South Korean President Moon Jae-in has always been an indispensable part of the current Korean peace process. Long before DPRK leader Kim Jong-un delivered his 2018 New Year’s message in which he called for peace, dialogue and reconciliation with Seoul, Moon Jae-in was a man inclined towards dialogue, peace and moderation.
Had Moon’s ultra-militant predecessor Park Geun-hye not been impeached and imprisoned for her corrupt activities while in office, it remains unlikely that Kim Jong-un would have ever extended an olive branch to South Korea. Park Geun-hye was not only the son of a far-right Korean leader Park Chung-hee but she embodied much of his policies which revolved around unilateral hostility to fellow Koreans in the North while also cultivating a slavish relation with Washington.
When it was later revealed that Park Chung-hee had seriously considered an attempt to assassinate Kim Jong-un, many felt that North-South relations would have been set back for decades. But when Moon Jae-in took office after winning a special election in May of 2017, after it was proved that Park worked with the intelligence services to meddle in the 2012 election which cost Moon South Korea’s top job at the time, a sense of political vindication was palpable although the austere demeanour of Moon never allowed himself to take a proverbial victory lap.
Against this background, it cannot be underestimated that the presence of Moon in Seoul’s Blue House was a key motivating factor that inspired Kim to make his decision to call for peace just seven months after Moon took office. The strategic views of Pyongyang may well have been that Moon might represent the last best chance to permanently alter the state of inter-Korean hostility lest a more militant South Korean take charge at some future date.
Throughout the peace process, Moon has had a moderating influence on the more hawkish/anti-DPRK elements in the US White House of which there remain many. In this sense, Moon has played one of the most difficult roles in the peace process, having to be the go-between for Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump at times when mild tensions have emerged in the course of the dialogue process between Washington and Pyongyang. Moon Jae-in has also overseen an expansion of his state’s trade with Russia, while in October of last here, he made a private agreement with his Chinese partners to reduce military tensions in the region. This means that Moon is a figure able to privately coordinate peace making efforts between all three of the superpowers who each have a specific interest in Korea, in China and Russia’s case because the Korean peninsula shares a border with both.
Now, Moon has given an interview in which he appeared to endorse the joint Sino-Russian call for easing sanctions against the DPRK at the UN Security Council. During the interview Kim, did not specifically mention the recent Sino-Russian proposal but he did articulate the spirit and in many respects the letter of the proposal. Moon stated,
“I do believe that promotion of human rights through international pressure is not very effective. We need to engage in inter-Korean cooperation, as well as cooperation between Pyongyang and the international society”.
Thus, by arguing that more openness in the DPRK can result from the phenomenon of peace through prosperity which can only occur once UN sanctions are either reduced or lifted, President Moon has quietly, diplomatically but clearly endorsed the Chinese and Russian position to lift sanctions prior to the completion of de-nuclearisation while at present South Korea’s American ally has vowed only to lift sanctions once de-nuclearisation is finalised.