Negative Scenario II

Kathryn Botto, Research Analyst, Asia Program, Carnegie Endowment of International Peace

In his own words, President Moon Jae-in’s plan “is to make enough progress by the year’s end so the [peace] process cannot be reversed,” such that “there can never be another war on the Korean Peninsula.”1 In reality, of course, peace is never completely irreversible. More reasonably, what Moon likely desires is to create such momentum behind engagement with North Korea that the benefits of continuing far outweigh the cost of returning to hostilities.

Washington remains unconvinced of Kim’s intentions for denuclearization, and so the process has yet to cross this threshold. However, Eun A Jo’s positive scenario in October for the future of inter-Korean relations argues that some of Washington’s frustration stems from the difference between its goals and Seoul’s. While the United States has unyieldingly focused on making progress toward denuclearization, Moon’s first priority is to ensure that the peace process continues. He has positioned himself as a credible intermediary between Washington and Pyongyang, a position from which he must simultaneously deepen engagement with Pyongyang while continuously assuaging Washington’s concerns in order to keep the peace process going. Jo is right that thus far, Moon has adroitly navigated this position. He has steered Trump away from confrontation and brought Kim to the negotiating table.

Kathryn Botto
Kathryn Botto was a senior research analyst in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research focuses on Asian security issues, with particular emphasis on the Korean Peninsula and U.S. defense policy towards East Asia.
More >

However, cracks are appearing in his strategy. If Moon wants the peace process to continue, he has three and a half years left in his presidency to convince the United States that engagement with North Korea will continue to be worthwhile. If inter-Korean projects continue to move ahead at full-speed while negotiations between the United States and North Korea stall, Washington may end up unconvinced that the potential costs of engaging with a North Korea seemingly unwilling to denuclearize outweigh the benefits. With the clock ticking, Moon must find a way to help Washington secure satisfactory progress in negotiations soon to ensure that all major stakeholders are sufficiently invested in pursuing the benefits of engagement with North Korea in the long term.

Building irreversible momentum with Washington

The ROK and DPRK have rapidly begun implementing the provisions of the Panmunjom and Pyongyang declarations. In terms of military confidence building measures (CBMs), the two have undertaken demining operations, established a no-fly zone, and demolished 20 guard posts in the DMZ.2 In terms of economic cooperation, South Korea secured a UN sanctions exemption for a joint survey of inter-Korean railways, and began an 18-day survey of the northern portion of the railway on December 1.3 Until recently, Moon continued to maintain that Kim would visit Seoul by the end of the year, and he may still do so in the new year.4 In terms of momentum and progress, all of these measures do make returning to last year’s level of tensions more difficult. It is far more provocative to reinstate a no-fly zone after abolishing it than it would be to expand an already existing one, or for the United States to oppose the inter-Korean railway project once a survey has been completed than before.

Eun A Jo
Eun A Jo is a PhD Student at Cornell University.

Moon knows this, and that is likely part of the reason he is pursuing rapid implementation of these agreements. However, building momentum that is difficult to reverse requires that all relevant stakeholders are convinced that negotiations have real potential for progress. Absent potential for progress on denuclearization, the United States will be less inclined to use its leverage over sanctions enforcement and military operations to support Moon’s agenda.

Other stakeholders like Beijing and Russia have both been fairly supportive of Moon’s approach, particularly in calling for sanctions to be relaxed as a reward for the DPRK’s efforts thus far.5 Washington’s endorsement, however, has been more tenuous. Moon’s efforts have lent enough stability to the situation to allow implementation of military CBMs and economic projects, but most have still been met with resistance from Washington. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised concerns about the no-fly zone in a phone call to his counterpart Kang Kyung-wha, and the United Nations Command initially rejected Seoul’s request to survey the inter-Korean railway.6 While the United States tolerated the sanctions exemption for the railway project last month, Marc Knapper, acting deputy assistant secretary for Japan and South Korea at the State Department, confirmed as much when he commented that the sanctions relief needed to actually implement the railway project would not be granted “absent the real progress on denuclearization” at a forum in Seoul.7

On borrowed time?

