North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui told reporters Friday that South Korea is “a player, not an arbiter” as it is an ally of the United States, in an apparent show of discontent with the Seoul government. Her remarks have placed the South Korean government in a tricky position, which has considered itself as a mediator between Washington and Pyongyang and sought the expansion of inter-Korean economic cooperation.
The Moon Jae-in administration has tried to serve as a mediator that helps bring the United States and the North to the negotiating table by leveraging improved inter-Korean relations. However, controversies have erupted over Seoul’s apparent leaning towards Pyongyang’s demands including sanctions relief and the expansion of inter-Korean projects. For example, though U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly made it clear since the Hanoi summit that sanctions will remain in place until complete denuclearization is realized, President Moon suggested the two allies were not in lock step with each other by saying that he would discuss with Washington the resumption of tour programs to Mount Kumgang and the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Moreover, Moon’s close aides are blaming the United States for the breakdown of the Hanoi summit and declaring that they will go their own way, causing concern over a discord between the allies. Those in and out of the government in the United States are also pointing out that the South is not being a fair mediator, but siding with the North.
The current administration’s North Korea policy stems from the former Roh Moo-hyun government’s theory in which Seoul sees itself as a balancer in Northeast Asia. Yet, the theory ended in complete failure as it overlooked the fact that a country needs to be equipped with military and economic power comparable to that of the world’s powers to play a balancer’s role in the region. Whether it is a driver, a mediator, or a facilitator, a country cannot assume the role with words alone. Solid national power that allows a country to exert influence as required during negotiations is a prerequisite to a mediator.
South Korea is a country under direct threat of the North’s nuclear and missile weapons. In such reality, the idea of playing as a mediator between Washington and Pyongyang itself was an illusion. Following the collapse of the Hanoi summit, North Korea has threatened to take provocative actions yet again by test-launching missiles. Now that we are in a new phase, the Seoul government, based on a solid South Korea-U.S. alliance, should actively interfere in the nuclear talks not as a mediator but as a party. We cannot leave our future to the hands of the United States or North Korea.