North and South Korea are Talking Again | Opinion

South Korean President Moon Jae-in entered office in 2017 with a personal mission: facilitate a new round of diplomacy with North Korea and create a period of peace, stability and tranquility that has eluded the Korean Peninsula for his entire life. For Moon, the mission was as much a legacy item as a personal one. His parents fled the North during the 1950-53 Korean War, which ravaged the entire peninsula, killed millions of people and ended in an armistice agreement that continues to this day.

Moon, of course, isn't the first South Korean president to reach out to the Kim dynasty. The first inter-Korean summit took place in June 2000, when the former dissident Kim Dae-jung shook hands with Kim Jong Il, the late father of the current North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. Moon's efforts, however, went above and beyond his predecessors, actually producing technically sophisticated agreements rather than symbolic, largely meaningless communiques. Time put Moon on the short list for its 2018 Person of the Year, describing him as someone who "helped apply the brakes" to the dangerous, juvenile war of words that was occurring at the time between Washington and Pyongyang.

The inter-Korean rapprochement efforts, however, have only gone downhill since former President Donald Trump walked away empty-handed from his last summit with Kim Jong Un in February 2019. The North, frustrated that Moon couldn't convince Washington to suspend or cancel U.S. sanctions, has spent the last two years blaming Seoul for false promises. Communication lines between the two were severed in June 2020—and a few weeks later, the inter-Korean liaison office deliberately set up to establish long-term, daily contact was blown to bits.

Yet as history demonstrates, inter-Korean relations are often cyclical, with high points quickly descending into low depths. Commentators and analysts frequently refer to North Korea as unpredictable or even irrational, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Irrational powers don't tailor their policies when the situation around them demands it. Right now, this is exactly what Pyongyang seems to be doing.

Squeezed by the worst economic contraction and food crisis the North has seen since the famine of the mid-1990s, Kim is once again writing letters to his counterpart from the South. The North and South Korean governments have both confirmed that the two sides are again sending messages to one another through established communication channels. Prospects of yet another North-South summit are reportedly under discussion, as is the rebuilding of the liaison office that was destroyed a little over a year ago.

South Korea's President Moon Jae-in
South Korea's President Moon Jae-in addresses a press conference on June 14, 2021, in Vienna. GEORG HOCHMUTH/APA/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. State Department is cautiously optimistic about the latest developments, calling it "a positive step." While those words will fall on deaf ears in Pyongyang, they are likely ringing like church bells in Moon's head. The reason is simple: as much as Moon wants to improve relations with North Korea, he simply can't do it without Washington's assistance. The all-encompassing U.S. sanctions regime against Pyongyang, in addition to one of the toughest U.N. sanctions programs in history, means that South Korea at the very least needs the Biden administration to bless the effort—not only in words but in deeds. U.S. officials will never admit it openly, but Washington in effect holds a veto over South Korea's policy toward the North.

Up until today, the Biden administration has said very little about how it intends to deal with North Korea. While the White House concluded a months-long policy review in April, we still know very little about what the policy actually is. What little hints the administration has released to the public are not necessarily enlightening. All we know is that President Joe Biden intends to strike a middle ground between the top-down diplomacy favored by former President Trump and the wholly ineffective strategic patience policy elucidated during President Barack Obama's tenure. Sung Kim, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, has said the U.S. is open to talking with the North "anywhere, anytime," but North Korean officials aren't persuaded about the sincerity of the rhetoric.

The bottom line: until the Biden administration puts more flesh on the bones of its North Korea policy, it's difficult to see how attempts to improve inter-Korean relations will be anything other than minor or symbolic. That, of course, adds even more urgency in the U.S. national security apparatus to actually aid rather than obstruct the efforts toward reconciliation between the North and the South. This may require a temporary easing of U.S. and U.N. sanctions that slow down or outright block inter-Korean exchanges and trade.

For decades now, the U.S. has viewed North Korea explicitly through the prism of the nuclear weapons issue. As long as the Kim dynasty doesn't embrace and indeed work toward full, complete and verifiable denuclearization, then U.S. economic and diplomatic concessions are an impossibility.

Yet it should be evident by now that this approach has failed, abysmally so. The U.S. objective on the Korean Peninsula should be peace, stability and predictability, not a short-term denuclearization Pyongyang has no interest in implementing. A key facet of stability is the development of a more fruitful, mutually beneficial inter-Korean relationship. The best way the U.S. can assist this effort is by getting out of the way and allowing its South Korean ally to explore the possibility.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank, columnist at the Washington Examiner and a contributor to The National Interest.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.