Special Forum Issue

“South Korea's High Stakes Diplomacy”

Great Hopes, Shattered Dreams


President Park Geun-hye entered office with high hopes of making progress with the North by pursuing a more balanced, middle-of-the-road policy than her predecessors. Yet, her so-called “trustpolitik” approach had failed by the end of 2015. The situation at the end of 2015 resembled the beginning of her term in 2013, when the North conducted a third nuclear test just weeks before her inauguration. The question Park had to deal with for her remaining time in office was what course corrections she needed to make. In 2016 she was forced to abruptly alter her North Korea policy by adopting tougher measures, including deploying the controversial THAAD missile defense system and closing the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex that had been a lucrative venture for the North for over a decade. At the end of the year, she was ousted from the presidency over a corruption scandal involving her and her life-long confidant, Choi Soon-sil. In 2017, when the new president, Moon Jae-in, came into office, he championed a policy of engagement and rapprochement with Pyongyang even as the North crossed the twin thresholds of developing a thermonuclear weapon and flight-testing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Meanwhile, the new US administration of President Donald Trump pursued a “maximum pressure” policy while talking of “fire and fury” and a “bloody nose” preemptive strike against the North. After a dramatic shift to summitry and diplomacy in 2018-2019—which included three, unprecedented, face-to-face meetings between Kim Jong-un and Trump in Singapore, Hanoi, and the DMZ—the Moon administration would oversee the greatest decline of tensions on the peninsula since the end of the Korean War. But, the rapprochement would not last.

Moon’s gamble on Trump and Kim would not lead to lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula or progress towards denuclearization. Donald Trump, despite a declaration that he and Kim “fell in love” with the exchange of beautiful letters, was not able to convince Kim to take steps toward giving up his nuclear arsenal. Moon’s optimistic approach in the end exposed a profound misreading of both Trump and Kim. After the failure of the Hanoi Summit in February 2019, Moon was left isolated: scorned by Kim, who blamed him for the failure, and eyed warily by Trump. This article covers these dramatic years from 2016 to 2019, which saw both great tensions and high hopes on the Korean Peninsula. This period represented a high point in South Korean expectations that diplomacy and summitry with the North could succeed—only to have those expectations brutally dashed.

The Rocky Transition in 2016-17: THAAD Controversy, Park’s Impeachment, and Trump’s “Fire and Fury”

The year 2016 began on an unsettling note when, on January 6, the North carried out its fourth nuclear test. Park’s immediate response was to raise South Korea’s military posture, seek additional sanctions against the Kim regime from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and resume anti-North Korea messaging through loudspeakers at the DMZ.1  Park also declared on January 13 that Seoul would finally consider deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system. The initial discussions on THAAD deployment began several years earlier on February 27, 2014, in the aftermath of a fresh round of Scud-class ballistic missile tests conducted by the North. In June of that year, the then-commander of the United States Forces Korea, General Curtis Scaparrotti, revealed that he had personally made a request to Washington to deploy a THAAD system to Korea. Seoul, however, did not explicitly declare its intention to participate directly in the missile defense system at that time. A year later, in February 2015, Beijing formally expressed its concerns over the deployment of THAAD during a meeting between the defense ministers of China and South Korea. In the following month, the South Korean presidential office offered reassurances to Beijing with the so-called “three no’s,” stating that South Korea had neither requested nor consulted with the US government on the deployment of the THAAD system and that it had not made any decisions on the deployment. In fact, whenever Beijing had asked about the THAAD issue, the Park government had maintained the posture that nothing was determined and the government position continued to be “no request, no consultation, and no decision” on THAAD.2

That thinking changed with the North’s fourth nuclear test. Xi Jinping’s refusal to take a call from Park following the North’s nuclear test likely reinforced her thinking that she made the right call on THAAD. This must have been deeply disappointing for Park since she had invested considerable time and resources to improve Seoul’s bilateral relations with Beijing. Seoul and Beijing had enjoyed a degree of “honeymoon” in the previous few years; Park and Xi had exchanged visits in 2014, and, in 2015, Park has even observed the military parade in Beijing, where no other leader from the liberal world was in attendance.

