Coming two years after the historic Panmunjom agreement between South and North Korea, the landslide victory for President Moon’s party in recent legislative elections gives him a strong mandate to reinvigorate his engagement policy with North Korea. However, with Pyongyang in seemingly no mood to reciprocate, Sangsoo Lee urges caution on the prospects ahead.
On April 15, South Korea’s legislative elections ended with President Moon’s ruling party achieving a landslide victory. The Democratic Party (DP) and its allies took 180 seats out of 300, while the main opposition party, the United Future Party (UFP), only took 103 seats.
The election was remarkable in that it was the first national election in the world to be held during the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis; it even witnessed the highest electoral turnout in South Korea in nearly three decades.
Amid the extraordinary circumstances of the election, the government’s effective handling of the pandemic was a large contributing factor for the ruling party’s success.
As such, the result was less about the Moon government’s performance on other issues over the past three years of his presidency, such as his pledges to decrease the income gap, stamp out corruption, carry out judiciary reform, as well as establish sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula.
In fact, North Korea was not a core issue for voters in the election. According to Joongang Ilbo’s polls, inter-Korean relations were noted as most important by only 3.1 percent of respondents.
Nevertheless, the outcome of the election will be interpreted by Moon as a strong endorsement of continuing with his engagement policy toward North Korea.
But with exchanges largely suspended and relations having cooled since a raft of inter-Korean agreements in 2018, it is uncertain whether the election result will have a significant impact on inter-Korean relations.
Re-engaging North Korea
Although North Korea issues have been largely overshadowed by the outbreak of COVID-19, the Moon government remains strongly committed to improving inter-Korean relations.
Accordingly, it continues to stress the importance of pursuing closer engagement with North Korea and resuming inter-Korean cooperation in order to contribute to building peace, including mitigating military tensions and denuclearization.
Given its landslide victory, the Democratic Party is now able to eliminate the ability of the opposition to thwart major legislation, providing Moon with the power to push through any legislation that supports his policy toward North Korea.
In this regard, the ruling party is soon expected to pass bills through the National Assembly which had been opposed by conservative opposition forces, notably ratification of the September 2018 inter-Korean military agreement. In so doing, Moon seeks to consolidate his legacy by making it harder for future governments to overturn his policy.
Furthermore, the government will try to use the post-election period, the remaining two years of Moon’s presidential term, to push through its key policies in regard to establishing a peace economy on the peninsula. This includes the cross-border project agreed to at the Pyongyang Summit to connect the Gyeongui and Yellow Sea road and railway lines between the two Koreas. This will now receive a boost from the outcome of the recent elections, at least in initiating the South Korean part first.
As recently proposed by Moon, the government will also seek to send South Korean individual tourists to North Korea and resume joint operation of the Mt. Kumgang tourist resort (suspended since 2008), as well as try to carry out further family reunions, other inter-Korean civil exchanges, and undertake cooperation to jointly respond to COVID-19.
In order to further reinvigorate his inter-Korean and foreign policies after the general election, Moon is likely to reshuffle his cabinet and national security team.
Even though Moon will be emboldened to drive through his key inter-Korean policies, he faces serious challenges which could thwart their practical implementation.
Currently all dialogue and inter-Korean cooperation projects, including the jointly operated Kaesong liaison office, remain suspended. There is no indication, so far, that North Korea has any intention of resuming talks with South Korea, which it has bypassed in preference of negotiating directly with Washington.
The biggest obstacle for the Moon government is that nuclear negotiations between the United States and North Korea remain deadlocked.
Over one year has already passed since the empty-handed outcome of the Hanoi Summit, and it looks unlikely that negotiations will resume anytime soon amidst an absence of political will and compromise. This is likely to be the case until at least the U.S. presidential elections are over in November.
Instead, in coming months, North Korea would appear intent on increasing its leverage by conducting further missile and new strategic weapons tests – and resisting calls to return to the negotiation table.
If North Korea continues not to respond to Seoul’s proposals, cross-border cooperation will be impossible in the near future, and given the single, five-year term of a president, it will effectively be difficult to improve inter-Korean ties within the term of Moon’s presidency.
Furthermore, Moon faces a difficult position in responding to North Korean provocations. If the South Korean government urges the North to refrain from increasing military tensions through future missile tests, Pyongyang will likely react very negatively.
In March, Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister and first vice-department director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, heavily criticized the Moon administration: “the South side is also fond of joint military exercises and it is preoccupied with all the disgusting acts like purchasing ultra-modern military hardware,” referring to the purchase of strategic weapons from the U.S., such as F-35 fighters and Global Hawk drones.
South Korea’s moves to strengthen its deterrence is partly to fulfil OPCON criteria, which Moon seeks to achieve by 2022. However, with both sides engaged in military build-up, this does not bode well for inter-Korean cooperation.
Time Running Out?
Despite the overwhelming election result, the two years until presidential elections in 2022 is a long time in South Korean politics and the currently weakened conservative forces could still seek to consolidate around the issue of North Korea, especially if engagement fails and North Korea continues to carry out tests and other provocations.
A worry for the government was the election of two defectors – one a former high-profile diplomat – from North Korea as conservative party (UFP) members (for the first time in South Korean elections). They have argued that Pyongyang has no real intention to give up its nuclear weapons. Their voices could amplify if Moon does not achieve results.
A large concern is that time for Moon will soon be running out. Kickstarting nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang are a priority to create the conditions – and easing of sanctions – which Moon needs to implement his policies. Equally importantly, he also needs a willing partner in Pyongyang with which to engage.
Combined with the pressing priorities of revitalizing the economy, judicial reform, and corruption uppermost on many South Koreans’ minds, Moon’s honeymoon period might prove short-lived.