Last July, the newly elected South Korean president stunned everyone with his speech in Berlin. Moon Jae-in deliberately chose the once long-divided German capital for a keynote address on his future North Korea policy. He believes in “change through rapprochement.” After all, Germany had demonstrated how despite all adversities, reconciliation and reunification were never in doubt. His speech in Berlin both astonished and bewildered his audience. Rapturous applause and chants like “visionary” and “dreamer” filled the chamber, but some older Koreans expressed disapproval by hissing words like “traitor.”
Formerly a human rights lawyer, Moon’s stand on dialogue, disarmament and peace is in stark contrast to that of the previous conservative government. South Korea, Moon says, is not aiming for the collapse or the annexation of the North; rather it is about a gradual rapprochement with the help of small steps and confidence-building measures. The main intention is to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table, Moon stresses, noting that there could be closer economic cooperation and family visits. In that spirit, North Korea was allowed to take part in the recent Winter Olympics, and Moon even suggested that he would be willing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “under right conditions.”
Moon’s strategy is based on the “Neue Ostpolitik” (or new eastern policy) of Willy Brandt. The former West German chancellor pushed the policy through during the Cold War despite many obstacles.
This led to a significant decline in tensions between the two German states and ultimately to their reunification. It showed that progress could be achieved through calmness instead of confrontation, dialogue instead of dogma and tiny steps instead of bombastic words. Many Koreans know of Brandt’s strategy, for which the former German statesman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971.
It is therefore not surprising that already three South Korean presidents have deliberately chosen Germany to outline their North Korea policy: Kim Dae-jung presented his reconciliation-oriented “Sunshine Policy” in Berlin in March 2000, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that same year. Conservative President Park Guen-hye expressed her readiness for relief deliveries and economic cooperation during her 2014 Dresden speech, although nothing came of it. And since Moon is clearly guided by Kim Dae-jung, the course he presented in Berlin has been dubbed the “Moonshine Policy.”
Moon signaled this readiness for dialogue even at a time when US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un were busy trading threats and insults.
Pyongyang’s rocket tests drew international sanctions, along with fiery speeches at the UN Security Council, resolutions, and the usual absurdity that we’ve experienced in dealing with North Korea for decades.
Moon’s policy suddenly shows effect
Nobody really believed that Moon’s overtures of peace would succeed. Even Moon, who was ready for dialogue, had to call for tighter sanctions following persistent North Korean provocations. Suddenly, however, this combination of harshness and willingness to talk proved effective: in his New Year speech, North Korea’s ruler surprisingly expressed readiness to send a delegation to the Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang.
And all of a sudden, there was movement in the deadlocked relations, beginning with starchy meetings of military delegations and the re-establishment of a hotline, to the joint entrance into the Olympic Stadium and unified inter-Korean sports teams, and finally the charm offensive by Kim’s sister.
Days later, Kim personally received a high-level delegation from the South for dinner, and now a sensation: there could be a summit between Kim and Moon as early as in April, followed a month later by a meeting between Kim and Trump. What a sensational development!
North Korea has apparently said it intends to waive further missile tests during the dialogue phase. Even denuclearization could be on the table, Pyongyang said, as there would be no reason for the controversial nuclear program if there were no more threats against North Korea and the security of the North Korean leadership were guaranteed.
The US must play along
Needless to say, caution must be exercised as North Korea remains unpredictable. But Moon’s olive branch has rendered far more than Trump’s and Kim’s saber-rattling over the past few months. Neither the tweeting Trump nor the increasingly powerful Xi Jinping of China deserves any merit for this rapprochement. Undoubtedly, it was the tougher sanctions that nudged Kim toward the negotiating table; however, the situation also calls for partners who are open to negotiations.
The US and China, as well as Russia, have so far contributed little constructively to the resolution of the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. For once, the Koreans have taken the matters into their own hands.
Nevertheless, it is in Washington, Beijing and Moscow that the fate of Korea will be decided. So Moon also has to involve China and Russia in the process, while persuading the US to adopt a more accommodative stance instead of a threatening posture.
A first step could be in the form of halting the joint military drills by American and South Korean forces. The exercises had already been postponed once before.
An escalation can only be prevented through dialogue. Everyone has to back down because an all-out conflict would only result in losers — especially in Korea. And after decades of being under foreign domination, it is the Koreans who should now decide on their future, not some distant superpower. The international community can actively support the two Koreas. Change through rapprochement is indeed possible, as German history has proven.