Aidan Foster-Carter is an honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds. He is also a freelance analyst and consultant: covering the politics and economics of both South and North Korea for, amongst others, the Economist Intelligence Unit, Oxford Analytica, and BBC World Service. Between 1991 and 1997 he lectured on sociology at the universities of Hull, Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), and Leeds. A prolific writer on and frequent visitor to the Korean Peninsula, he has lectured on Korean and kindred topics to varied audiences in 20 countries on every continent. He studied Classics at Eton, Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Balliol College Oxford, and Sociology at Hull.
Articles by Aidan Foster-Carter
The first months of 2022 were also the last of Moon Jae-in’s presidency. Inter-Korean relations have been frozen for the past three years, and 2022 saw no change there. In April Moon exchanged letters with Kim Jong Un, whose warm tenor belied the reality on the ground. The North was already testing more and better missiles faster than ever, and tearing down ROK-built facilities at the shuttered Mount Kumgang resort. Days after his billets-doux with Moon, speaking at a military parade, Kim threatened ominously to widen the contexts in which his ever-improving nuclear arsenal might be used. All these challenges confront a new leader in Seoul. Unlike Moon, the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol is new to politics, but not minded to indulge Kim. His ministerial and other appointees, who have now taken over, are already striking a firmer note—while also stressing their pragmatism and openness to dialogue. Very recently a fresh threat—or perhaps an opportunity—has arisen, with the North finally admitting an outbreak of COVID-19. Yoon promptly offered vaccine aid. It remains to be seen if Kim will accept this, how he will handle the omicron outbreak, whether he will proceed with a widely expected nuclear test, and how Yoon and Biden will handle an ever more complex crisis.
Korea’s leaders offered contrasting New Year addresses. While Moon Jae-in pledged to keep pursuing peace until he leaves the Blue House in May, Kim Jong Un said nothing about South Korea or the US. He sent his message soon after, however testing two hypersonic missiles. Moon kept pushing for a peace declaration, despite Washington being lukewarm and Kim Jong Un’s sister Yo Jong saying explicitly that the time is not ripe. Evaluating Moon’s nordpolitik more widely as his term winds down, his refusal to rethink policy after three years of Kim shunning him is puzzling. His successor, whoever it be, will pay Kim less heed. Voters will decide on March 9; the frontrunner is the liberal continuity candidate, Lee Jae-myung. Cocking a snook at both governments, a young gymnast who in late 2020 scaled and jumped border fences to escape from North Korea changed his mind and went back—the same way.
Summer 2021 saw a false dawn on the Korean Peninsula, hardly the first, but surely one of the shortest. On July 27 both North and South announced the reconnection of inter-Korean hotlines, severed for over a year. In Seoul, hopes were high—aren’t they always?—that this signaled a fresh willingness by Pyongyang to engage, not only with South Korea but also the US. Yet this “breakthrough” lasted barely a fortnight. When the US and ROK began their regular August military exercises—albeit scaled back and wholly computer-based—North Korea snarled and stopped answering the phone. Inter-Korean relations remain frozen, as they have been ever since early 2019. With Moon Jae-in’s presidency due to end next May, any real melting of the ice looks increasingly like a challenge for his successor.
As in 2019-20, inter-Korean ties remained frozen, other than a rare lawsuit. Revelations that in 2018 Moon Jae-in’s government had pondered building the North a nuclear power plant caused a brief furor. Seoul’s propaganda balloon ban backfired, prompting widespread criticism—but no thanks from Pyongyang, which was also unimpressed by scaled-down US-ROK war games. North Korea tested its first ballistic missile in nearly a year, amid concerns of a new arms race; some analysts deemed the South culpable, too. Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong fired four verbal volleys, mostly insults. Another undetected defector highlighted failings in ROK border security. MOU Lee In-young was ubiquitous and loquacious, but scattergun in the causes he championed. Moon’s government remained reticent, or worse, regarding DPRK human rights abuses. With just a year left in office, and notwithstanding rare criticism of the North by ministers, Moon was expected to double down on engagement despite Pyongyang’s lack of reciprocity.
Inter-Korean relations, still formally in abeyance, were dominated in September and October by a mysterious and tragic incident in the West Sea. A Southern official went missing from a survey vessel and ended up in Northern waters—where he was shot and his body burnt. Kim Jong Un apologized, sort of, and Seoul revealed that he and Moon Jae-in had earlier privately exchanged pleasantries—but neither this, nor Unification Minister Lee In-young’s ceaseless calls for aid and cooperation, cut any ice in Pyongyang. Meanwhile Kim launched a campaign to eradicate Southern slang among Northern youth. In December Moon’s ruling party passed a law to ban propaganda balloon launches across the DMZ, prompting widespread criticism but earning no praise from the North. At a big Party Congress in January, Kim lambasted the South in shopworn terms, withdrew his “goodwill,” and said the ball is in Seoul’s court. For good measure, his sister Kim Yo Jong called South Korea “weird.” Despite Moon’s dreams, the 2018 peace process is over, with scant prospects of renewal.
