Engagement First: Why Some Koreans See Peacemaking and Peacebuilding as the Solution to North Korea


Engagers believe that Pyongyang is acting defensively and that inter-Korean relations must be completely transformed.

Inter-Korean Relations Must Be Improved

Dr. Chung-in Moon the special advisor for unification, diplomacy, and national security affairs to South Korean President Moon Jae-in and one of the chief proponents of talking with North Korea. When asked about strategic stability, the first thing he said was, “We want peace.”

“Strategic stability means management of unstable peace. I see that the major threat to strategic stability on the Korean peninsula is obviously North Korean nuclear ambitions and very unstable inter-Korean relations.” To fix this, Dr. Chung-in Moon recommends transitioning from managing an unstable peace to building and maintaining a stable one.

In the view of many Engagers, the relationship between both Koreas—and also between North Korea and the United States—needs to be repaired if there is to be any lasting improvement. Additionally, this peace process would require mutual arms reductions.

Broadly speaking, Engagers are committed to building what President Moon Jae-in calls a “peace regime.” Dr. Chung-in Moon elaborated that, “President Moon Jae-in has a very clear policy goal—he wants a nuclear-weapons-free, peaceful, and prosperous Korean peninsula. President Moon is much more interested in making and maintaining stable peace as opposed to strategic stability.”

Engagers acknowledge that strategic stability is, in part, underpinned by the South Korean-United States military alliance and Seoul’s own military spending. The alliance and South Korea’s military have a role in each step towards peace. However, not all Engagers agree on what that would look like.

“In keeping, making, and building peace, we need the American alliance. However, for President Moon Jae-in, the most important task is to prevent the outbreak of war,” Dr. Chung-in Moon told TNI. This is why Engagers are worried about both South Korean Deterers and America’s policy of maximum pressure. They are concerned a wrong move could cause North Korea to overreact, sparking an escalating crisis no one can stop.

Dr. John Delury is a professor of modern Chinese history and an expert in Korean peninsula affairs at Yonsei University. He took the view that permanent peace is necessary, but getting there is destabilizing because it changes what people are used to. “The whole point would be to arrive at a new steady state. But a new stability predicated on getting along, not predicated on hostility, confrontation and keeping apart.”

He elaborated, “The current stability is predicated on keeping apart—that’s what the armistice does. And in peace you don’t keep apart, you can interact. Also, the current stability is predicated on fear.” North Korea’s fear of South Korea and America does help keep the peace, but it is a very dangerous way to do so indefinitely. Dr. John Delury acknowledged, “It did work during the Cold War.” But he questioned whether maintaining that “existential fear of the other” was really all that could be accomplished.

Improving inter-Korean relations requires thinking outside the box and hard work, rather than accepting the status quo as inalterable. “Deterrence gets glorified and treated as something almost sacred sometimes. And sometimes it is the best you can do, and it’s better than war, but it’s not better than peace,” insisted Dr. John Delury to TNI.

Dr. Ki-jung Kim, a professor of political science and international relations at Yonsei University and former adviser to President Moon, also believes there needs to be a better way. “Peace is imperative,” Dr. Ki-jung Kim declared to TNI. “We are in desperate need to stabilize Korean relations, and peace should be restored. Eventually, we are going to establish a peace regime through a peace treaty.”

At the same time, Dr. Ki-jung Kim told TNI that South Korea’s military is important in the interim. He knows this may sound contradictory to critics, but armed forces are part of the first of three steps on the way towards a peace regime. Both Dr. Chung-in Moon and Dr. Ki-jung Kim described those three steps as “peacekeeping, peacemaking, and peacebuilding.” For many decades, Seoul and the U.S.-South Korean Alliance have been focused only on the first step—peacekeeping—through the use of military power. But now Engagers are eager to get on with the second and third steps. “We cannot give up peacekeeping deterrence right away. But that method, that way of peace, will hopefully be decreased in the future,” emphasized Dr. Ki-jung Kim.

