TOKYO — First it was an off-the-cuff offer from then-candidate Donald Trump to have hamburgers in Washington. Now, South Korea’s new president says he is willing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — if, of course, the conditions are right.
The problem is, they pretty much never are.
Relations between the two Koreas have deteriorated dramatically in recent years, and Pyongyang is almost certain to take whatever positions newly elected President Moon Jae-in may assume toward increased engagement with a good deal of caution.
North Korea, as of Wednesday afternoon, had yet to comment officially on the election of Moon, a liberal who was deeply involved in Seoul’s “sunshine policy” of increased engagement and cooperation with the North back in the 2000s. He even helped arrange a summit between his mentor, former President Roh Moo-hyun, and then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in 2007.
That was the second Korean summit. South Korea’s late President Kim Dae-jung won a Nobel Peace Prize for setting up the first one, in 2000. It was later alleged that he paid $500 million to make it happen.
“I will quickly move to solve the crisis in national security,” Moon said in his acceptance speech Wednesday. “I am willing to go anywhere for the peace of the Korean Peninsula — if needed, I will fly immediately to Washington. I will go to Beijing and I will go to Tokyo. If the conditions shape up, I will go to Pyongyang.”
A lot has happened since the sunshine days, however.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — Kim Jong Il’s son — is closer than ever to having a credible nuclear deterrent to what it sees as an existential threat from Washington. And Pyongyang is buried much deeper than before in sanctions and international isolation. Those factors would cloud Moon’s ability to unilaterally mend fences, if that is his intention.
Moon has been a critic of the hard-line stances that conservative governments in Seoul maintained against North Korea over the past decade and has called for sanctions and pressure against Pyongyang to be balanced with engagement efforts.
Along with suggesting the summit, he says he’s open to the idea of holding talks with Kim Jong Un over the nuclear issue, which would mark a sharp departure from recent South Korean policy.
He also has said he supports the reopening of an industrial park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong that was jointly run by the two Koreas. The government of his impeached predecessor, who is in jail awaiting a corruption trial, closed it last year following a nuclear test and satellite launch by the North.
Some of what Moon is pitching could indeed ease tensions and potentially create the leeway both sides need to start talking to each other again.
But while North Korea may welcome a controlled boost in economic ties and maybe a bilateral summit in its capital, its primary concern is always national security, or more precisely the assurance of regime survival. And on that front, Moon’s options to generate big changes could be severely limited.
For one thing, Seoul has to consider its alliance with the U.S. and whatever position toward the North President Donald Trump decides to take.
The decision by Moon’s predecessor, Park Geun-hye, to allow the U.S. to base a state-of-the-art missile defense system known by the acronym THAAD in its territory is a major ongoing irritant. Moon has made it known he is no fan of THAAD, which was hurriedly deployed just before his election.
But challenging Washington on THAAD would be difficult for Moon, despite widespread opposition to it in South Korea — especially after Trump suggested South Korea should pay the roughly $1 billion bill for it — and loud protests from China, which claims the system is a security threat.
Pyongyang is also deeply alarmed by Seoul’s participation in annual exercises and training with the U.S. military to carry out precision “decapitation” strikes against Kim Jong Un and his lieutenants. This spring’s exercises were the biggest ever; it’s unclear whether Moon will seek to scale back them back in the future.
The North cites the wargames as one justification for its continued development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. Its refusal to answer South Korean demands that it give up those programs will hinder any attempts at engagement.
Sunshine or no, there’s no reason to expect any great changes on that anytime soon.
Talmadge has been the AP’s Pyongyang bureau chief since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @EricTalmadge and Instagram at erictalmadge
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