Washington is not only increasingly at odds with Seoul but seems to have reached an impasse in negotiations with Pyongyang. While the ROK and DPRK have implemented numerous aspects of their agreements and continued robust contact, US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun has yet to engage in working level talks with North Korea.8 Lower-level US officials have regular contact with North Korean counterparts, but the substance of those discussions is unclear.9 Whatever the case, the administration seems keen to put a band-aid on this problem with another Trump-Kim summit, a move which will likely reinforce the North Korean preference of dealing with the United States at the highest levels of government rather than engaging in constructive working level discussions. It is in these discussions, rather than high-level summits, that officials can discuss at length critical issues that must be resolved for tangible progress to be made, such as the definition and sequencing of denuclearization, sanctions relief, the contours of potential security guarantees, and more.

As US-DPRK relations continue to stall, Moon is gambling with his approach. On the one hand, continuing to rapidly implement inter-Korean agreements and pushing for further summits may create momentum in negotiations that Washington is unwilling to upend. On the other, it may isolate Washington from the process and undermine US support for Moon’s agenda. In a situation where Washington is less and less aligned with Seoul and unable to meaningfully engage North Korea, trust in the process will degrade. Washington is fully aware that negotiating denuclearization will take time and seems to be adjusting expectations accordingly—after the Singapore summit, Pompeo said that the bulk of denuclearization could be completed by the end of Trump’s first term, but now he contends that they will not be “forced into artificial time frames.”10 But with inter-Korean rapprochement far outpacing progress on the United States’ core issues of concern, Washington may reach a point that the costs of continuing to engage with North Korea outweigh the benefits. Continuing to support a peace process that increases engagement with North Korea—or even potentially normalizes US-DPRK relations—without what Washington considers to be substantial progress toward final, fully verifiable denuclearization may become too much for the United States to swallow.

Domestic challenges on the horizon

Moon has just three and a half years left of his single-term presidency to achieve indelible progress on an intractable problem. Once out of office, there is no guarantee that a new president—particularly if conservative—will favor Moon’s approach. The conservative opposition remains immobilized in the wake of former president Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, but with Moon’s popularity tanking and three and a half years left to regroup, the conservatives may still be able to present a credible challenge in the 2022 presidential election. Moon has failed to engage with or win the opposition parties’ support for his inter-Korean agenda, and a future conservative government is unlikely to support the continuation of Moon’s policies. There is even potential for his policies to be reversed, as former progressive president Roh Moo-hyun’s Sunshine Policy was when conservative president Lee Myung-bak came to power.

As if the timeline was not difficult enough, Moon’s waning popularity at home will make implementing his policies more and more difficult over the remainder of his presidency. Both Gallup and Realmeter polls have shown his presidential approval drop below 50 percent this month for the first time since he took office—a decline of more than 40 percentage points since his inauguration.11 His North Korea policy remains decently popular, though not nearly as popular as in the immediate aftermath of each inter-Korean summit. In contrast, nearly fifty percent of those who disapprove of Moon’s presidency cite his economic policies as the reason, and that number is on the rise.12This dynamic is likely to get worse as inter-Korean projects continue to be implemented. Amid dismal job creation and unwaveringly high unemployment, the Ministry of Unification announced that South Korea’s budget for inter-Korean projects would exceed 1 trillion won ($890.7 million) in 2019, a 15 percent increase from last year. Absent real improvement in the economy, voters’ support for inter-Korean projects is likely to decline as they become more expensive.

A way forward

For his domestic audience, Moon needs to focus his efforts on improving the economy. But for the United States, Moon must find a way to demonstrate credibly what he believes to be true – that North Korea is genuinely committed to denuclearization. To this end, Moon’s most immediate priority should be efforts to help establish Biegun as a credible envoy in the eyes of North Korea. Even absent concrete progress on denuclearization, a breakthrough in access to North Korean officials through working level talks with the special envoy would boost momentum in the eyes of the United States. Unfortunately, this will be a difficult message for Moon to communicate to the North when the potential for a second summit with Trump remains. In order to ensure North Korea does not simply continue to hold out for summits with Trump, the United States should prepare for the second Trump-Kim summit contingent on North Korea’s appointment of a counterpart for Biegun and the opening of talks between the envoys.
This would be a valuable step forward in the short-term, but North Korea policy in South Korea faces a broader structural challenge that Moon will need to mitigate in the long-term in order for his agenda to succeed. To decrease the chances of his agenda’s reversal, Moon must encourage the National Assembly to lead the way for constitutional revision. As it stands, South Korea’s constitution vests considerable power in the presidency – so much so that it is often referred to as an “imperial presidency.”13 Presidents largely have the freedom to govern carte blanche, and for this reason, North Korea policy has always been a top-heavy process with minimal input from the National Assembly.