North Korea’s Behavior is Defensive

Engagers generally believe Pyongyang is acting defensively. To them, North Korea acts tough and builds nuclear weapons to defend itself, not because it wants to attack or blackmail Seoul. Moreover, Engagers see tensions as structural—caused by the absence of a peace treaty and a lack of substantial inter-Korean trade.

Dr. Chung-in Moon told TNI that Pyongyang sees joint South Korean-American military exercises as provocative preparations for an invasion. This is especially the case when America deploys nuclear-capable bombers nearby or when Seoul acquires cutting-edge weapons, like stealth fighters. “Our rationale was to acquire offensive weapons that can penetrate North Korean airspace without being detected by North Korean radar and attack North Korean weapons of mass destruction sites. North Korea is extremely worried about these kinds of things. And most importantly, we have the ROK-U.S. combined forces command and we have American forces here. Therefore, North Koreans think that they are facing not only the threat from South Korea, but from America… Of course, our side argues these are all defensive, but North Korea doesn’t perceive it that way.”

This problem of perception came up repeatedly. Dr. Ki-jung Kim noted the Korean War’s legacy has been difficult to overcome, and both Koreas are security-sensitive. He mentioned Korea as a whole was historically surrounded by large powers and that this remains the case today, driving defense spending. “We bought the new weapons [from America] not for or against North Korea at this moment. We are only preparing for possible future warfare, and that’s why we need to keep increasing our capability to overcome our small power mentality. For that, maybe North Korea misunderstood a bit, and there was insufficient dialogue.”

Indeed, Dr. Ki-jung Kim framed North Korea’s complaints partially as the result of failed communication but also on Pyongyang’s difficulty understanding what is currently politically feasible. He pondered, “Maybe we have partly failed to persuade North Korea, even though we are maintaining communication and dialogue since early 2018. But as I’ve said, North Korea is still expecting and demanding too much.”

Ms. Jeongmin Kim, a nonpartisan Seoul correspondent for the highly-respected site NK News, saw how South Koreans could see Pyongyang’s complaints either way. She explained that Pyongyang’s complaints change over time and this pattern must be taken into account. Ms. Jeongmin Kim also warned that any statements by North Korea need to be put in their context instead of exaggerated. “Pyongyang may claim Seoul is allegedly breaking this or that political or military agreement, but North Korea might be vague about which agreement, what they want done or if there’s any possible exchange in the offing.” Sure, Ms. Jeongmin Kim told TNI, a given South Korean weapon system might be genuinely seen as destabilizing. But “even if North Korea says drills and the acquisition of the F-35 should be stopped—these should not be seen as a tit for tat. They’re not saying if you actually acquire F-35s that they’ll do such and such [in response].”

Indeed, Dr. Chung-in Moon reflected on this security dilemma in which both sides need to maintain their defenses, even though the other will usually find that provocative. Dr. Chung-in Moon asserted this makes tension-reduction harder, but that’s why Pyongyang wants “double suspension” in which they cease ballistic missile and nuclear tests in exchange for Seoul and Washington halting military exercises. Moreover, North Korea claims President Donald Trump privately agreed to a double suspension during the 2018 Singapore Summit and yet keeps breaking it. “The best way of understanding all of this is the contradiction between peacekeeping [military drills and purchases] and peacemaking [through suspension and negotiations]. We want both, but North Korea refuses to understand our good intentions.”

Dr. John Delury also thinks North Korea really does feel threatened. “[Pyongyang] used to complain a lot about strategic assets, including certainly nuclear-capable ones, such as some of the strategic bombers.” These U.S. bombers, Dr. John Delury elaborated, are normally based in Guam, and were deployed more frequently with high-profile press coverage in response to Pyongyang’s many successful nuclear tests. However, time though, these complaints diminished as America deployed fewer strategic assets to the Korean peninsula and made less deliberate noise about them. Dr. John Delury said that recently North Korea has been angry about joint-exercises and South Korea’s new F-35s. “They don’t like this. This is tilting the balance.”

