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Moon’s progress on NK at risk of being undone

Opposition says president must apologize for ‘policy failure,’ reshuffle security team

President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pose at their first summit held on April 27, 2018. (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pose at their first summit held on April 27, 2018. (Yonhap)

President Moon Jae-in’s North Korean policies are drawing heavy fire after Pyongyang snapped all inter-Korean communications, casting doubts on the future of relations between both countries.

On Tuesday, North Korea’s dissatisfaction with Seoul came to a head, with Pyongyang ending communications with the South on all lines, and warning of hostile actions to exact the price of “betrayal.”

Accusations and threats against the South are nothing unusual for the North, but the latest development is likely to add burden on Moon, while adding fuel to the opposition bloc’s criticism.

“Shutting down the liaison office, and claiming that relations will be changed to that of hostilities is a declaration by the North that the peace process that began with the PyeongChang Winter Olympics has failed,” Rep. Joo Ho-young, main opposition United Future Party floor leader, said Wednesday, after a meeting with the party’s lawmakers with defense and diplomatic backgrounds.

Following the meeting, the lawmakers -- including former North Korean diplomat Rep. Thae Yong-ho -- issued a statement demanding an apology from Moon, and replacement of high-level officials in security related posts.

“President Moon must apologize to the people for the failed North Korean policies, and completely replace the security line,” the lawmakers said in the statement.

They said Moon must wake up from the “illusion of appeasement policy.”

Improving inter-Korean relations has been one of Moon administration’s main policy goals from the start, and one of the few key drives that appear to be obtaining results.

In 2018 inter-Korean relations began to thaw rapidly leading to three inter-Korean summits and two US-North Korea summit meetings.

Moon’s meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have produced a number of agreements, of which the Comprehensive Military Agreement signed during the summit in Pyongyang has been hailed by Seoul as monumental progress in inter-Korean relations. The establishment of direct communication channels at the border liaison office and the two leaders’ offices were regarded as another huge move.

However, the hotlines have been cut off and the agreement is now on the line, with Kim Yo-jong -- the North Korean leader’s sister and first vice department director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea -- stating that Seoul should be prepared for its termination if anti-North Korea leaflet issue is not addressed. For the Moon administration, the timing of Pyongyang’s move will add to the burden.

From earlier this year, Moon has stated that he will seek ways to work with the North without the involvement of the US and the international community, shifting from its focus on US-North Korea dialogue. Seoul has reached out to Pyongyang with related plans such as cooperating on the COVID-19 pandemic, but the North has largely responded with silence.

In contrast to the opposition’s criticism that Seoul has been focused on appeasing Pyongyang, some experts say that the slow progress in the South’s policies is likely to have fueled the North’s frustration.

“It has been just mere words. For the North, the South Korean government’s words and actions are different, (Seoul’s actions) have been opposite to (facilitating) reconciliation and cooperation,” Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Sejong Institute’s Center for North Korean Studies, said.

“There is a need for actions to match the words, and it is also necessary for actions to move ahead of words. At the least, the two need to move at the same pace.”

Although the latest development has put its North Korean policies in jeopardy, the South Korean government has so far declined to take an official position, saying only that the communication lines are vital for inter-Korean relations and that it will closely follow future developments.

The US, meanwhile, has expressed disappointment, with a Department of State official telling a local news agency that Washington is “disappointed” with Pyongyang’s decision, and that the US has “always supported progress in inter-Korean relations.”

While the North threatens to raise tensions on the peninsula, those responsible for the leaflets -- which Pyongyang cited as the reason for its actions -- appear undeterred.

On Wednesday, Fighters for Free North Korea -- a nongovernmental organization campaigning to undermine the North Korean regime -- revealed plans to send leaflets on June 25 from a location in northern Gyeonggi Province.

The police plan to deploy units at locations used for launching balloons carrying leaflets in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, and other regions in preparation for possible clashes between activists and residents who oppose the leaflets due to safety concerns.

By Choi He-suk (