Moon Jae-in’s Berlin Speech

July 13, 2017 9:30 AM

A central dilemma of engagement strategies has to do with timing. If concessions are granted prior to any reciprocal action, you run the risk of getting nothing in return. However, if you make promises waiting for the other to act, you may be waiting for Godot. And for good reason: promises, and particularly elaborate ones, could well be cheap talk.

One way out of this dilemma is to make the notion of reciprocity diffuse so that no quid-pro-quos are expected at all, at least in the short run. This is called “playing the long game.” But giving presents to the North Koreans at the current conjuncture is not likely to be popular; it’s politically challenging to play the long game.

All of these conundrums were on display in Moon Jae-in’s Berlin speech, which was substantive, nuanced and programmatic. It also threw down some surprising gauntlets with respect to nuclear weapons, particularly for a candidate long committed to engagement. The bottom line: Moon appeared to outline an approach to the North that differed less from Park Geun-hye—and even Lee Myung-bak—than it appeared. Nonetheless, it held open some small rays of hope, particularly in the reopening of North-South channels.

How does the speech unfold? Both Kim Dae-jung and Park Geun-hye gave important speeches in Germany, albeit working off of very different aspects of the analogy. (My analysis here and here.) For both DJ and Moon, the lesson was not the promised end state of unification—as for Park—but the process of Ostpolitik and engagement. Moon repeats the various “no’s” that the US has also adopted by way of assurance: no use of force, no wish for collapse or pursuit regime change, no unification via absorption, no “artificial” unification.

Yet Moon pivots surprisingly early to the nuclear question, defining it as “the biggest challenge that the Korean peninsula is facing.” The language is surprisingly stark. The conditions for moving toward negotiations—namely, the effective absence of any preconditions—have been met. The international community has agreed on the objective of complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization, a return to the CVID of the first Bush administration. Responsibility for progress now lies entirely with the North, and if they refuse to act they will not only get more of the same, but even worse:

“Whether it will come out to the forum for dialogue, or whether it will kick away this opportunity of dialogue that has been difficultly made, is only a decision that North Korea can make.

But if North Korea does not stop its nuclear provocations, there is no other choice but to further strengthen sanctions and pressure. Peace on the Korean Peninsula and North Korea's security will not be guaranteed.” 

It is important to understand the implications of this stance: once adopted, everything else becomes little more than prospective. What follows? The remainder of the speech is divided into two sections: one on broad principles and goals that can be achieved with a shift in North Korea’s posture; the other on the details of how to get things moving, even in the absence of such a shift.

The five principles and broad objectives can be easily ticked off, as they have long been the stuff of the engagement approach:

  • A return to the two summit declarations. The idea of a “return” is important here. North Korea has continually sought to uphold the June 15 Joint Declaration and the October 4 Declarations as foundational and transcendent. The Moon approach makes return to them conditional on resolution of the nuclear issue.  
  • Recognition of North Korea’s legitimate security concerns;
  • A peace regime;
  • A “new economic map” on the Korean peninsula, including rebuilding severed road and rail links and tying up to various Eurasian initiatives;
  • Exchange and cooperation projects that are held separate from the political and military situation, a variant of Kim Dae-jung’s “separation of politics and the economy.”

How to actually start? The concrete confidence building proposals for moving forward—possibly in the absence of a North Korean move on nuclear weapons—are very similar to Park Geun-hye’s incremental approach: family unification, sports, a declared halt of provocative actions around the DMZ and talks. Each of the first three are made concrete by tying them to dates certain. Moon begins by proposing that the two sides celebrate the October 4 Declaration with a reuniting of separated families, visiting of ancestral graves, and opening of direct communication among them. A second date certain is advanced by inviting the North Koreans to attend the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Moon proposes the 64th anniversary of the armistice on July 27 as a date to declare an end to hostilities—read “provocations”—around the DMZ. Finally, Moon proposes to meet anywhere, any time.

I argued that Moon Jae-in got substantial running room from the US as a result of the summit with President Trump. Much of his favored language about South Korea leading the process was contained in that summit document. Here, however, Moon tacks back toward the center by placing so much emphasis on the nuclear question and North Korean responsibility. This is understandable given the July 4 missile test.

But I can’t imagine that the heartstrings of the North Koreans are going to be tugged by the type of costless offers that close out his speech, such as family reunions, the Olympics, or a no provocation pledge. And the idea that South Korea has any voice at all on the nuclear issue has consistently been rejected by Pyongyang, which insists that the big security issues are ultimately a matter for the US and North Korea to decide.

That leaves the “anytime, anywhere” offer as the most significant piece of the speech. Even if a summit is not likely to transpire, reopening North-South channels by sending an envoy is probably the most that can be accomplished at this juncture. It may not seem like much following such an elaborate wind-up. But given the deadlock of the last nine years, the current temperature around the nuclear and missile issues, and the North’s rejectionist approach to all of President Moon's initiatives, it may be the most that the new president can really do.

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