The debate over constitutional revision has been ongoing since South Korea’s democratization, and most recommendations focus on dispersing presidential power and decentralizing the government. In addition to creating substantial checks and balances on presidential power, Moon’s governing Democratic Party has proposed a four-year, two-term presidency that would require the president to think more about his constituents as he considers reelection. Opposition parties including the Liberty Korea Party have proposed a semi-presidential system with power divided between a president and a prime minister.14

Absent constitutional revision, inter-Korean policy will remain a top-heavy process that new administrations are eager to overturn in order to make their mark. With a two-term presidency (which Moon would not be able to take advantage of, but his successor could), North Korea policy could have more continuity. Proposed revisions to create checks and balances would also facilitate more inclusive North Korea policy with a National Assembly more vested in the outcomes. The president has paid little attention to the issue after his bill on constitutional revision was boycotted by the opposition parties in April, but he must renew collaboration with the National Assembly to construct an inclusive reform bill in order to give his North Korea agenda the best chance for success even after his term. While constitutional revision and working-level talks are not enough in and of themselves to create irreversible peace, they may be enough to create much needed momentum in the short term and stability in the long term.


1 “Moon says is seeking to establish ‘irreversible’ peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Yonhap News Agency, September 7, 2018,

2 Dagyum Ji, “UN sanctions committee allows Seoul to resupply Northern military hotline,” NK News, November 30, 2018,

3 Ankit Panda, “Inter-Korean Rail Survey Begins, Ahead of Expected Fourth Kim-Moon Summit,” The Diplomat, December 1, 2018,

4 Choe Sang-Hun, “Will Kim Jong-un Visit Seoul This Month? South Korea Is Holding Its Breath,” The New York Times, December 10, 2018,

5 Julian Borger “China and Russia call on UN to ease North Korea sanctions,” The Guardian,September 27, 2018,

6 Hyonhee Shin, “U.S. opposed to Koreas’ plan for no-fly zone over border: sources,” Reuters, October 18, 2018,; and Benjamin Haas, “Train project liking North and South Korea stopped in its tracks by US,” The Guardian, August 31, 2018,

7 Ankit Panda, “Inter-Korean Rail Survey Begins.”

8 Nick Wadhams, “Pompeo’s North Korea Envoy Can’t Get Face Time with Counterparts,” Bloomberg, December 7, 2018,



11 “한국갤럽 데일리 오피니언 [Gallup Korea Daily Opinion],” Gallup Korea, December 7, 2018,; and Lee Sung-eun and Kwon Ho, “Moon’s approval falls below 50% for 1st time,” Korea Joongang Daily, November 30, 2018,

12 Gallup Korea Daily Opinion.

13 Seonhwa Kim, “Reforming South Korea’s ‘Imperial Presidency,’” Institute for Security & Development Policy, October, 2017,

14 Hyung-A Kim, “The Roadblocks to Reform in South Korea,” Asian Studies Association of Australia, April 18, 2018.

Positive Scenario II

Eun A Jo

Months have passed since the Pyongyang summit—and hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough remain illusory. For a brief moment, the stalled diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang appeared to recover; yet no date has been fixed for a second Trump-Kim summit and the newly-appointed US envoy Stephen Biegun has yet to set foot in North Korea. The deadlock is unsurprising given the profound differences in US and North Korean positions on how diplomacy should proceed. Despite this—and the various reasons for pessimism about the trajectory of nuclear diplomacy with which I concur strongly—my objective in this exchange is to identify what, if any, signs for optimism remain.

Some qualifications are necessary. This commentary is not a “positive” account in the sense that I argue Kim is sincere about his willingness to denuclearize—I believe this is, in fact, unlikely. Neither do I contend that Moon is able to fundamentally change the course of the US-DPRK relations—this too is improbable. Furthermore, this commentary makes no assumptions about what is the “right” strategy to deal with Pyongyang—this warrants a separate, much lengthier discussion. Instead, this commentary sets aside the broader debates about the viability of denuclearization and peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. As Kathryn Botto rightly notes in the first round of our exchange, such aims lie far beyond Moon’s control.

Bearing in mind these qualifications, this commentary focuses on what opportunities still exist for Moon to sustain his nordpolitik and facilitate the dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang in the immediate term. To that end, I discuss the current state of diplomacy, respond to some salient points raised by Botto, and argue why diplomacy is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

What is the current state of diplomacy?

