South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Tuesday in a telephone conversation with U.S. President Donald Trump that South Korea is ready and willing to play a role in providing corresponding measures to encourage North Korea's denuclearization steps by reconnecting inter-Korean railways and roads and launching inter-Korean economic cooperation projects. Volunteering to provide the North with economic assistance in return for the North’s denuclearization measures, the South Korean president was requesting that the international community exempt inter-Korean economic cooperation projects from North Korea sanctions.
Moon’s remarks will certainly cause controversies both at home and abroad. The sanctions are a means to put pressure on North Korea to come to the negotiating table for denuclearization. His remarks are nothing but a declaration to take the initiative in bringing down the sanctions frontline. At a time when negative views about providing economic assistance to the North still remain, it is questionable whether the South Korean public will accept Moon’s willingness to shoulder the huge financial burdens without seeking a public consensus in advance. South Korea’s National Assembly Budget Office estimates the cost of the planned inter-Korean economic cooperation projects at 115 trillion won (102.4 billion U.S. dollars).
It is hard to understand why Moon disclosed the negotiation cards ahead of the U.S.-North Korea working-level talks for the upcoming summit. While he made the remarks during a telephone conversation with Trump, it was probably meant to be a message to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The South Korean president probably intended to prompt Kim to take bold denuclearization measures in return for the resumption of Mt. Kumgang tours and the Kaesong Industrial Complex, Moon’s remarks did nothing but revealing Seoul’s eagerness for a U.S.-North Korea agreement.
There probably is another reason why Moon stepped out at the risk of causing controversies. Trump has been lowering expectations on the upcoming summit with Kim, saying that there needs to be “no rush.” That seems to be a signal that the ongoing negotiations have hit a snag. Moon probably intended to help the two sides make a breakthrough. It could be that he revealed the gift that he would offer to Kim to have an inter-Korean summit in Seoul.
It can be said that the attitude Seoul has taken so far suggests resuming inter-Korean economic cooperation was only a matter of time. However, the current situation seems that Seoul is trying to shoulder all the financial burdens while letting Washington free-ride. Future economic assistance to the North should be shouldered jointly among the U.S., China and Japan as well. That would ensure a virtuous circle of denuclearization steps leading to economic assistance. The speed and methods should correspond to the North’s denuclearization progress. Economic assistance to the North should be suspended or reversed any time when the North halts or backtracks its denuclearization. There should be no such thing as giving everything but taking nothing in return.