A combination of the North’s fourth nuclear test, Xi’s disappointing nonresponse, and yet another satellite launch by the North on February 7 in violation of UNSC resolutions led to a broader shift in Seoul taking a tougher stance towards the North for the remainder of Park’s presidency.  Following her declaration on THAAD in January, Seoul and Washington announced the establishment of a joint task force to discuss the deployment a month later. Furthermore, in an effort to impose unilateral sanctions against the Kim regime, Park declared on February 10 that Seoul would “completely shut down” the 11-year-old joint Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), an important symbol of inter-Korean rapprochement.3  KIC housed at the time around 55,000 North Korean workers and churned out products ranging from watches to clothes. The joint venture was highly lucrative for the Kim regime; in 2015 alone, 124 South Korean firms operating in the complex paid North Korea around $120 million for their workers.4 In response to Park’s announcement, the North announced that it was expelling all remaining South Korean workers in the KIC and freezing all assets in the complex. It also severed inter-Korean military hotlines and restored military control over the KIC zone and warned there would be future “consequences.”5

On July 8, the joint South Korea-U.S. task force officially announced its decision to deploy a THAAD system battery in the mountains of North Gyeongsang Province in the southeastern part of South Korea. This announcement was met with fierce resistance from local residents and other opponents who argued that since the interception range of the THAAD system was only about 200 kilometers, it was unable to defend the capital region, where close to half of South Korea’s population is concentrated. Rather than protecting Korean civilians, the system was being used to cover the U.S. air base at Osan, the planned new US headquarters at Pyeongtaek, the South Korean military headquarters at Gyeryongdae, and nuclear power plants in the vicinity. Other critics also pointed that the US-South Korea agreement on the deployment of the THAAD system should have required ratification by the National Assembly, so the entire process was undemocratic.6  North Korea also predictably reacted with fury, calling it “aggressive war machinations” with a warning that the North would “take physical countermeasures to thoroughly subdue” the deployment.7 In response to the protests, and after a brief review process, the Ministry of National Defense finally announced that the THAAD system would be deployed to a civilian golf course owned by the Lotte Group located within the same county but at a higher altitude, and that based on the U.S.-South Korea Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), the deployment of the THAAD system was scheduled to be completed in the following year, in mid-2017.

Meanwhile, the North continued to conduct missile tests, including a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on August 24, three medium range ballistic missiles simultaneously on September 5 (which fell in waters that lie within Japan’s exclusive economic zone), and its fifth nuclear test on September 9. With controversy still raging over the THAAD decision and concern growing over continued nuclear and missile testing by the North, the Park administration came to an abrupt end in a corruption scandal. Choi Soon-sil was accused of using her proximity to Park to extort massive amounts of money and wield undue influence in the administration although she held no official government position. On December 9, the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly for Park’s impeachment, 234 to 56, with only six abstentions.

As the Constitutional Court deliberated on the impeachment motion at the beginning of the new year, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn became acting president (Park’s impeachment would be formally approved on March 10, 2017). Hwang stayed the course on Park’s decision to complete deployment of THAAD. With the conclusion of a land exchange agreement on February 28 and with cooperation from Lotte Group, the deployment began to proceed rapidly in early 2017 despite Park’s impeachment. By March 7, 2017, it was disclosed to the public that two launchers for THAAD missiles had been moved by transport aircraft into the Osan Air Base (one THAAD battery is comprised of six truck-mounted launchers and a powerful radar system).8

Beijing had repeatedly expressed its disapproval prior to the decision to deploy the system, and its official media joined in with intense criticism after the decision was made. Economic retaliation swiftly followed, including banning package tours to South Korea, levying penalties against the Lotte Group (Beijing closed down 74 of 99 Lotte stores in China for “fire violations”), canceling Korean artist performances, and restricting dissemination of South Korean entertainment content in China, even as South Korean officials repeatedly explained that the deployment of the THAAD system was aimed at countering nuclear and missile threats from North Korea and had nothing to do with China. These explanations fell on deaf ears. In the first half of 2017 alone, South Korean companies lost an estimated $4.3 billion as a direct result of Beijing’s coercive measures.9 

With a presidential election looming in May to fill Park’s seat, candidates in the conservative ruling party generally favored the deployment, while candidates in the opposition progressive camp decried it or took a neutral stance. As a presidential candidate, Moon Jae-in criticized what he called the undemocratic and opaque decision-making processes of the THAAD agreement as well as the partial deployment in the spring.10 The public was divided on the issue, but, in general, more people supported than opposed deployment.11

