South Korea’s new president has come up with a bold but simple plan for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear-armed dictator Kim Jong Un: Talk to him.
Moon Jae-in is expected to present his plan this week in Washington to a skeptical Donald Trump.
Talk is not a new idea for dealing with this dangerous part of the world. Between 1998 and 2008, in an attempt to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula, South Korea adopted a so-called sunshine policy of economic and diplomatic engagement with the North – with mixed success.
Some tensions were indeed eased. Family visits were allowed across the border dividing the two Koreas. South Korean industries were allowed to set up factories in Kaesong, a North Korean special economic zone.
But the rapprochement did not cause North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.
The sunshine policy was eventually scrapped by a new and more conservative administration in Seoul.
Now it is back again in a modified form. And while it is unlikely to wean dictator Kim from nuclear weapons, it has the advantage of differing from the world’s current policy toward the North, a policy which clearly isn’t working.
No one knows what to do about North Korea. It is small but belligerent, poor but armed to the teeth.
It already has the capacity to destroy much of South Korea with conventional artillery and is probably just a few years away from possessing nuclear-armed missiles that will be able to hit North America.
It routinely issues blood-curdling threats against Japan, the U.S. and South Korea.
North Korea’s adversaries have persuaded the United Nations to impose hefty economic sanctions on the country until it gives up its nuclear ambitions.
They haven’t worked.
The Americans have urged China, North Korea’s major trading partner, to use its influence to curb Pyongyang.
That hasn’t worked either. Even Trump, who put much faith in China, has admitted on Twitter that Beijing hasn’t delivered.
The reason is straightforward. China may not much like the regime in neighbouring North Korea. But it fears its collapse – and the power vacuum this would create – even more.
Meanwhile, according to the London-based Financial Times, the North Korean economy is doing surprisingly well.
Kim has quietly allowed Chinese-style crony capitalism to take root with the result that, in the cities at least, wages have grown substantially.
In short, Kim’s two-track strategy of nuclear armament plus economic growth appears to be succeeding.
Given all of this, Moon’s plan to encourage talks with North Korea isn’t as naïve as his critics say. Short of restarting the dormant Korean War, everything else has been tried.
On the cultural front, Moon has already offered to let Pyongyang host some portions of the 2018 Winter Olympics, now scheduled to take place in the South.
In a recent Washington Post interview, Moon suggested reopening the Kaesong industrial complex in the North, which was closed last year by Seoul in retaliation for Pyongyang’s ongoing missile tests.
A senior Moon adviser has gone even further, suggesting at a recent conference that Seoul could scale back the joint military exercises it stages with the U.S. in exchange for a suspension of the North’s nuclear testing.
The adviser also suggested that the entire nuclear issue could be linked to the equally contentious issue of hammering out a peace treaty to formally end the decades-old Korean War.
In his meeting with Trump this week, Moon is expected to explain why re-engagement with the North makes sense. He’s also expected to explain why he thinks Seoul should take the lead (albeit with U.S. consultation) in any such talks.
Who knows how Trump will respond? On the one hand, he himself has suggested talks with North Korea’s Kim. On the other, he’s a keen observer of the American popular mood.
Following the death of U.S. student Otto Warmbier after almost 18 comatose months in a North Korean jail, that mood is not very sympathetic to the idea of talking to Pyongyang.
Thomas Walkom is a national affairs columnist.