A blast from the past: Yoon’s outdated North Korea thinking

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

South Korea’s new president Yoon Suk-yeol took the oath of office in Seoul earlier today. North Korea was hardly the main focus of his speech, but no South Korean president could avoid the topic, especially three days after a North Korean short-range ballistic missile launch. His idea for inducing denuclearization in North Korea appears very similar to former US president Donald Trump’s, namely to give North Korea lots of shiny, expensive things:

“북한이 핵 개발을 중단하고 실질적인 비핵화로 전환한다면 국제사회와 협력하여 북한 경제와 북한 주민의 삶을 획기적으로 개선할 수 있는 담대한 계획을 준비하겠습니다.”

(Source: Ji Song-rim, “취임 일성으로 ‘북한 비핵화’ 강조…경제적 보상 제안,” Yonhap News, May 10th, 2022.)

“While North Korea’s nuclear weapon programs are a threat not only to our security and that of Northeast Asia, the door to dialogue will remain open so that we can peacefully resolve this threat…If North Korea genuinely embarks on a process to complete denuclearization, we are prepared to work with the international community to present an audacious plan that will vastly strengthen North Korea’s economy and improve the quality of life for its people.”

(Source: Lee Haye-ah, “Yoon champions freedom, offers to revive N.K. economy with ‘audacious plan,'” Yonhap News, May 10th, 2022.)

Of course, it’s still unclear exactly what this “audacious plan (담대한 계획)” is. But in context, an “audacious plan that will vastly strengthen North Korea’s economy” most likely entails South Korea and possibly others offering North Korea a shiny, brand new infrastructure for basically the entire country, investments, vast sums of aid, et cetera, in exchange for North Korea giving up  its nuclear weapons. Essentially what Trump suggested in 2019. I’m obviously simplifying here, but those may well be the broad strokes.

This line of thinking — assuming it’s genuine and not just a way to avoid the topic —  relies on inaccurate and, at best, outdated, ideas about North Korean economic policy. If handing over piles of cash was the solution, there wouldn’t still be a North Korean nuclear issue. Lee Myung-bak, for example, made similar suggestions through his “Denuclearization Development 3000 (비핵 개방 3000)” But North Korea has continuously reneged on deals in this spirit, or simply rejected, often in plain language, that they would ever trade the nuclear weapons for economic incentives.

North Korea has, moreover, declared the old model of special economic zones built and run by South Korea dead and gone. Kim Jong-un wants foreign investment, but he doesn’t want companies from the “southern puppet regime” dictating any of the conditions or managing special economic zones on his territory.

It seems likely to me that Yoon is aware of all of this – he presumably gets high-quality briefings on North Korean policies – but that this was the least bad thing to say, since he had to say something about his vision for North Korea policy. Subin Kim, who analyzes South Korean politics at his excellent website Koreakontext, pointed out in an email that most of Yoon’s national security team consist of the same people who advised Lee Myung-bak on North Korea policy. Perhaps this is simply a way of avoiding the topic by repeating tired and tried phrases. In any case, such suggestions are a dead end with North Korea, and Yoon likely knows it.

Share