South Korea’s Policy Towards North Korea: Another ‘Grand Bargain’?

After Yoon Suk-yeol’s election as the new president of South Korea, the country’s policy towards North Korea was expected to change substantially. Unlike the Moon Jae-in administration, the new South Korean government will be strict towards North Korea. Moon Jae-in tried to engage Pyongyang during his tenure. This led to several summit meetings between South Korea, North Korea, and the US. Although it couldn’t halt their missile tests, the absence of North Korean nuclear tests since September 2017 can also be attributed to Seoul’s engagement policy. Overall, there was an improvement in inter-Korea relations under Moon but it was still far from satisfactory.

President Yoon made it clear from the very beginning that South Korea wouldn’t unconditionally and unilaterally engage North Korea. It would demand more “mutual reciprocity.” Yoon is open to dialogue, but if it doesn’t bring results and remains a “diplomatic show” without denuclearisation outcomes, he believes it won’t help inter-Korea relations. In his inaugural speech, Yoon spoke of offering North Korea an “audacious plan,” including economic assistance, in exchange for denuclearisation. He asserted that the plan would “strengthen North Korea’s economy and improve quality of life for its people.”

Alongside this offer, Seoul has also warned Pyongyang against conducting nuclear and missile tests. On 6 June, which is Memorial Day, Yoon talked about North Korea’s “advancing” nuclear threat and made a resolute commitment to “respond firmly and sternly to any provocations from North Korea.” On 9 June, Yoon promised to “strike the point of origin” if North Korea provoked as it did by shelling Yeonpyeong Islands in 2010.

On the face of it, the new South Korean administration offering economic incentives to North Korea and taking a principled stand on clear movement towards denuclearisation preceding such assistance appears reasonable. That inter-Korea talks should not be just for the sake of talks is also common sense. Interestingly, however, the Yoon government’s approach resembles President Lee Myung-bak’s 2009 grand bargain policy. Incidentally, it led to a worsening of inter-Korea relations.

The gist of the grand bargain policy was that if North Korea gave up its nuclear and missile programmes, Seoul would help Pyongyang reach US$3,000 per capita income in the next five years. The policy also offered a security guarantee to North Korea and normalisation of inter-Korea relations. Pyongyang didn’t accept the policy’s conditions, which led to an impasse in bilateral relations.

In hindsight, the failure of Lee Myung-bak’s North Korea policy shines a light on the current policy’s challenges. First, it is based on the assumption that Pyongyang is in a dire situation and won’t refuse an offer that includes economic incentives. Experience however shows that Pyongyang hasn’t generally been lured by such incentives in the past. Second, South Korea’s policy apparently doesn’t have any alternative course of action. If North Korea refuses the offer, the policy will then become irrelevant. Third, the policy assumes that more military engagement with the US, such as joint exercises, along with security cooperation with Japan, will scare and force North Korea into accepting South Korea’s conditions. In the past however the effect of more collective aggression has had the opposite result. Fourth, the policy also assumes that by making an offer to North Korea, South Korea has fulfilled its responsibility. Now it only remains for Pyongyang to reciprocate. But in fact more waiting could lead to further improvements in North Korea’s nuclear programme.

Finally, the policy adopts a ‘balanced’ approach, which has elements of both punishment and incentive. On 15 June 2022, South Korea’s Unification Minister Kwon Young-se said that his country would try to maintain “the flexibility shown by the previous liberal administrations” but won’t compromise with “a stable stance conservative administrations” have shown in the past. The problem is that such strictness has had no effect on North Korea so far and it makes the possibility of dialogue improbable.

The new North Korea policy assumes that a combination of inducements, a show of being tough and demands for reciprocity while strengthening military cooperation with the US will be productive. This means that nothing has been learnt from the past. The Yoon administration must avoid this folly.