How can both Koreas find their way out of this dilemma? Dr. Chung-in Moon sees a transformative peace regime as the only real long-term solution. That means making agreements to break the cycle. “But the whole problem is this: we need some success, no matter how small, because success breeds success. But we haven’t made a tiny bit of success, and I think that is a very sad aspect of the current situation.”

In Dr. Moon’s eyes, South Korea must keep its military strength but must also transform relations to where such defenses are less necessary because both Koreas cease to see each other as hostile. But without American support for these efforts, no progress can be made and South Korean defense preparations will still look destabilizing to Pyongyang.

“My personal view is this… in Hanoi, Kim Jong-un proposed the Yongbyeong deal [of giving up the Yongbyeong nuclear sites for sanctions relief], and I think the United States should have taken it. I still don’t understand why the U.S. didn’t take it and release those five UN security council sanctions resolutions since 2016 as they affect North Korea’s economy and people’s livelihoods… There is a tendency to underestimate the strategic value of the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. But go through the simple counting: it has a five-megawatt nuclear reactor, a light-water nuclear reactor for research purposes, a radiochemical reprocessing plant for plutonium, it has a tritium laboratory for a hydrogen bomb, and it has a highly enriched uranium production facilities to produce three-to-four bombs per year. That is a big deal, not a small deal.”

How Much Disarmament Does Peace Require?

If a transformation of the inter-Korean relationship is possible, what would it take? Engagers realize no country gives up something for nothing. Yet they also think because Pyongyang’s behavior is defensive, the risks are not high.

Dr. John Delury considered how North Korea would react if South Korea shrunk its military. He knows if you think Pyongyang is just waiting to attack, then “you’d be an idiot to touch any of [South Korea’s military].” But that’s not his model.

“What’s the likely North Korean response? In my view, they would shrink their own military as South Korea should shrink theirs.” Furthermore, Dr. John Delury reads Kim Jong-un’s 2018 statement that he will focus on economic development as proof this would happen. After all, if North Korea is busy developing its economy, Pyongyang’s leaders will want more workers and fewer soldiers. “Kim Jong-un has opened up space for a mutual reduction.”

Dr. John Delury also believes universal conscription in South Korea has to come to an end anyway, if only because of their aging population. He sees in this an opportunity for an arms control agreement.

“I’m not convinced South Korea needs the size of the army it has. And then there are a lot of negative social effects on South Korean society. One of the biggest social issues here is gender, which affects things the security people love like national power, because the gender relations are so bad that young people don’t want to get married and have kids and so there goes your power because you’re a rapidly aging society.”

This breakdown in gender relations is something Dr. John Delury attributes to the draft since young men tend to serve in the middle of their college years, interrupting their dating lives and prospects. “When they come back, something has changed, the chemistry has changed.”

Moreover, Dr. John Delury is open to many other changes in South Korea’s defenses and alliance. “You can throw the U.S. Forces in Korea into the mix as well—I’m not of the view that it’s a sacred cow we can’t touch. Again, in a peace process, the alliance has to change. The alliance is predicated and built around the threat from North Korea. It’s there to prevent another Korean War. And so, if you’re tackling the roots of the problem—and moving to a place where you’re not afraid the North Koreans are going to attack anymore—you have to change the alliance along with that. Otherwise, the alliance will collapse on its own irrelevance. And actually, there are some signs of that happening—which I don’t think is good. But you have to transform it. And that transformation can include reducing the alliance’s military size, in a coordinated fashion with the two Koreas.”

