President Moon Jae-in’s latest trip to the US for the UN General Assembly ended with no results to speak of. His calls for peace with North Korea sounded hollow and naive.
His summit with US President Donald Trump, held on the sidelines of the assembly in New York on Monday, was pointless.
“Both leaders evaluated North Korea’s will to resume dialogue positively, and reaffirmed that the spirit of the agreements of the US-North Korea Singapore summit is still valid,” Cheong Wa Dae spokesperson Ko Min-jung said.
This is a truism with little meaning.
There was reportedly no mention of Trump’s “new method” to break the deadlock in nuclear talks with the North. Before the summit, the words caused concern that Washington might accept Pyongyang’s demands for considerable sanctions relief in exchange for the dismantlement of its old nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, while leaving its atomic bombs unaddressed. There was no concrete talk, either, about security guarantees for the current North Korean regime.
There was no mention of Seoul’s decision to terminate the General Security of Military Information Agreement with Japan, a bilateral accord on sharing military intelligence mostly on North Korea. Washington had expressed its strong dissatisfaction with the decision, denouncing the Moon administration for trying to knock down a military cooperation channel among the US, South Korea and Japan.
If there was one meaningful statement at the summit, it was that “sanctions must be maintained.”
In view of Cheong Wa Dae’s official briefing, it is hard to understand why the summit was held.
In his keynote address at the UN on Tuesday, Moon proposed transforming the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas into an “international peace zone.”
The vision is nothing new. Former President Park Geun-hye had proposed the creation of an ecological peace park in the zone. Moon’s proposal was included in the declaration that concluded his first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Panmunjom on April 27, 2018.
This time it was a bit more specific, including ideas such as demining the zone and opening the offices of UN agencies and international organizations there. Pyongyang has not yet responded to the proposal. The vision is rosy, but risky in some respects. Demining the zone may be tempting to the North, which wants to see a weaker South Korean defense. But it must be dealt with prudently. Demining must be preceded by the substantial relaxation of military tension.
In the address, Moon did not mention the North’s provocations. The address was all about North Korea, and he uttered the word “peace” 53 times. He seemed to be trying to make the North look like a trustworthy country. “Not a single confrontation has occurred since the inter-Korean comprehensive military agreement was signed on Sept. 19 last year,” he said.
The North has test-fired new short-range projectiles, apparently including ballistic missiles, on as many as 10 occasions since May. Cheong Wa Dae did not bother to respond, trying to play the incidents down. Ballistic missile launches are in violation of the UN Security Council resolutions. But in a venue none other than the UN, Moon did not say a word about the North’s breaches of its agreement with the South. He pretended that it had observed the accord faithfully.
The agreement bans any hostile activity on land, at sea or in the air. Pyongyang launched missiles into the East Sea without reserve and threatened the South.
If it changes the direction of its missile launches, they will hit the South. Nevertheless, Cheong Wa Dae argued that the missile tests did not violate the agreement, and tried to avoid confrontation. What else can a missile test be called if it is not a hostile action? Trump said the North’s missile launches were not a problem, apparently because they were short range and could not strike the US, but Moon kept silent.
Moon has made three successive addresses to the UN General Assembly since he took office in 2017. He spent most of his time talking about North Korea, but has never touched on its terrible human rights situation or anything else that might pique its leader.
This approach to inter-Korean relations is far from peaceful. Security policies must be grounded in an accurate perception of reality. People’s lives are at stake. Moon must open his eyes to the other side of North Korea’s hereditary dictatorship and work out substantive and realistic strategies to denuclearize it.