Since the Pyongyang summit, inter-Korean relations have remained mostly constructive. Of the 13 commitments with specific deadlines, the two Koreas have successfully delivered on five and are on track to complete four more.1 In particular, both countries completed an 18-day survey of the North Korean railways in preparation for a joint railway project. Despite initial objections by the United States, the survey was approved by the UN Security Council sanctions committee, which—according to the Moon administration—implied “that the project… garnered recognition and support from the United States and the international society.”2 As part of tension reduction measures, the two Koreas also withdrew firearms and troops from guard posts, cleared some hundred landmines in the Joint Security Area, suspended military exercises along the border, and established no-fly zones.3 Symbolically, the two Koreas exchanged tangerines with pine mushrooms and a pair of indigenous dogs.4 However innocuous these measures might seem, that both parties have continued to show reciprocity signifies their commitment to maintaining diplomatic momentum.

In contrast, US relations with the two Koreas have been less productive and, in some ways, conflictual. Following the Pyongyang summit, the United States established a working group with South Korea toward a “shared goal of the final, fully verified denuclearization of the DPRK.”5 It has convened twice so far, in Washington on November 20 and in Seoul a month later.6 South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha had earlier admitted that there were “differences” between Washington and Seoul on inter-Korean projects.7 Against this backdrop, the working group was seen as an effort to formalize the processes by which the two allies could share information and coordinate policy, particularly with respect to the South’s compliance with the US-led sanctions regime.8 The North Korean state media Uriminzokkiri swiftly denounced the working group as a US attempt to “ruin” inter-Korean cooperation and accused Seoul of “blindly obeying” Washington.9

Tensions between the United States and North Korea has been slowly mounting. On December 10, the US Treasury Department announced additional sanctions against three North Korean officials in honor of Otto Warmbier, an American student who died shortly after his release from North Korean detention.10 Among the sanctioned individuals was Choe Ryong-hae, widely considered North Korea’s second-in-command and responsible for the party’s powerful Organization and Guidance Department. In a pointed response, the director of the Institute of American Studies (IFAS)—a research arm of the North Korean foreign ministry—warned that escalating sanctions and human rights campaign against North Korea would “block the path to denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula forever—a result desired by no one.”11 The warning appears to have been heeded: Vice President Mike Pence reportedly canceled a speech on North Korea’s human rights abuses for fear of further alienating Pyongyang and derailing talks.12

Will diplomacy survive?

Amid growing friction, many—including Botto—have raised doubts about the sustainability of inter-Korean engagement. While I share those concerns, my aim here is to consider why, in spite of these challenges, diplomacy might survive. Based on more recent evidence, I make three points: (1) North Korea continues to signal its desire for dialogue; (2) the United States appears to be demonstrating more flexibility with respect to its “maximum pressure” campaign; and (3) South Korean domestic public opinion exhibits sustained support for inter-Korean reconciliation. These conditions will allow Moon to continue to promote his North Korea policy.

First, while Botto has raised concerns about North Korea pulling out of talks over the lack of progress, the country has shown significant patience and restraint. The North’s latest statements demonstrate that Pyongyang is reluctant to issue criticisms that would seriously threaten diplomacy. In the few instances in which North Korea has openly denounced US actions, it has generally avoided naming and shaming, and when it had done so, it has made sure to shield the US president from the criticism. For instance, an IFAS statement in late October suggested that Washington’s “confusing” signals were due to “pressure and irritation at home” and placed the blame on Trump’s opponents.13 With the mid-term elections approaching, the statement also acknowledged that the “political situation of the United States is very complicated and this makes it difficult for the administration to make a decision and push ahead with it.” In a similar fashion, another IFAS statement in early December accused American officials of disrespecting the deal reached between Trump and Kim.14 Like many previous statements, this one also praised Trump, who “avails himself of every possible occasion to state his willingness to improve DPRK-US relations.” At the same time, however, it condemned the State Department for adopting a stance “far from the statements of the president,” imperiling diplomatic momentum. The softer tone and overall framing of the statements indicate that the North deliberately exercises restraint to signal its desire for dialogue by appealing to Trump even when it voices its concerns vis-à-vis Washington.