When asked about how much of a cut he envisioned, Dr. John Delury suggested maybe reducing the U.S. troop presence by 10,000 soldiers but keeping the alliance. In his view, such a move would reduce tensions and misperceptions without compromising security. Dr. John Delury also wants other stabilizing measures such as not publicizing programs that train to take out Kim Jong-un. Furthermore, maybe Seoul and Pyongyang could end those capabilities. “Decapitation units are not helpful. One easy test is to ask ‘do we mind if North Korea does this stuff?’” Dr. John Delury brought up Pyongyang’s alarming use of fake videos showing them blowing up the South Korea presidential residence. If South Korea minds such decapitation units and threats, might not North Korea reasonably perceive Seoul’s capabilities the same way?

Other South Korean programs that might impact strategic stability include the “kill-chain” to stop a North Korean attack and Seoul’s “massive retaliation” program to respond after Pyongyang attacked.

Dr. Youngjun Kim is a professor of international politics at Korea National Defense University and a member of the National Security Advisory Board at the South Korean President’s Office. He wants South Korea to maintain its defenses, but not if they don’t work or are counterproductive to denuclearization. “Do we have a real capability for kill-chain or massive retaliation? Inside the South Korean army, you have a discussion—‘is this an imaginary scenario or actually do we have that capability?’ The Kill Chain is targeted on North Korea, but now we have the denuclearization process, so we have to stop work on this capability. We have to think of the bigger picture.” To Dr. Youngjun Kim, putting a two to three-year hold on joint military exercises and developing capabilities like the kill-chain “isn’t that long,” and no one is arguing for something extreme like “100 or 200 years.”

Ultimately, though, there are limits to how far some Engagers will go. There is no one definition of how far is far enough when it comes to arms reductions or negotiations. Dr. John Delury may want changes Deterers would never agree to, but he is skeptical Seoul should give up the F-35 or ballistic missiles. When asked about the stealth fighter, Dr. John Delury said, “I don’t know where you go with that… I’m a peacenik but not to the point of saying let’s just get rid of it; let’s just disarm when the North Koreans are not disarming and it’s not reasonable to expect them to.”

Moreover, even though South Korea’s very high-caliber ballistic missile program could be used to attempt to strike North Korean nuclear sites or leadership, Dr. John Delury did not think it should be unilaterally on the table. “That’s hard because North Korea has not promised to get rid of all their missiles, they’ve not promised to freeze their missile program as a whole. Even in best-case scenarios, with diplomacy, I would imagine they’ll continue to do a certain amount of missile testing as most countries do… There’s got to be reasonable room for the militaries to maintain a basic level of preparedness—and reciprocity is a fairly good principle.” In this case, some kind of arms control agreement with North Korea could be tried.

No matter what kind of military changes are made, Engagers generally agree transformation is necessary for any peace process. Dr. Chung-in Moon also insists there is no other way forward. “2018 was a year of great transformation. President Moon met Chairman Kim Jong-un three times and they built some sort of trust. But now we are in trouble because we haven’t delivered what was promised with the Panmunjom Declaration and Pyongyang Declaration. North Korea wants a major improvement in inter-Korean relations, but we couldn’t deliver because of the international sanctions regime. Also, North Korea wanted to suspend all hostile activities, and Pyongyang, to some extent, showed those kinds of behavior by suspending their own ballistic missile tests and nuclear tests. But South Korea and the U.S. have been conducting joint military exercises and training despite the fact President Trump said he would suspend them. North Korea really anticipated South Korea would reopen the inter-Korean Kaesong industrial complex, but because of sanctions we couldn’t do that. This really damaged the trust between the two leaders… if you are too obsessed with the logic of strategic stability or deterrence, then it will be extremely difficult to improve ties with North Korea.”

The Engagers’ Vision of Unification

A peace regime has long been a dream of the Engagers who see lasting co-existence with lowered tensions—if not some sort of economic or political union—as the end-goal. Getting there means peace and unification will occur through negotiations and a transformed relationship, rather than through North Korean collapse and absorption by South Korea.