When Moon became president in May 2017, he embarked on an ambitious engagement mission with the North to “realize peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula” with three stated goals: “resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue, development of sustainable inter-Korean relations, and realization of a new economic community on the Korean peninsula.”12 Even as the North tested an ICBM on July 4, Moon remained resolute in his desire to engage the North. The day before the North flight tested an ICBM, while in Washington, Moon promised that Seoul would be in the “driver’s seat.”13 A few days after the test, he outlined a vision for inter-Korean peace and economic cooperation focused on establishing a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.14 Yet, despite these overtures from Moon, the Kim regime continued to respond to Moon’s outreached hand with a clenched fist, which included the second test of an ICBM capable of hitting the continental United States on July 28.

Even while pursuing a peace initiative with the North, Moon ultimately chose to stay the existing course on THAAD. After the North’s ICBM test in early July, Moon held an emergency meeting with the National Security Council and, in a reversal of his position on THAAD, announced that he would agree to allow the United States to deploy the four remaining launchers to complete the THAAD battery, albeit only “temporarily.” Moon’s decision triggered more demonstrations by anti-THAAD activists. On September 6-7, despite the North testing a powerful thermonuclear weapon just days before, a fierce sixteen-hour confrontation took place between 8,000 police and some 600 protesters in Soseong-ri as the Moon administration cleared the way for US delivery of the launchers and other equipment.15

The North kept pace with its testing. On September 3, the North conducted its sixth nuclear test; this time testing a powerful hydrogen bomb that could be mounted on an intercontinental missile. The bomb’s explosive yield was at least five times larger than the one detonated in September 2016 and up to eight times stronger than the bomb dropped in Hiroshima in 1945.16  In response, Trump dispatched a U.S. Navy carrier battle group, making a high-profile show of military force near the Korean Peninsula. He also threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on the North while boasting of his “much bigger” nuclear button if the North conducted another nuclear or missile test. His aides even talked of possibly taking preemptive military action by giving the Kim regime a “bloody nose.” The United States also ramped up its enforcement of sanctions by targeting North Korean shipping and blacklisting small banks based in China and Eastern Europe in a bid to cut off nearly all of Pyongyang’s sources of hard currency. By the fall of 2017, to the surprise of many long-time Korean hands, even Beijing finally appeared to be taking genuine steps to enforce UN sanctions.

In the aftermath of the sixth nuclear test, Moon continued his pursuit of peace initiatives with the North. A mere three weeks after the North tested the hydrogen bomb, Moon attended the UN General Assembly and used his keynote speech to announce the PyeongChang Peace Initiatives, under which North Korea would participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Moon envisioned turning the Winter Olympics into the Olympics of Peace, an opportunity to entice Kim to dialogue. Trump criticized the Moon administration for his supposed appeasement of the North.  By the time the tumultuous year came to a close, North Korea had conducted more than ten missile tests in addition to its sixth nuclear test.

Summitry and Diplomacy in 2018: Maximum Engagement

Kim Jong-un began 2018 with a dramatic turn to diplomacy and charm offensive. Just as concerns about North Korea nearing the finish line in its development of nuclear-armed ICBMs increased, Kim declared the North’s nuclear program to be “complete” and used his 2018 New Year’s Address to signal a move away from testing. Accepting Moon’s olive branch, Kim indicated a willingness to participate in the February 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Kim subsequently sent a delegation of North Korean athletes led by high-level officials including his own sister, Kim Yo-jong, who arrived in the South on February 9 for the opening ceremony, carrying a personal letter from Kim Jong-un to Moon. Diplomacy ramped up in the coming months with Moon and Kim meeting on two separate occasions and culminated in the 2018 Summit between Trump and Kim in Singapore. The signing of a peace treaty between the two nations seemed likely until the collapse of the Hanoi Summit in 2019.

