Changing Course: Yoon Suk-yeol and the New North Korea Policy

President elect Yoon Suk-yeol is set to assume office as the 13th President of the Republic of Korea on May 10, 2022. Yoon has been very vocal about his hard-line policies towards North Korea in the lead up to the presidential elections. It is much anticipated that the incoming Yoon administration is on course to undo the reconciliatory policies adopted by its predecessor Moon Jae-in. With North Korea testing an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) in the wake of Yoon’s election, after a self-imposed moratorium of almost 5 years, it would be interesting to see how South Korea’s new foreign policy will affect Inter-Korean relations, the prospects of which seem bleak as things stand.

Moon Jae-in’s North Korea policy

In his inaugural presidential address in 2017, Moon Jae-in talked at length about his policy towards North Korea, stressing on the need to resolve the seemingly never-ending conflict on the Peninsula. An heir of the Sunshine Policy, the Moon administration took it upon itself to engage with North Korea in a bid to open up the closed nation to negotiations. Much like the earlier President Kim Dae Jung, Moon Jae-in believed in a policy of flexible reciprocity in dealing with the North. This meant that South Korea, at least in the short term, had to offer support and assistance towards North Korea without expecting any immediate results in return. Meanwhile, North Korea was to help improve Inter-Korean relations. Moon believed that such a policy would encourage exchanges and lay the foundation for better Inter-Korean relations in the future. The highest point of such efforts came in the form of the Panmunjom Declaration on Peace, Prosperity and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula in 2018, as per which the two sides agreed to reconnect families separated by the division of the Peninsula in 1945; improve cooperation by fully  implementing all Inter-Korean treaties; establish a joint liaison office in Kaesong; cooperate on achieving balanced development and to defuse military threat stemming from either side through confidence building measures and by disarming in a phased manner.

Although the Panmunjom Declaration is seen as a major accomplishment of the Moon administration, the fragility of the negotiations was such that they could not last long after the talks between North Korea and the United States broke down at the Hanoi Summit the following year. A major reason for this breakdown was the issue of denuclearisation and removal of UN sanctions which both the United States and North Korea were not willing to cooperate on. North Korea responded by severing all communication lines with South Korea and bombing down the Kaesong joint liaison office. This marked the end of Inter-Korean exchanges under Moon Jae-in who, while trying his best to foster close bonds with the North, could not resolve the conflict between the United States and North Korea.

Yoon Suk-yeol on North Korea

It was in the backdrop of the failure of the Panmunjom Declaration that Yoon Suk-yeol gained popularity. In the lead up to the Presidential elections, Yoon’s stance on North Korea gave form to much of the conservative anxieties that were on display in the South.

The South Korean conservatives, who have backed Yoon to power, criticised the Moon administration for engaging with Pyongyang on grounds of fabricated willingness for denuclearisation. The conservatives believe that the benevolent policies of Moon Jae-in gave North Korea free range to advance its nuclear weapons programme. Talking to DW, Duyeon Kim, who is a Seoul-based adjunct senior fellow for the Centre for a New American Security, said that unlike the progressives, the conservatives prefer a ‘tit-for-tat’ policy in dealing with the North.

During the election campaign, Yoon Suk-yeol made several comments about North Korea, declaring the country Seoul’s ‘main enemy’. Reacting to North Korea’s missile tests earlier this year, Yoon advocated for the possibility of pre-emptive strikes to neutralise North Korean targets if these provocations were to continue. Maintaining a credible deterrence against the North’s missile tests has also been high on the priority list of the new President, who in the run up to the elections made his intentions clear in favour of redeployment of the US made Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system. Under his policy of countering North Korea with strength, Yoon has shown willingness of working more closely with the United States and its allies, even entertaining the idea of redeploying US strategic assets, such as nuclear bombers and submarines to the Korean Peninsula.

With Yoon Suk-yeol coming to power, it is expected that South Korea will embark on the path of coercive diplomacy which will involve punishing Pyongyang’s ‘provocative and illegal actions’.

The Road Ahead

While Yoon Suk-yeol has been very vocal about his dislike for North Korea, Pyongyang has also responded bitterly to these developments. The Vice Department Director of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers Party, Kim Yo Jong warned Seoul of “serious threats” in case it carried out pre-emptive strikes on the North. This statement came in the aftermath of comments made by South Korea’s Defence Minister Suh Wook underlining Seoul’s ability to quickly and preemptively strike North Korea. Kim further stated that these remarks have worsened the already unpleasant Inter-Korean relations. Since the start of the year, Pyongyang has already conducted 12 missile tests including tests of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles and seems on track to further develop its nuclear arsenal.

But amidst the chaos, a glimmer of hope still remains. Kim Yo Jong in her statement made it clear that North Korea does not view South Korea as its principal enemy and opposes war which would leave the Peninsula in ruins. It must also be noted that while Yoon Suk-yeol has been actively advocating in favour of a hawkish stance, he has kept the door open for talks with Pyongyang. These statements have the potential of developing into concrete negotiations as they serve the basic survival interests of both the countries and hence, must be actively pursued. 

A major reason for Yoon’s hardliner policy towards North Korea has been the supposed failure of the Moon administration in countering the North’s nuclear ambitions. A closer look into the breakdown of the Hanoi Summit between the United States and North Korea shows that it was by and large the failure of commitment by both nations on the negotiation table that led to worsening of relations rather than the failure being a by-product of Moon administration’s reconciliatory policies. As a study of the history of Inter-Korean relations shows, the highest points in relations have come under administrations who have favoured a policy of reconciliation over retaliation. 

North Korea developed its nuclear arsenal in the wake of challenges that severely affected its survival interests in the 1980s. If a similar situation were to occur on the Korean Peninsula today, it seems all the more obvious that North Korea will be further pushed into developing its nuclear arsenal which may well see it conducting another nuclear test soon. The retaliatory stances of the past have shown that such policies lead to no movement towards encouraging peace. North Korea, due to the nuclear nature that it has acquired, is unlikely to enter into negotiations until a major crisis emerges on the Peninsula. On the other hand, South Korea due to the ever-increasing North Korean nuclear arsenal, cannot afford to wait for a crisis to emerge to look towards negotiations as a reality. In such a scenario it will be ill advised of Yoon Suk-yeol to pursue a strict policy of retaliation against North Korea. Rather a policy of reconciliation must take form if peace has to dawn upon the Korean Peninsula in the near future.

[Photo by Republic of Korea, via Wikimedia Commons]

*Gagan Hitkari is a postgraduate student of Conflict Analysis and Peacebuilding at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, India.

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