However, this is a long-term goal. As Ms. Jeongmin Kim argued to TNI, “I think Moon Jae-in’s idea of a 2045 [unification] was a wise choice. Going for something very rapid and extreme—as of now—doesn’t make any sense. And Korea, in and of itself, is not really ready for unification socially or politically. There are still so many ideological remnants from the past the Korean people have not dealt with perfectly yet. And, North Korea, of course, has a problem with the idea of unification because they have claimed their own legitimacy as the leading role in the Korean peninsula.”

Ms. Jeongmin Kim warned these things need to be sorted out first, and in the meantime both Koreas should maintain dialogue. She elaborated that Seoul’s 2045 plan “still has the political rhetoric of engaging with North Korea, rather than seeing North Korea as an enemy, but distances the administration from any idea of going for a rapid change such as opening up all the inter-Korean exchanges like Kaesong or the Mount Kumgang tourist region, which are causing a lot of controversies right now.” Furthermore, Ms. Jeongmin Kim cautioned against rapidly lifting sanctions since that might weaken South Korea’s deterrence capabilities.

Dr. Ki-jung Kim also noted the peace process would take time. “We need to reduce unnecessary military tension with North Korea. The demilitarized zone was where military firepower was so concentrated, so peacemaking through arms control was concluded through the Comprehensive Military Agreement [in September 2019]. The pace of implementing that agreement is very slow, maybe slower than we expected, but the agreement itself is very symbolic.”

Peacebuilding should be the next step and would end with a single Korean market. This, Dr. Ki-jung Kim told TNI, would be a “peace economy” that would achieve a “capitalist peace.” He envisioned a gradual opening based on the example of Europe after World War II. Wanting to avoid another World War, European countries bound themselves together economically and then politically into what is now the European Union. “The basic assumption is that if you share a certain degree of interest in the market, then security sensitivity could be minimized. That was what we learned from the experience of Europe. We will try to integrate North Korea into our capitalist economy. It might be called economic cooperation or economic reconciliation or even South Korea’s role in the development of the North Korean economy. It might be called many things, but the basic idea is peacebuilding.” The problem, Dr. Ki-jung Kim believes, is America’s insistence on upfront denuclearization and refusal to loosen international sanctions.

Additionally, Dr. Ki-jung Kim wants a peace treaty to replace the armistice agreement, so the war can legally be over. He envisions this done along with denuclearization steps, so Washington accomplishes its goal and—more importantly—the Koreas build a new future together. To many Engagers, the choice is not a peace regime vs. denuclearization. Right now, America wants “peace through denuclearization,” but instead Seoul wants “denuclearization through peace.” This is because as long as the United States wants everything upfront, then “there is no role for South Korea. Just watching and waiting for the conclusion of the Pyongyang and Washington timeline.” Instead of being stuck on the sidelines, Dr. Ki-jung Kim explained that Seoul wants to improve inter-Korean relations to hasten along peace, which would cause denuclearization.

This view is shared among Engagers. They want Seoul to have a leading role in repairing inter-Korean relations and for America to realize peace and stability are the only path to denuclearization. They also worry Washington doesn’t always realize pushing too hard could cause the very war they want to avoid.

As Dr. Youngjun Kim told TNI, “We still suffer from the Korean War complex, right? So many people died and North Korea provoked us a thousand times, including the assassination effort on President Park Chung-hee… So we have a lot of trauma, and we really want peace on the Korean peninsula. Regime change is not the top priority for South Korea. South Korea wants peace first, and then—maybe some decades later—unification. Early unification is not hoped for by the South Korean people because of the [economic] burden it would mean.”

The catch is how to ensure eventual unification goes smoothly. One way is assisting North Korea economically as a peaceful incentive for Pyongyang, and also so the future cost for South Korean taxpayers isn’t too high. Dr. Youngjun Kim explained, “We don’t like any dictatorship. We understand the human rights issue. But the first human right is eating food, rather than political freedom or freedom of speech. If North Korean people don’t have any food, then they should get food first and then political freedom. If they are rich, they will want more political freedom.”