This was a tempestuous summer on the Korean Peninsula in more ways than one. Relations between the two Koreas, already bad, reached a new nadir in June. Claiming to be suddenly furious about defector activists sending propaganda via balloon across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), North Korea issued ever more violent threats against the South. These culminated in the symbolic but extreme act of physically blowing up the (by then unoccupied) joint liaison office in Kaesong, just north of the DMZ, on June 16. Moon Jae-in’s government deplored that and other aggressive Northern acts, like opening dams to send floodwaters downstream into the South without warning. Yet its tone was more pained than sharp, and Moon remained oddly emollient toward Pyongyang overall. In July he named a new minister of unification (MOU) in Lee In-young, who had allegedly been pro-North in his student days, as well as reshuffling three other top security posts. Although the new appointees were all even more strongly pro-engagement than their predecessors, North Korea showed little sign of being impressed.
No doubt Kim Jong Un was preoccupied elsewhere, by tempests of a more literal kind. After the longest summer monsoon season ever recorded, the peninsula was buffeted by back-to-back typhoons in August and early September. Both Koreas suffered—separately, since Kim refused all aid from the South (or anyone), citing COVID-19 concerns, just as he had rebuffed Moon’s offer to help regarding the virus itself. With North Korea turning inward and focused on reconstruction—a new Party Congress, set for January, looks like an attempt at a fresh start—and the clock starting to tick on Moon’s term of office which must end in May 2022, the chances of inter-Korean cooperation reviving any time soon seem sadly small.
Inter-Korean relations stayed frozen in the early part of 2020. ROK President Moon Jae-in’s outreach was hardly reciprocated by Kim Jong Un, whose sister snapped back when Seoul mildly criticized Pyongyang’s missile launches in March. For both Koreas the challenge of COVID-19 was overwhelming, yet the North refused any cooperation on this. In April Moon’s liberal party scored a big win in parliamentary elections; two DPRK defectors gained seats for the conservative opposition. Kim caused a global media frenzy by briefly vanishing from view. Moon has less than two years left in office, so Kim’s shunning of him looks short-sighted.
2019 was a bad year between the two Koreas, undoing advances made in 2018. North Korea eschewed contact with the South, while continuing with weapons tests, which the South finally protested in November. In a pattern of negativism, Pyongyang hosted (because it had to) a most unsporting inter-Korean soccer match. Both states were hit by swine fever, yet the North refused help from or to share data with the South. In a policy U-turn, Kim Jong Un told South Korea not to revive Mt. Kumgang tourism, but to come and take away its “shabby” and “ugly” facilities built there. Seoul’s stance on the North’s human rights attracted criticism. Yet President Moon Jae-in remained strangely upbeat. His New Year address reiterated a broad agenda for cooperation—whereas a big speech by Kim ignored the South completely. 2020 is unlikely to see any improvement.
North Korea continued to freeze out the South over the summer months. Kim Jong Un did meet Moon Jae-in once, very briefly, but only on the sidelines of his third summit (also brief) with Donald Trump at Panmunjom on June 30. He also sent his sister, Kim Yo Jong, to the same venue with a wreath and condolences for a former ROK first lady – but with no message for Moon, whom in August DPRK media derided as “an impudent guy.” Meanwhile Pyongyang was deaf to Seoul’s entreaties on all fronts, including their agreed joint teams for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It also reverted to missile tests, specifically of new short-range weapons that could target the South. Despite all this Moon remained publicly upbeat. John Bolton’s departure from the White House may improve prospects, if Trump now offers some sanctions relief. But as this shows, inter-Korean relations are now (by Kim’s choice) subordinate to US-DPRK ties, not important in their own right.
The inter-Korean peace process that blossomed in 2018 shriveled in early 2019. Pyongyang was slowing the pace even before February’s Kim-Trump summit in Hanoi; since then it has severed almost all contacts with Seoul – whose “meddling” mediation Kim mocked in a speech in April. The North’s ebbing interest can be seen across a range of sectors, including Kim Jong Un’s failure to visit Seoul, high-level talks, the joint liaison office, NGOs, sports exchanges, tension reduction measures at the DMZ, family reunions, medical aid, and more. The DPRK’s missile launches in early May are a further blow. Despite President Moon Jae-in’s efforts to keep a brave face, it is hard to see where North-South relations go from here. Kim may regret dissing the most sympathetic interlocutor he is ever likely to have in Seoul, while Moon needs to think harder about what it will take to make the “irreversible” progress in inter-Korean ties that he craves.