SEOUL, South Korea >> South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in his final months in office, has expressed concern over North Korea’s expanding weapons program and the possibility it could resume nuclear and long-range missile tests that would revive fears of war in the region.
Renewed tensions between Washington and Pyongyang have been a major setback for Moon, a dovish liberal and son of northern war refugees who staked his single presidential term on his ambitions for inter-Korean rapprochement.
His written comments on North Korea and other topics were provided Thursday to The Associated Press and other news agencies. South Korea’s presidential election is in March, and Moon leaves office in May after serving a five-year term.
He called for a summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Joe Biden to resolve deep disagreements in exchanging the release of crippling U.S.-led sanctions against the North and the North’s disarmament steps.
“If North Korea’s repeated missile launches go as far as to breach (Kim’s self-imposed) moratorium, that would instantly bring the Korean Peninsula back to the crisis situation of five years ago when there were concerns of war,” Moon said. “The political leaders of related nations should engage in persistent dialogue and diplomacy to prevent a similar crisis.”
Kim orchestrated a highly provocative run of nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests in 2017 that triggered a verbal exchange of war threats between him and then-President Donald Trump, before he initiated diplomacy with Seoul and Washington in 2018.
Moon met Kim three times in 2018 and lobbied hard to help set up Kim’s meetings with Trump. But the diplomacy never recovered from the collapse of the second Kim-Trump meeting in 2019 in Vietnam, where the Americans rejected North Korea’s demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for dismantling an aging nuclear facility, which would have amounted to a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.
North Korea has also severed all cooperation with Moon’s government while expressing anger over U.S.-South Korea military exercises and Seoul’s inability to wrest concessions from Washington on its behalf.
Asked what’s left of his foreign policy legacy, Moon said he remained proud about his role in converting the tensions of 2017 into high-stakes diplomacy between the Koreas and the United States, which at least stabilized the situation on the peninsula.
He regretted the outcome of the Hanoi meeting and said Washington and Pyongyang should have kept the diplomatic momentum alive by pursing a smaller interim deal rather than allowing negotiations to entirely fall through.
While Biden had accused Trump of chasing the spectacle of summits rather than meaningful curbs on the North’s nuclear capabilities, Moon still urged a return to top-down diplomacy, saying it would hopefully be “only a matter of time” before Biden and Kim meet. He called for South Korea’s next government to push for a political declaration between the Koreas, the United States and possibly China to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War, which stopped on an armistice, not a peace treaty.
“If the North Korea-U.S. talks resume and the leaders of North Korea and the United States historically meet once again, I hope they could reach substantial progress in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the implementation of a peace process and the normalization of U.S.-North Korea relations,” Moon said.
Reviving an old pattern of brinkmanship, North Korea kicked off 2022 with a flurry of missile tests before apparently pausing the displays during the Winter Olympics in China, its main ally. Analysts believe North Korea will dramatically increase its weapons testing after the Olympics to try to move the needle with Biden, whose administration has offered open-ended talks but has shown no willingness to ease sanctions without meaningful cuts to North Korea’s nuclear program.
Moon is spending his last days in office grappling with an unprecedented wave in coronavirus infections driven by fast-moving omicron variant, which has stretched worn-out health workers. The surge has come after a delta-driven spread that spiked hospitalizations and deaths in December and early January, which erased the country’s earlier epidemiological gains Moon had touted as a major accomplishment.
Unlike in those earlier speeches, Moon did not boast about gains made against the virus in his latest comments. He noted that COVID-19 left many people struggling for an extended period, which he said was “more regrettable than anything else.”
Moon’s government has also been criticized over soaring house prices and decaying job markets while his party has been accused of partisan politics that critics say stoked public division along the lines of ideology, generation and gender.
“The real estate issue was the heaviest burden through my term,” Moon said, acknowledging policy failures. He said his government will work “until the end” to stabilize the housing market by increasing supplies and suppressing speculative buying.
As for his life after leaving office, Moon said he hasn’t had time to think about it really, but that he had no plans to stay involved in politics and was “not even planning to do social activities as a former president.”