"His shameless talk of dialogue between the North and South [at a time like this] raises questions about his mental faculties… We have nothing to say to South Korean authorities and have no intention of sitting down with them again."*
These are just some of the highlights of a North Korean spokesperson’s ruthless response to Moon Jae-in’s August 15 Liberation Day speech in which the South Korean president called for unification of Korea by 2045 and the establishment of a North-South peace economy.
The "time like this" mentioned by the spokesperson for the North Korean Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country is a reference to the insulting training drills ongoing between South Korean and US forces – specifically a simulated counterinsurgency campaign in North Korea after successfully conquering Pyongyang in 90 days.
Laughable as this simulated scenario is (China and Russia would never sit back and let North Korea be conquered so swiftly), the comments embody the all-too-predictable outcome of these offensive drills: the North Korean government is upset and has lost complete trust in the South Korean president who once led the peace process.
North Korean Missile Tests a Response, not the Cause of Tension
As arms-control wonks and North Korea analysts breathlessly report each and every short-range ballistic missile test carried out by North Korea since June 25, the context often goes unmentioned – perhaps intentionally. Justifying the testing of these missiles, North Korea criticized the upcoming drills, calling them a violation of the understanding made between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un at the Singapore summit (no more provocative training exercises for a suspension of North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile tests).
South Korean and American officials insisted North Korea had no reason to be affronted by the exercises; that they had been scaled back to accommodate the peace process, were defensive in nature, and – most importantly – were critical to testing the South Korean military’s readiness to be transferred operational control in wartime. But North Korea has been vindicated now that details have emerged of the exact nature of the drills. No honest observer can argue practicing counterinsurgency has anything to do with testing South Korean military readiness.
This raises serious questions about what President Moon knew about them – and when. It seems impossible someone who has staked his presidency on the peace process would approve of these extremely provocative exercises. Still, even if Moon was unaware of their nature or unable to stop them, it suggests he has no control over the military of his country – and that perhaps an act of sabotage has occurred.
North Korea Rightly Views Talk of Peace with a Jaundiced Eye
Though President Moon’s domestic approval is holding strong, buoyed by the trade war initiated cynically by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, his standing in the peace process has never been lower. It is becoming painfully clear that his cautious approach as liaison between the US and North Korea is no longer constructive.
"He often calls for peace, but is he then going to say the purchase of drones and fighter jets [F-35s] from the US is for spreading agrochemicals and air shows?"*
The North Korean spokesperson here refers to an obvious trend: While appealing for peace and glorifying the potential boon North-South economic cooperation will bring, up to this point President Moon has been very careful not to directly challenge the US position on maximum pressure or interfere with US-South Korean military affairs – both which have proven toxic to the diplomatic process.
This makes allusions to peace seem like nothing more than rhetoric. Moon once called for a peace treaty by the end of 2018 – almost eight months ago. In his Liberation Day speech he pledged "…to solidify [a] denuclearization and peace regime on the Korean Peninsula during [his] term in office." These declarations must appear insane and insulting to North Koreans with the occupation drills ongoing. Cue the North Korean spokesperson:
"How dare he speak of establishing an atmosphere for dialogue, a peace economy, a mechanism for maintaining peace when the joint military drills that we oppose are at the height of implementation in South Korea as we speak?"
To Achieve Peace, Moon Must Take a Bolder Approach
Words are only meaningful for so long; at some point, intentions must be measured by actions and results. The latest North Korean diatribe makes it painfully obvious that South Korea needs to take a different approach or forget about peace in the near term. The Moon administration must make a decision, and the stakes are high.
South Korea can choose to remain tied to the sinking American ship and give up the dream of Korean integration. This will require South Korea’s continued membership in the unnatural "trilateral alliance" with the US and Japan that is on course for an eventual clash with China. This also guarantees long-term isolation from North Korea’s eventual economic modernization: China is bound to cease abiding by US-UN sanctions as America pursues its self-destructive trade war and strives to undermine China’s rise through overt and covert means.
There is, of course, an alternative. By unilaterally pursuing peace and economic initiatives with North Korea – sanctions be damned – South Korea can force the US to consider just how much it values its foothold in Asia. Rather than punishing South Korea, the US is just as likely to relent for fear of angering the politically active South Korean populace and losing more influence to China if it is pushed out of the country. If the US does relent, the two Koreas will be able to pursue gradual inter-Korean economic integration. This is the sole path to eventual Korean unification, and it is critical for the future of the peninsula: only a united Korea will be strong enough to establish the position of neutrality necessary to survive the great power conflict forthcoming in East Asia.
It may sound implausible – and incredibly risky. But if the South Korean leader fails to take up this mantle, his government will become increasingly irrelevant to North Korea as it seeks direct negotiations with the US in the short term, and turns to China after the inevitable failure of US diplomacy in the long run.
This entire process began with President Moon doing what at the time was a radical act: meeting a North Korean leader when diplomacy was not on the US agenda. Moon must take control of this process once again, or the prospects for peace and unification – crucial to long-term Korean prosperity and independence – will slowly die.
*Translations of the original Korean by this author. A distinct English translation of the entire document by another translator can be found here.
Stu Smallwood is a Korean-English translator currently based in Montreal, Canada. He lived in South Korea for eight years from 2008-2016 and has a (useless) MA in Asian Studies from Sejong University in Seoul. In addition to Antiwar.com, his writing has appeared at Global Research and the Hankyoreh. He can be reached by email at stuartsmallwood[at]gmail.com or through his Twitter handle @stu-smallwood.