North Korea’s participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics was soon followed by a March trip of high-level South Korean officials to Pyongyang, led by Moon’s National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong and Chief of National Intelligence, Suh Hoon, the first South Korean envoys to visit Pyongyang in over a decade.  The five-member South Korean delegation met with Kim Jong-un. The delegation then rushed to Washington claiming that Kim was willing to negotiate denuclearization and that he wished to meet with Trump. To date it remains an open question what exactly was discussed in Pyongyang. It’s possible, or even probable, that the South Koreans liberally edited Kim’s actual words about his willingness to give up nuclear weapons. As for Kim asking to meet with Trump, Trump’s former National Security Advisor John Bolton wrote in his memoir that the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore was a “diplomatic fandango” which was “South Korea’s creation,” rather than a serious strategy on Kim’s part or Washington’s. He even noted that it was Chung who had suggested to Kim that he make the invitation to Trump.17 Whatever the case, it did the trick. Moon was in the driver’s seat of rapprochement during this period; on March 8, the world saw South Korean National Security Advisor Chung standing in front of the White House, announcing that Trump had on the spur of the moment accepted Kim’s invitation for a summit. Affirming the announcement, Trump quickly tweeted, “Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!”  And with that tweet, the frantic season of summitry began in earnest that spring: two summits between Trump and Kim, three inter-Korean summits between Moon and Kim, and a number of summits between Kim and other leaders, most notably with Xi and Putin. Yet, while the frenetic summitry of 2018-2019 defused the “fire and fury” crisis of 2017, it did not yield a denuclearization deal.

The season of summitry began with Moon visiting Beijing on March 28 where he met with Xi Jinping in his first foreign trip since taking office. (Xi and Kim had not yet met each other at this point.) On April 21, the North announced with great fanfare that it was foregoing further nuclear and ballistic missile testing because it was a nuclear power. A summit between Moon and Kim followed a week later on April 27 in the Demilitarized Zone at Panmunjom. Moon and Kim announced a joint declaration declaring their commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the future establishment of a permanent peace regime, and the resumption of economic and political exchanges.18

The Korean public mood was euphoric. It finally appeared the two Koreas were close to making a breakthrough. Moon’s approval ratings soared above 80%.19 Progressive media outlets emphasized the symbolic significance of the summit, noting that Kim Jong-un was the first North Korean leader to have stepped foot in the South since the Korean War when he crossed the demarcation line.20 Kim and Moon’s conviviality also felt authentic, particularly because Kim appeared more open and self-effacing than his father. In a break with his father, Kim Jong-un conceded some of his country’s deficiencies—including the decrepit state of its transit system—which helped to create a level of trust with the public in the South. Little gestures were also noticed. Moon wore a blue tie, the color of the Korean Unification Flag, to greet Kim at the demarcation line. Kim Jong-un brought with him a chef who was famous for making naengmyeon noodles, a Pyongyang delicacy, as well as a noodle-making machine, so the participants could enjoy freshly made authentic cold noodles from Pyongyang.21  The two leaders marked the summit by planting a sapling from a pine tree that was originally planted in 1953, the year the Korean Armistice was signed.

Moon was “ecstatic” when he called Trump following his meeting with Kim, according to Bolton. Moon told Trump that Kim had made a commitment to “complete denuclearization,” offering to close the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in May.22 Moon said that, during their meeting, Kim even disclosed that two of the four underground tunnels at the test site were still “usable” but that they would be sealed off as well.23 Moon reportedly asked Kim to denuclearize in one year, and Kim agreed. The two leaders left the summit agreeing to an additional summit in Pyongyang in the fall, making concrete their plans for deepening engagement. When Moon suggested that Kim visit the South someday, Kim readily consented, raising the prospect of an unprecedented inter-Korean summit in South Korea.

The opposition conservatives expressed skepticism while acknowledging the summit’s effect on relieving tension on the Korean Peninsula. The conservative media coverage criticized the summit as mostly empty in substance, particularly regarding denuclearization. One of the chief concerns was over the fact that “denuclearization,” a “sole objective” for which the summit was convened, has taken a back seat to other, less important matters, such as North-South cooperation. There was also concern over the ambiguity of the term “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” particularly in comparison to the more precise wording used in prior agreements with the North. To critics, Moon seemed to have promised too much to Kim, including agreeing to designate the Northern Limit Line (NLL) a “peace zone” and to halt all hostile activities by land, sea, or air.24

Some also pointed out that the “peace act” in Panmunjom could lead to a premature—and potentially dangerous—jubilation and sense of relief in the South.  One public opinion survey found that 65% of the respondents said they trusted the North’s willingness to denuclearize, while only 28% were skeptical. A similar survey before the summit had painted a very different picture, with 78% saying they distrusted the North’s peace gestures and only 15% saying they trusted the North.25  In the post-summit euphoria, real estate prices near the border spiked and there was talk of abolishing military conscription in the South.26

