly imposed informal restrictions on selected South Korean imports and tourism as retaliation.
The Bank of Korea said Tuesday that travel to South Korea in July was 40 percent less than last year, and that the drop in Chinese tourists accounted for most of the deficit.
President Moon initially tried to appease China by delaying the THAAD deployment until after an extensive environmental study was completed, but soon reversed this decision as North Korea continued to test and improve its ballistic missile capabilities.