However, Moon may be preparing to challenge Washington’s stranglehold over policy toward the North. Before being selected, Park advocated “autonomy” for the ROK, since Washington was “responsible for the strain on inter‐Korean relations.” He further contended that the minister of unification should “have it out with the U.S. when there are problems with it being too excessive with its sanctions,” which these days is always.
Should Moon decide to challenge Washington he has a solid political base, his party has won a sizeable majority in the recent National Assembly elections. Moreover, the election of his successor remains two years off, giving him time to pursue new initiatives toward the North. While his chance of success looks poor, given the DPRK’s recent hostility, a decision to challenge American sanctions—perhaps play a game of geopolitical chicken with an ally of seven decades—might change the inter‐Korean dynamic.
Indeed, U.S. analysts are used to South Korean subservience to American objectives, essentially the high price exacted for accepting defense by an overweening superpower like the U.S. So the latest ROK initiative has raised Washington suspicions. Last week David Maxwell of the uber‐hawkish Foundation for the Defense of Democracies complained that Moon “put in place a new national security team that is composed of figures known for their close ties to North Korean officials. The composition of the team indicates that Moon plans to double down on his ‘Peace Strategy’ and will attempt to engage Pyongyang regardless of the U.S. position.”
This sign of independent thought and commitment to engagement obviously worries Maxwell, who argued that “it is imperative that such engagement does not come at the expense of sanctions. Seoul wants to force a diplomatic breakthrough at all costs; given Park’s and Lee’s histories, this could lead to a policy of rewarding the North simply for coming to the table, possibly in direct contravention of sanctions.”
Maxwell is particularly concerned that Lee desires to challenge the joint U.S.-ROK strategy working group which many in the South see as an American attempt to hinder Moon’s engagement efforts. Indeed, Lee had the temerity to observe: “North Korea sanctions are not an end in themselves.” Rather, he insisted, “the ultimate objective is peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
Maxwell’s hardline position highlights the problem of sanctions, which, contra Lee’s expressed sentiments, the administration appears to be treating as an end rather than a means. America’s ever escalating economic war against the North has failed to deliver denuclearization, just as similar attacks on other nations have failed to force political change. Now administration officials routinely declare sanctions to be a success by punishing impoverished societies such as Iran, Syria, and Venezuela, as if that was their original objective. In effect, the administration glories in creating economic hardship, seemingly for its own sake. As long as North Koreans are hungry, administration policymakers apparently feel good about their policy towards the DPRK.
Maxwell hopes that other South Korean officials, especially Foreign Minister Kang Kyung‐wha and Special Representative Lee Do‐hoon, can “manage” these newly appointed advocates of engagement. However, such an attitude demonstrates the bizarre incentives created when a country contracts out its security to another party with far different interests.
The ROK has an overriding interest in peace on the peninsula. South Koreans have lived with war and the possibility of renewed conflict for 70 years. In contrast, for Americans the possibility of war is more theoretical. U.S. analysts cheerfully debate the possibility of preventative military strikes on nuclear facilities as if the lives of millions of Koreans were not at stake.
Indeed, Sen. Lindsey Graham blithely dismissed the consequences of starting a nuclear war “over there,” apparently believing that the potential of a catastrophic conflagration mattered little. For him, it seems, the potential human catastrophe is just a matter of eggs and omelets, as communist sympathizers once insisted.
With a still relatively new and certainly different government in power in the North, Moon understandably wants to take advantage of every possible opportunity to end the peninsula’s unique cold war. He clearly sees peace as the end, and sanctions as only a means, one that should be discarded if it impedes achieving peace. So does his new unification minister, Lee, who insisted that “Sanctions should not be pursued for the sake of sanctions but for realizing their ultimate goal of building peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
No doubt, ROK officials might be too optimistic in their estimation of the chance of reaching a genuine accord—so far the North, which started one big war and has initiated lots of smaller provocations, has not been the easiest negotiating partner. Nevertheless, they correctly understand the counterproductive attitude in Washington. And the Korean people appear to demonstrate realism in action: nine of ten don’t believe that the North intends to denuclearize, but a plurality of 46 percent nevertheless support engagement, up from 38 percent last November.
More important, Washington has no new or useful ideas. This administration, like its predecessors, believes in more of the same. Evermore. If you just pile on enough sanctions and threaten war often enough the North Koreans will crawl to Washington and surrender. Of course, this strategy has failed for years, even decades, with the Cubans, Iranians, Venezuelans, Syrians, and Russians. Indeed, what the North accurately calls America’s “hostile policy” makes it imperative for them to build nuclear weapons. After Libya, and Muammar Khadafy’s brutal death, what rational North Korean leader would surrender the North’s nuclear arsenal?
Now also might be the right time for Moon to decide if South Korea is a truly independent nation or not. Will the ROK forever transfer responsibility for its security to another nation which believes that many other objectives have priority?
Moon should start by repealing unilateral ROK sanctions. They have limited practical effect but matter symbolically. Then he should have a heart‐to‐heart chat with President Donald Trump. If the U.S. won’t relax selective sanctions to empower Seoul, Moon should move ahead anyway. And dare Washington to sanction its ally which it claims to be defending.