The Korean public’s mood was similarly upbeat about the prospects of the upcoming Trump-Kim summit. Many, particularly in the progressive camp, attributed the historic summit to Moon’s commitment to diplomacy.27 Even opposition party members reluctantly commended the Moon administration for facilitating the Trump-Kim summit, while emphasizing that the ultimate objective of any talks with the North should remain complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) and that any decision to temper the US-ROK alliance—either by repealing the US nuclear umbrella or removing US forces from South Korea—must wait until CVID had been achieved.28 The conservatives also warned of various deals that should not be acceptable to Seoul, including a deal in which Washington demanded that Pyongyang relinquish its ICBMs (which directly threatened the United States) instead of its entire nuclear force.29 

Moon and Kim met again at the DMZ on May 26, this time on the North’s side, four days after Moon met with Trump in Washington and assured Trump that there was no reason to doubt Kim’s sincerity on denuclearization. This second meeting between Moon and Kim was held on Kim’s request. As the Trump-Kim meeting was scheduled to be held in Singapore in June, Kim may have sought Moon’s advice over how to negotiate with Trump, while reaffirming the two Koreas’ strong will to carry out the Panmunjom joint declaration announced in April. This meeting was followed by more inter-Korean high-level talks to discuss ways to implement the Panmunjom Declaration and reopening a joint liaison office in the KIC.

After hectic summit preparation in which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made two trips to Pyongyang, Trump finally met Kim in Singapore on June 12-13. However, the joint US-North Korea statement published after the meeting lacked any details of how to move toward the stated goal of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.30 The Joint Statement shifted from talk of “North Korean denuclearization” to the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” possibly signifying Trump’s willingness to trade away US nuclear guarantees to Seoul. Trump had achieved the photo-op that he wanted but not a binding agreement with the North.31

Moon was undeterred. Various concessions and peace overtures continued. Two days after the Trump-Kim summit, the two Koreas held high-level military talks, agreeing to fully restore military communication lines in the East Sea and Yellow Sea. The two Koreas also agreed to hold a basketball match in Pyongyang, to make a joint entrance at the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2018 Asian Games, and to field joint teams for several events in the Asian Games. On June 19, Seoul announced jointly with Washington that it would suspend the Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint ROK-US military exercise. There appeared to be momentum for peace. On June 22, the two Koreas held the 12th Red Cross talks at Mount Geumgang, where they agree to hold family reunions in August. They also agreed to reconnect the western Gyeongui railroad line and the eastern East Sea line, to modernize the section linking Mount Geumgang and the Tumen River, and the section linking Kaesong and Sinuiju. The Moon administration sent a delegation to Mount Geumgang to prepare for family unions. More working level talks, from road cooperation to resuming ship-to-ship radio communication links for the first time in a decade, to boosting forestry cooperation followed. By early July, Seoul began preparing for the establishment of the joint liaison office. A 101-member delegation of South Korean athletes and government officials led by Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon visited North Korea to participate in inter-Korean basketball games.

Momentum also continued between Washington and Pyongyang. In mid-July, the United States and North Korea held working-level talks on repatriating the remains of American soldiers killed during the Korean War, per the Singapore Declaration. On July 27, North Korea returned 55 sets of remains of American soldiers killed during the war, as described in Kim’s personal letter to Trump.

More high-level talks followed during the summer and in late August, and the two Koreas held family reunions at Mount Geumgang. On September 5, Moon’s special delegation, led by National Security Adviser Chung, visited the North and met with Kim, and they agreed on a date for the third inter-Korean summit. On September 14, the two Koreas opened a joint liaison office, establishing the first 24/7 inter-Korean communication channel. On September 18-20, Moon and Kim held their third summit, this time in Pyongyang. Moon made a historic speech at the stadium in Pyongyang with about 150,000 rapt North Korean citizens in attendance. Kim publicly seemed to show his willingness to denuclearize in front of his people. This period was the high point in inter-Korea relations, the very moment when it looked as if Moon’s peace process could make progress. But these hopeful days would not last. Disappointment was waiting in the wings.

