Despite skepticism and foreseeable hurdles, President Yoon Suk-yeol’s “audacious initiative” to North Korea deserves attention. But it does so only if the Yoon administration has a workable roadmap to beat the odds stacked by domestic and international concerns.
Yoon has embarked on a familiar economic path. In his Liberation Day speech on Aug. 15, he unveiled a slew of aid projects in exchange for nuclear disarmament in the North. He offered food, assistance for power generation and distribution, modernization of airports and seaports, hospitals and healthcare, and improvement of agricultural productivity, as well as international investment and financial support.
Overall, Yoon’s initiative resembles his predecessors’ proposals to the North. They all failed to get much traction. Besides flat rejections by the North, it has reneged on previous understandings. In other words, past administrations in Seoul and Washington have been played the fool. From Pyongyang’s standpoint, there might also have been instances of being mistreated or dishonored.
What makes Yoon think he will have a different fate? How can one expect the North to come to the table and talk now, when it has declared itself a nuclear weapons state? Yoon doesn’t even address the North’s security concerns. As is well known, the globally isolated North considers nuclear weapons as “a deterrent against a world that it believes is seeking to destroy it,” or the regime’s ultimate security guarantee in the face of America’s “hostile policy.”
Since his inauguration in May, Yoon has vowed to bolster military alliance with the United States to counter the growing threat from the North and reinstated joint military exercises which have been suspended or pared down as part of former President Donald Trump’s ultimately failed diplomatic outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. North Korea has condemned the past drills as a rehearsal for invasion. Coincidence or not, the allies’ joint drills began just days after Yoon’s Liberation Day address.
Moreover, the kind of economic aid Yoon has offered requires the lifting of United Nations sanctions on the North. The presidential office said it consulted with Washington about the possibility of easing the sanctions when the aid initiative was being prepared. However, the US State Department commented that “Seoul’s initiative was entirely consistent with the Biden administration’s own approach” to rid the North of its nuclear ambition through diplomacy and dialogue, but without mentioning sanctions relief.
North Korea keeps playing hardball. Rejecting Yoon’s overture was hardly surprising. But the refusal to reset the mood came faster and in a tougher manner than expected. Pyongyang launched two cruise missiles off its west coast on Aug. 17, the day when Yoon gave his first press conference marking 100 days of his presidency. Two days later, Kim Yo-jong, the influential sister of Kim Jong-un, bombarded rough words on Yoon and his proposal.
“Nobody barters its destiny for corn cake,” said Kim Yo-jong angrily, calling Yoon “really foolish and still childish.” In a statement released through state media under the title, “Don’t have an absurd dream,” she called his initiative “an impracticable one to create mulberry fields in the dark blue ocean” and “the height of absurdity.”
She dismissed Yoon’s plan as a copy of “Vision 3000 through Denuclearization and Openness,” of President Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) to push North Korea toward denuclearization and open-door policy in return for massive aid and investment. Lee, a conservative, pledged to raise the North’s per capita income to the level of $3,000 within 10 years. But inter-Korean relations worsened during his term. As of 2021, North Korea’s per capita income was estimated at 1,423,000 won ($1,183), or 3.5 percent of that of South Korea.
It’s a pity that Kim Jong-un is using his younger sister in the role of “bad cop” in inter-Korean relations, blaring invectives and eroding her favorable image built in the South through mutual visits for the 2018 Winter Olympics and the subsequent summit talks. No less unfortunate is that North Korean leaders fail to notice the difference between proposals made by two conservative administrations separated by 14 years.
Kim Tae-hyo, Yoon’s deputy national security director, said the Audacious Initiative is an “upgrade” to Lee’s Vision 3000. He explained Yoon’s approach as a quid pro quo program, instead of an action-to-action formula premised on a wholesale denuclearization package: if North Korea commits to phased denuclearization and proceeds with “freezing, declaration, verification and dismantlement” of its nuclear arms program, economic assistance will be extended in kind.
Unlike Vision 3000, Yoon’s initiative includes political and military cooperation as well, which was not mentioned in the presidential speech, according to Kim. He also worked on Lee’s proposal as a member of his foreign relations and national security staff.
Yoon’s initiative, advocating for a phased process, shares a common perspective with the Biden administration’s “calibrated, practical approach” toward the goal of the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. This implies a greater chance of success, even though North Korea cannot but be a low-priority issue for the Biden administration due to the war in Ukraine and the economic, political and social turbulence in the US.
President Yoon is in no position to place the North Korean nuclear issue high on his agenda either. He is apparently overwhelmed with tackling political and economic problems, with his approval ratings hovering around 30 percent, threatening to drop further anytime, and his ruling People Power Party helplessly embroiled in internal strife.
Seemingly lost in all the blueprints and spreadsheets is people-to-people contact. It has proven again and again to be an icebreaker. Might Yoon elicit cooperation from the opposition Democratic Party of Korea, instead of accusing the liberals of their policy of appeasement toward the North and even seeking their criminal indictment? Recall the unvarnished mood when athletes and entertainers of both Koreas have stood shoulder to shoulder, without the political baggage. Genuine mutual trust and cooperation needs time to materialize.
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.