Trump's Plan to Isolate North Korea Faces Trouble - The Wall Street Journal

Trump's Plan to Isolate North Korea Faces Trouble--in the South

South Korea's likely next leader favors engagement with Pyongyang, as Trump pushes isolation

Cheng, Jonathan. Wall Street Journal (Online); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]04 May 2017: n/a.

SEOUL--The U.S. bid to isolate North Korea faces a major test next week in South Korea, where an advocate of more engagement with Pyongyang is favored to win the presidential election.

Moon Jae-in was chief of staff a decade ago when South Korea's then-president met in Pyongyang with the current North Korean leader's father during a period when Seoul showered the North with humanitarian and economic aid, called the Sunshine Policy.

If elected, as appears increasingly likely, Mr. Moon has suggested he would renew such efforts, engaging economically with the Northin a policy his advisers call Sunshine 2.0. That would mark a big shift from the hard-line approach of ousted President Park Geun-hye and potentially put Seoul at odds with Washington.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged countries at a United Nations Security Council ministerial session "to suspend or downgrade diplomatic relations with North Korea," and to "cut off a flow of needed resources."

Ms. Park, too, had sought to sever Pyongyang's ties with the rest of the world by wooing North Korea's closest allies with military and economic aid. Her impeachment following bribery and abuse-of-power accusations triggered Tuesday's special election .

Mr. Moon, who has about 40% support from eligible voters, saw his lead erode in recent weeks as North Korean provocations lifted the prospects of a rival who called for a tougher line on North Korea. In response, Mr. Moon toughened his rhetoric on Pyongyang, saying its provocations are making it difficult to avoid tightening sanctions.

In recent days, Mr. Moon's lead has widened as his more conservative rivals have split the remaining votes. Eurasia Group, which had lowered Mr. Moon's chances of winning last month to 55%, this week boosted those odds to 80%. The candidate with the most votes wins.

In contrast to his fellow candidates, Mr. Moon has argued that isolation hasn't worked. He has pushed for reopening two inter-Korean projects from the Sunshine Policy era--a jointly-run industrial business park and a tourist resort. Both could potentially send millions of dollars to North Korea.

Mr. Moon's rivals have questioned whether South Korea can reopen those projects without violating U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at reining in North Korea's weapons program.

And Mr. Moon wouldn't stop there. His advisers say that restarting the two projects would be just a "steppingstone" toward what Mr. Moon calls "economic unification," with many more inter-Korean projects to come. He also would seek to organize a summit with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, his advisers said.

Mr. Moon said he also would reassess whether to allow a U.S.-backed antimissile system aimed at blocking a North Korean attack tooperate on South Korean soil. The system, called Thaad, began operating this week .

Mr. Moon declined requests for an interview. But Choi Jong-kun, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul who helped Mr. Moon craft his platform on North Korea, said in an interview that Mr. Moon's approach would differ from those of his predecessors.

Under the Sunshine Policy, Mr. Choi said, South Korea often supplied aid without demanding progress on denuclearization. In contrast, Mr. Moon would explicitly link inter-Korean cooperation with such efforts.

A decade after the last inter-Korean summit, Mr. Choi said that North Korea should be confronted as an economic problem, not a political one.

"North Korea should not be dealt with in an ideological domain because it's already been won," Mr. Choi said. "We see it primarily as a lost economic opportunity. We should be there to capitalize North Korea."

That attempt at rapprochement with the North is likely to bring South Korea into conflict with Mr. Trump's policy. Mr. Tillerson last week called for "no relaxation in the vigorous implementation of sanctions" on North Korea.

Jeffrey Robertson, an expert on South Korean diplomacy at Yonsei University, said Mr. Moon's policies would potentially strain the alliance between Washington and Seoul.

"Any U.S. policy to further isolate North Korea is going to come up against the policies of the new South Korean administration," he said.

Also unclear is whether North Korea would accept any restraints on its nuclear and missile programs. It has so far steadfastly resisted pressure from abroad.

Robert Kelly, a professor of political science at Pusan National University in South Korea, compared the potential tension to the early 2000s, when Mr. Moon's engagement-minded boss Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea's then-president, struggled with the George W. Bush administration's tougher approach.

Mr. Kelly said Mr. Moon's conciliatory policy might make South Korea a global outlier, given the North's nuclear and missile programs, and such controversies as its alleged involvement in the killing earlier this year of Kim Jong Nam, the half brother of Kim Jong Un.

"I don't see it meshing well," Mr. Kelly said. "If Moon wants to go back to the Sunshine Policy, he has to prove what's different this time around."