A March Towards Failure and the Collapse of the Hanoi Summit

By 2019, it became clear that things were not going as well as Moon hoped. The ratcheting up of US-China confrontation relieved much of the pressure on Pyongyang as Beijing lost interest in cooperating with Washington. While sanctions remained in place, it became clear that the United States would not launch a preemptive strike on North Korea, thereby further relaxing pressure on Kim. The Hanoi Summit between Trump and Kim ended shortly after it began. Kim demanded that Trump lift most of the US economic sanctions in exchange for the dismantling of the Yongbyon nuclear facility. Trump refused Kim’s offer and instead demanded the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement” of North Korea’s nuclear program—a longtime US demand that is anathema to Pyongyang. At the core, the issue was that both Trump and Kim misunderstood each other and both miscalculated. Trump, thinking Kim was brought to the negotiating table primarily because of his maximum pressure policy and “fire and fury” rhetoric—rather than the North’s own advances in its nuclear and missile program—thought he could entice Kim with Vietnam-style economic development. His expectation did not bear out, which was no surprise. In Vietnam’s case, adopting Chinese-style economic policies was only possible because of the installation of genuinely reformist leaders who turned their focus toward liberalizing and expanding Vietnam’s economy without threatening its neighbors—and that in turn only occurred after they had achieved their dream of unifying all of Vietnam under their rule. Trump had a much more difficult task with Kim—he needed to convince the North Korean leader that he should abandon the nuclear arsenal that keeps his own regime safe and open up the country while its freer, richer rival state continued to exist in the south. Put another way, the Vietnamese were magnanimous in victory, whereas Trump was asking Kim to make sacrifices in de facto defeat. Meanwhile Kim also miscalculated, thinking that Trump was so eager for a deal (and a Nobel Peace Prize) that he was willing to sign on to a bad deal. But, back in Washington, Republicans supported Trump’s decision to walk out of the negotiating table without reaching an agreement with Kim, saying that “no deal is better than a bad deal.”32

Trump walking away from Hanoi basically spelled the end of Moon’s illusion that he was in the driver’s seat. Kim subsequently seemed to blame Moon for the failure in Hanoi and turned to his traditional allies, China and Russia. He met with Putin in April and hosted Xi Jinping in June and then refused to include Moon in his meet-and-greet with Trump at Panmunjom four months after the Hanoi Summit.  

Yet the Moon administration persisted in its peace offensive. Even after the Hanoi debacle, Moon and his advisers still sought to improve relations with the North, and some probably held onto hopes of a lasting deal. But, there was little they could do other than continue to call for a softer approach to Kim and relaxation of sanctions, more in line with Xi and Putin’s positions than the US one. The Kim regime, having recovered from the uncertainty of 2017, the undue hopes of 2018, and the frustration and embarrassment of Hanoi in early 2019, returned to a hardline stance: Kim did not need more promises from Seoul, but money and sanctions relief that the Moon administration could not give. U.N. Security Council sanctions made it all but impossible for Seoul to provide North Korea with material aid of any kind.

Increasingly desperate, the Moon administration tried to create the right optics by insisting that the North remained interested in denuclearization even though there was no evidence to support this claim. The collapse of the 2019 Hanoi Summit had put an end even to the hopes of a partial arms control deal and firmly demonstrated that North Korean denuclearization was not going to happen, no matter what the Moon officials kept telling themselves, the public, and Washington. The Moon administration kept showering the North with various proposals for cultural exchanges and humanitarian aid, while downplaying outright or turning a blind eye to Pyongyang’s outrageous actions. Moon continued to support scraping the annual joint military exercises and, more controversially, enacted and continued to defend an anti-leaflet law which criminalizes the distribution of anti-Pyongyang leaflets into the North, despite mounting international criticism that it curtails freedom of speech.


In 2017, Moon had started his term of office quite cautiously, dealing with the difficult challenges of deploying THAAD and coping with the fallout, while managing US-South Korea alliance relations during the year of Trump’s “maximum pressure” and “fire and fury.” In 2018, Moon made a bold bet on Kim and Trump, which appeared to put Seoul in the driver’s seat in a spurt of diplomacy. Yet this optimism reflected a misreading of both Kim and Trump. The euphoria continued into 2019 without any proof that diplomacy would end well. After February 2019, Moon was isolated—scorned by Kim Jong-un, pressured by Trump—and dealing with a Korean public increasingly skeptical of his peace offensive. In the end, Moon did not accomplish his goal of trying to end the threat from North Korea and bring peace to the Korean Peninsula. But no other Korean leader going back to the dark days of the Korean War has had any greater success in dealing with the intractable threat from the North. Neither the “sunshine policy,” “trustpolitik,” “maximum pressure,” nor a policy of “maximum engagement” has succeeded in ending the North Korean nuclear and missile programs. By 2019, it was clear that Moon had failed. He was learning again what should have been already obvious: Until there is internal change in North Korea, there is little that South Korea or the United State can accomplish diplomatically.

