Dream in the Limbo: Moon Jae-in´s Policy for the Korean Peninsula

The armed conflict between the two Koreas has interested me for some time now, especially once I started studying International Relations. And I guess what drew my attention is not only the contrast between the Korean Peninsula and South America but also the South Korean president’s, Moon Jae-in, policy for the Korean Peninsula. 

Historically, there have been very few armed conflicts in the South America region, despite the high levels of violence, whereas Asia is one of the most affected continents when it comes to armed conflicts. The two Koreas conflict alone has been “active” for 70 years now, surviving the Cold War and it still has escalations every now and then. This conflict is considered active due to the lack of a peace treaty – there is only an armistice. Furthermore, Moon Jae-in’s policy towards North Korea is a limbo between the US and North Korea.

Moon Jae-in’s administration started in 2017. As he rose to power, the policy South Korea had towards its sister from the North changed completely. For the past 10 years, the previous conservative administrations cut all ties with North Korea, isolating it. Moon Jae-in strongly believes that embracing the North is the route for achieving peace. His policy then took after the ‘sunshine’ one, adopted from 1998 to 2008, which was also pro-engagement.  But what drives his policy and how has he shaped it? 

Moon Jae-in’s peaceful reunification goals seem to derive from his past. Before becoming president, Moon Jae-in worked as a human rights lawyer and activist – leading a pro-democracy movement in South Korea during the 80s. His liberal vision matches his take towards North Korea and explains pro-engagement stance – shared with most liberals in South Korea. 

However, what also seems to drive his policy is his parents. Both of them fled from the North Korean regime during the Korean War. Moon Jae-in stated in a book he wrote in 2017 that his dream was taking his mother back to her hometown in North Korea and “finish his life there in Hungnam doing pro bono service”.

In terms of the shaping of his policy, the context is important, specifically North Korean nuclear arms development and the escalation of tensions with the US. Moon Jae-in shaped the policy into two major plans he addressed in the “Berlin Initiative” in 2017. First, he would respond accordingly to North Korea’s provocations, and second, he would work towards establishing a peace regime

For the first part of the action plan, he displayed a ‘show of force’, running military exercises and showcasing South Korea’s capability to deal with North Korea. In the second part, lies the biggest improvement – the construction of the peace regime. On that matter, he played the role of the mediator between the US and North Korea.

In 2018 he was quite successful as he made history with Kim Jong-un being the first president from North Korea to cross the border to the South since the war, and as the three inter-Korean summits yielded agreements and joint projects. Furthermore, the negotiation between Trump and Kim Jong-un was promising. 

Nevertheless, this regime failed as in 2019 negotiations with the US fell through and Trump maintained the sanctions. As Moon relied on the US-North Korea negotiation to go well, especially regarding sanctions and embargoes that he upholds due to his proximity with the US and to western values – as showcased throughout his career. He now finds his joint projects hinged by them.

Since 2019, his policy has been losing strength more and more each day.  His entanglement to the U.S. hinges his policy as he has no real power to persuade Trump of lifting the embargoes and Kim Jong-un won’t just give up on his nuclear project. Moon finds himself in a limbo between countries whose policies depend on things out of his reach. Should Moon keep pressing Trump to favour Kim Jong-un, he risks straining his relationship with the US and Japan – his main partners against North Korea; which would favour China to expand its power. Should he respond to Kim’s recent provocations and escalations, he puts his dream for the Korean Peninsula at stake.

Despite the major setback and the limbo he is in, his policy represents a major change in the 70-year-old conflict. While it is unlikely he’ll be the President to achieve peace and unify the Koreas, he has taken important steps towards his dream and it remains to be seen what else it might yield. Moreover, should he continue to pursue his policy even though it might indicate a weakening with his ties to South Korea’s oldest allies thus calling for a reorientation?

Felipe Oliveira Santos

Research and Analysis Intern