Pyongyang (GPA– South Korean President Moon Jae In is attempting to convince the Trump Regime to be more open to talks with The DPRK (North Korea) following continued statements from Pyongyang signaling a potential opportunity for diplomacy.
south korea Moon Jae-in
South Korean President Moon Jae In
Image: Jeon Han

Moon Jae In Finally Listens to Pyongyang

After slightly more than a year of choosing to ignore official statements from Pyongyang and opting to just prescribe random motives to DPRK President Kim Jong Un, it seems at least one party in the US-South Korean alliance is finally thinking clearly. While it’s probably obvious the partner acting rationally is not the United States but instead South Korea, it is still surprising and encouraging to see Moon Jae In taking a more active role in attempting to de-escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

In this period of increasingly friendly(ish) relations between Seoul and Pyongyang – currently, in an unusually positive state following the PyeongChang Olympics – it is still unwise to place too much hope in the US client South Korean government. Yet the latest comments from Moon on Monday show that Seoul is likely growing tired of waiting for Washington to solve the Korea question.

Related: PyeongChang Olympics Show Benefits of Diplomacy Without the US

While US President Trump may be continuing his “strategy” of directing threats at Pyongyang and seemingly hoping Kim will suddenly decide to give up his nuclear program, Moon now seems to be actively seeking an opening for diplomatic engagement with his fellow Koreans.

Moon’s first comments on the issue came during a meeting with Chinese Vice-Premier Liu Yandong when he told reporters that “North Korea has shown it is open to actively engaging the United States in talks” and that there is some hope now that”the United States is talking about the importance of dialogue.” These initial comments by Moon were likely referring to a recent Washington Post interview with US Vice President Mike Pence on his return trip from the Olympics.

Mike Pence Doesn’t Matter

Despite the whole world watching as Pence went out of his way to avoid even momentary eye contact with Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo-jong while sharing VIP seating during the Olympic opening ceremonies, it seems that someone from Moon’s government at least got Pence to recognize the opportunity presented by the games. This apparently led Pence to agree with Moon that talks are necessary following a private meeting with the South Korean leader in Seoul, and despite apparently telling Moon he “didn’t know” what concessions the DPRK would need – and be willing – to make in order to begin lifting sanctions he did admit that this lack of knowledge is “why you have to have talks.”

Admittedly, Pence’s comments do sound similar to previous statements by top US officials that haven’t amounted to much substantial progress and are still relatively stern – Pence also stated the US would keep “maximum pressure” on The DPRK in the interview – but this at least indicates some potential for progress. After all, this is the same Mike Pence who once participated in a one-man staring contest (to show…US resolve..?) while visiting the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas in April of last year.

Related: US Media Turn to ‘Superhero’ Pence to Combat Korean Olympic Peace Threat

There is also another problem that must be accounted for when considering Pence’s recent statements: Donald Trump

Whether the seeming moderation in Pence’s positions will actually change anything is likely to remain unclear for the foreseeable future; or at least until it is publicly endorsed as an official strategy by Trump, and even then his position could still change in a matter of hours. There is some hope that there is currently at least some kind of unspoken approval of Pence’s interview from Trump since he has yet to comment on the DPRK in any depth since the VP’s return.

Trump may not be publicly encouraging a renewed push towards diplomacy with Pyongyang, but his silence is still probably the most desirable outcome. There is of course always a chance the President could decide to speak up, possibly against diplomatic efforts, which is likely to make Pence look like a fool. We have already seen this possible scenario play out in the past year when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the New York Times that he was hoping to open a diplomatic channel to Pyongyang only to have Trump tweet that Tillerson should “save [his] energy” because “he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man” just hours after the NYT story was published.

Related: Tillerson: US Ready to Negotiate With North Korea

It stands to reason that this chaos in Washington is likely playing a significant role in the decisions being made by Moon Jae In, who has now shown off his impressive diplomatic skill at the Winter Games, which explains his decision to retake at least some of his nation’s agency back.

While obviously, Moon won’t be – and doesn’t want to be – the leader who ends the parasitic relationship between South Korea and Washington and doesn’t support a plan for reunification through an unbiased reconciliation process, he is at least starting to play a more visible role in Korean diplomacy. Although it remains unclear how much independence Moon can or will seek, these recent changes, although small, at least provide a public channel to convey the actual feelings of South Koreans to western audiences.

This airing of South Korean’s perspectives could be an incredibly important step to encouraging a peaceful solution to the Korean standoff by reminding citizens of the US that their President is playing with millions of lives on the opposite side of the world.

The recent comments by Moon highlighted this new perspective in Seoul and showed that there is a better approach for talking to Pyongyang but in order to pursue this path, all sides must take accountability for their actions. Moon Jae In may never be able to force Washington down this path, and he is likely to keep making demands that “North Korea should express a willingness to denuclearize” but his assertion that “The United States needs to lower the threshold for dialogue,” is still a breath of fresh air.

Related: Trump Demands Payment for THAAD System He Sent to South Korea

The US is unlikely to listen to these pleas, but at the same time it shows that Moon understands the importance and urgent need for diplomacy, saying “It’s important the United States and North Korea sit down together quickly.”

Moon Jae In’s comments and actions (such as postponing but then resuming joint military drills with the US, much to Pyongyang’s chagrin) show just how limited his freedom truly is but the fact that he is utilizing the few powers he has shows some level of commitment to peace. Those safely tucked away in the United States may not grasp the weight of Trump’s escalations in Korea, but Moon likely loses some sleep over it.