1. Saetbyul Park. “President Park Assembles NSC in Response to North Korean 4th Nuclear Tests,” Gonggam,
January 11, 2016, https://gonggam.korea.kr/newsView.do?newsId=01Ic02ewDGJMP000. Also see,
Hwanyong Kim. “South Korean President ‘North Korean Missiles Unacceptable… Strong UN Sanctions Needed,’”
VOA Korea, February 4, 2016, https://www.voakorea.com/a/3176303.html.

2. Kyounghui Kim, and Yongho Shin. “‘Government’s Position on THAAD Is 3NO,’” Joongang Ilbo, March 11, 2015, https://www.joongang.co.kr/article/17333467#home.

3. Byunghwa Kim. “[Kaesong Industrial Complex Shutdown] North Korea Responds to Government’s Cease of Operations,” Hankuk Ilbo, February 15, 2016, https://magazine.hankyung.com/business/article/201602150103b. Also see, Dongjoo Seo. “Why the Kaesong Industrial Complex Had to Shut Down.” Republic of Korea Policy Briefing, February 18, 2016. https://www.korea.kr/news/reporterView.do?newsId=148809542.

4. Mark E. Manyin. “The Shutdown of the Joint North/South Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex,” Congressional
Research Service (CRS), February 11, 2016. https://sgp.fas.org/crs/row/IN10442.pdf.

5. Ibid.

6. See, for example, Younghee Kim. “It’s Time to Give Up THAAD,” Joongang Ilbo, June 30, 2016, https://www.joongang.co.kr/article/20247169#home

7. Rora Oh. “[Breaking] North Korea Will ‘Take Physical Countermeasures Once THAAD Deployment Location Is
Confirmed.’” Chosun Ilbo, July 11, 2016, https://www.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2016/07/11/

8. See, for example, Myunghyun Koh. “THAAD: An Inevitable Decision,” The Asan Institute for Policy Studies,
July 15, 2016, http://www.asaninst.org/contents/%EC%82%AC%EB%93%9Cthaad%EB%B6%88%EA%B0%80
%ED%94%BC%ED%95%9C-%EC%84%A0%ED%83%9D/. Also see, Taewoo Kim. “The THAAD Issue Should
Be Decided According to Security and National Interest Considerations.” ifs Post, May 22, 2017,

9. Heekyong Yang, and Hyunjoo Jin, “As Missile Row Drags On, South Korea’s Lotte Still Stymied in China,” 
Reuters, June 16, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/lotte-china/as-missile-row-drags-on-south-koreas-lotte-still-stymied-in-china-idUSL3N1JC3BA. Also see, Kye-wan Cho. “In the First Half of 2017, THAAD Retaliation Caused $4.3 Billion in Losses for S. Korean Companies,” Hankyoreh, July 6, 2017, http://english.hani.co.kr/

10. Hyunjoong Kim. “Support, Then Oppose… Moon’s Vacillation on THAAD,” New Daily, March 7, 2017,
https://www.newdaily.co.kr/site/data/html/2017/03/07/2017030700057.html. Also see, Minsang Kim. “Moon Jae In
to THAAD-Opposing Lee Jae Myung, ‘It’s Alright to Be Direct, but…” Joogang Ilbo, March 21, 2017.

11. Jisang Le. “[Korea Gallup] THAAD Deployment 53% ‘Support’ vs 32% ‘Oppose’… Support Increases.” Joongang Ilbo, June 16, 2017. https://www.joongang.co.kr/article/21672605#home. Also see, Toil Kim. “Changes in Public Opinion on THAAD Deployment,” Yonhap News, June 16, 2017. https://www.yna.co.kr/view/GYH20170616000500044; Lee, Gweewon. “52% Support THAAD Deployment, 35% Oppose.” Yonhap News, March 12, 2017. https://www.yna.co.kr/view/AKR20170312064600001.