To Dr. Youngjun Kim, democratization and a capitalist peace cannot come without reconciliation and trade. If Kim Jong-un wants North Korea to become rich, high-tech, and educated like Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, or Singapore, all the better. Engagers believe that will reduce North Korean suffering and bring peace in a way maximum pressure never could. As Dr. Youngjun Kim pointed out, forced regime change doesn’t work. “After removing Saddam Hussein, there were more problems.”

A long-term focus on unification and economic integration was a common refrain. Many experts also told TNI that Seoul could not unilaterally move forward without Washington’s cooperation. Dr. Jihwan Hwang is a professor of international relations at the University of Seoul. He related to TNI how North Korea would love to see sanctions reduced while still keeping their nuclear weapons. Since America does not want this, negotiations have stalled, slowing down inter-Korean dialogue as well. Dr. Jihwan Hwang believes Washington errs when it assumes Seoul will rush ahead of them just because President Moon is progressive. “I think in the current Korean government, there is a kind of balance between inter-Korean relations and U.S.-North Korean relations. So, maybe it would be okay if the Moon Jae-in government went forward with North Korea one step or one-and-a-half steps ahead, but I don’t think Moon Jae-in will accelerate inter-Korean relations without improving U.S.-North Korean relations.”

At the same time, Dr. Jihwan Hwang warns North Korea won’t budge without America ending what Pyongyang calls Washington’s “hostile policy.” As a result, “The Moon Jae-in government wants to play mediator, but North Korea always believed the ball was in the American court.” That means without a change in American policy, President Moon cannot improve inter-Korean relations, and Supreme Leader Kim will not give up any of his nuclear arsenal. Dr. Jihwan Hwang stressed things are now stuck, and “the South Korean government is really worried about U.S. military policy towards the Korean peninsula.”

Dr. Chung-in Moon echoed these worries about maximum pressure. “There’s no way for North Korea to accept it. We want to complete the denuclearization of North Korea, but there needs to be a more flexible approach. In Washington, sanctions are like a theology. I know sanctions are codified and legalized, and it is not easy to use them strategically. But, I think the American government should really think about using sanctions in a more constructive way. If you cannot compel North Korea to change its behavior regarding nuclear capability, then use other options.”

Engagers often focus on America and what they see as external causes of Korean division. “The nation-state is incomplete on the Korean peninsula. One nation is divided into two parts, two states,” lamented Dr. Ki-jung Kim to TNI. “Mostly, international factors shaped the situation on the Korean peninsula. 2018 was a momentous change because, for the first time in history, inter-Korea political determination began to lead and influence international politics. After the inter-Korean Panmunjom declaration, the U.S.-North Korean Singapore summit was possible.”

This is why Engagers want Seoul to lead and for America to change its approach to denuclearization. They see this as the only path to a peace regime and eventual unification. A peace treaty would replace the armistice and eventually the alliance might be replaced by inter-Korean military cooperation. In the meantime, both Koreas must keep building trust and reducing tensions. They need to maintain a common Korean identity, and North Korea needs to improve its behavior and continue its economic reforms. As Dr. Ki-jung Kim elaborated, “We have to make Kim Jong-un stay on the road towards denuclearization because he made a public commitment” rather than fall into the belief that North Korea must maintain its nukes and isolation. “Even though the chance of success is very slim, we have to maintain our hope.”

Read part 3 of this series, which looks at the viewpoint of the Deterers, in the Atomic Reporters update next week.

John Dale Grover is a Korean Studies fellow at the Center for the National Interest. He visited Seoul for a week in early November 2019 to interview nine experts in South Korea for this project. This is the first piece in a five-article series, “How South Korea’s Politics and Military Impacts Strategic Stability with North Korea.” This series examines the two South Korean views—Engagement First vs. Deterrence First—over how to best interact with North Korea. Support for the reporting of this article was provided by a fellowship from Atomic Reporters together with the Stanley Center for Peace and Security and funding from the Carnegie Corporation, New York. The quotations in this article have been edited for length and clarity.