12. “Moon Jae-In’s Policy on the Korean Peninsula,” Policy Issues, Ministry of Education, South Korean
Government. https://www.unikorea.go.kr/eng_unikorea/policylssues/koreanpeninsula/goals/.

13. Kyungjoon Park. “President Moon Claims South Korea Will Be in the Driver’s Seat for Inter-Korean Relations,
Prompting Speculation for a ‘New Berlin Statement’.” Yonhap News, July 3, 2017, https://www.yna.co.kr/view/

14. Jin Huh. “[Full Text] President Moon’s ‘New Berlin Statement,’” Joongang Ilbo, July 6, 2017,

15. Bridget Martin, “Moon Jae-In’s THAAD Conundrum: South Korea’s ‘Candlelight President’ Faces Strong Citizen Opposition on Missile Defense,” Asia-Pacific Journal, 15, no. 1, https://apjjf.org/2017/18/Martin.html

16. Bonnie Berkowitz and Aaron Steckelberg. “North Korea tested Another Nuke. How Big was It?” Washington
Post, September 14, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/world/north-korea-nuclear-yield/?utm_term=.1152f8514008.

17. John R. Bolton. In The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir (New York, New York:
Simon & Schuster, 2020), p. 78.

18.   “Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula,” ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, April
27, 2018, https://www.mofa.go.kr/eng/brd/m_5478/view.do?seq=319130&srchFr=&amp%3BsrchTo=&amp% 3BsrchWord=


19. “Moon’s Approval Rating Tops 80 Pct: Survey,” The Korea Times, May 22, 2017, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2017/05/356_229771.html. Also see, Maresca, Thomas. “South Korea’s Moon Jae-in is More Popular Than Ever,” USA Today, May 10, 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2018/05/10/south-korea-moon-jae-approval-rating-popularity-north-korea/597557002/.

20. “The Spring of Panmunjom, Opening an Era of Peace and Prosperity,” Hankyoreh, April 27, 2018,

21. “Summit Sparks Pyongyang Noodle Cravings,” The Korea Times, April 29, 2018, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2018/04/113_248173.html

22. Bolton, 81.

23. Whan-woo Yi. “Kim Jong-un Vows to Dismantle Nuke Test Sites in May, Allow US Inspection,” The Korea
Times, April 29, 2018. http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2018/04/113_248150.html.

24. “The Inter-Korean Summit That Passed Nuclear Issues to US and NK and Prioritized Aid to NK.” Chosun Ilbo,
April 28, 2018. https://www.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2018/04/27/2018042702874.html.

25. Ji-won Park, “65% of South Koreans trust Kim Jong-un’s denuke pledge,” The Korea Times, April 30, 2018,
https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2018/04/113_248198.html. Also see, “It’s Too Early to Discuss Ending Mandatory National Service,” Segye Ilbo, April 30, 2018. https://www.segye.com/newsView/20180430006951.

26. Ibid.

27. “Hoping for a Good Trump-Kim Summit,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, March 9, 2018, http://news.khan.co.kr/

28. “[Editorial] The Trump-Kim Summit That Will Determine the Fate of the Korean Peninsula,” Joongang Ilbo,
March 9, 2018, https://www.joongang.co.kr/article/22428951#home.

29. “[Editorial] The Trump-Kim Summit That Will Determine the Fate of the Korean Peninsula,” Joongang Ilbo,
March 9, 2018, https://www.joongang.co.kr/article/22428951#home.

30.  “Joint Statement of President Donald J. Trump of the United States of America and Chairman Kim Jong Un of
the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea at the Singapore Summit,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Korea, June 12, 2018, https://www.mofa.go.kr/eng/brd/m_5478/view.do?seq=319135&srchFr=&%3BsrchTo=&

31. Chosun Ilbo article on June 12 posits that Kim’s latest peace gesture signals his willingness to accept—or at least
work with—US demands of CVID, but wonders what Kim requested in exchange. In terms of security, the article notes
two rhetorical shifts from the Trump administration; for more detail, see, “[Editorial] It’s Time to Explain to North
Korea What Is Being Offered in Exchange for Denuclearization.” Chosun Ilbo, May 11, 2018,

32. Michael Burke. “Rubio Defends Trump on North Korea: ‘No Deal is Better Than a Bad Deal,” The Hill, February
28, 2019, https://thehill.com/policy/defense/431997-rubio-defends-trump-on-north-korea-no-deal-is-better-than-a-bad-deal/.

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