Second, many have argued that the Trump administration may not lift sanctions until the North meaningfully denuclearizes, a position which will lead to a diplomatic impasse. However, there are signs that suggest the US position on sanctions is increasingly flexible. Instead of final, fully verified denuclearization, US officials—including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis—have progressively adopted “steps” toward denuclearization as a precondition for sanctions relief.15 Other signs are more substantive. The United States reversed its position on the inter-Korean railway project, allowing the South to inspect the North’s railways. Biegun, in fact, celebrated the results of the survey, stating that the United States had “watched with great excitement as the trains lodged into North Korea.”16 With US approval, the two Koreas are now planning a groundbreaking ceremony at Panmun Station for the end of the year.17 Furthermore, the United States is reviewing its travel bans—and broader humanitarian policy—to allow aid groups to work in North Korea.18 While aid groups have never been a direct target of US sanctions on North Korea, Washington has so strictly enforced its sanctions in the past that humanitarian operations have effectively come to a halt. To facilitate humanitarian assistance, the United States has also agreed to supply flu drugs to North Korea.19 These developments suggest that Washington may be willing to ease some of its “maximum pressure” campaign to incentivize Pyongyang and break the diplomatic deadlock.

Third, although Moon’s popularity has dropped significantly, South Korean support for inter-Korean cooperation remains robust. According to a recent poll by Realmeter, Moon’s approval rating now stands at 52%, which marks the lowest level since he took office in May 2017.20 The decline is mostly attributed to worsening economic conditions.21 Support levels for the ruling Democratic Party have also slipped to 39.2% while those of the main opposition Liberal Korea Party have risen to 22.9%. Based on these observations, many—including Botto—have argued that support for Moon’s North Korea policy will gradually dissipate, as the public punishes Moon for the lack of resolution on domestic economic problems and as presidential hopefuls within his party seek to distance themselves from the increasingly unpopular president. Nevertheless, Moon’s waning popularity has not accompanied a corresponding decline in support for his North Korea policy. Indeed, a recent national survey finds that a majority of South Koreans still support inter-Korean rapprochement22: 61% of respondents assessed positively the implementation of the military agreement and 64% agreed that sanctions should be loosened to facilitate diplomacy. In another poll by Realmeter, 61.3% welcomed a reciprocal visit to Seoul by Kim.23 Overall, the polls suggest that public dissatisfaction with Moon does not necessarily translate to disapproval of his engagement with North Korea.


Recent developments in Pyongyang, Washington, and Seoul illustrate that each party continues to favor diplomatic progress in the denuclearization and peace talks. Pyongyang has refrained from criticizing Trump to avoid jeopardizing a second summit. Washington has gradually softened its “maximum pressure” stance to build trust with Pyongyang. Seoul has continued to balance its position between Pyongyang and Washington, making some notable strides where it has more autonomy. Despite growing frustration and alarm over the stalled talks, diplomatic efforts have stayed curiously resilient, because they remain in each party’s strategic interest: Kim wants more sanctions relief (and believes his best chance is to negotiate directly with Trump); Trump covets a diplomatic victory ahead of his reelection and to distract from his domestic travails; and Moon wants continued engagement to cement his “Moonshine” legacy. Insofar as these incentives remain compelling and—from the perspective of each party—attainable, they will continue to signal their support for dialogue. This will equip Moon with sufficient means and motives to push for inter-Korean peace.    


1 Uri Friedman, “The Beginning of the End of the Korean War,” The Atlantic, November 28, 2018,

2 Ankit Panda, “Inter-Korean Rail Survey Begins, Ahead of Expected Fourth Kim-Moon Summit in Seoul,” The Diplomat, December 1, 2018,

3 “Inter-Korean Military Agreement Banning ‘All Hostile Acts’ to Go into Effect Thurs,” KBS World Radio, October 31, 2018,

4 Rachel Xian, “Inter-Korean Cooperation: More Than Tangerines and Mushrooms,” The Diplomat, December 15, 2018,

5 Colin Zwirko, “ROK, U.S. to establish working group on North Korea issues: State Department,” NK News, October 31, 2018,

6 “US envoy on NK to visit Seoul to boost coordination: State Department,” The Korea Herald, December 19, 2018,

7 Dagyum Ji, “ROK admits to “differences” with U.S. on inter-Korean rail, road connection plans,” NK News, October 29, 2018,

8 Oliver Hotham, “ROK-U.S. working group on North Korea holds first meeting in DC,” NK News, November 21, 2018,

9 Ibid.

10 Conor Finnegan, “US sanctions 3 senior North Korean officials amid stalled nuclear talks,” ABC News, December 10, 2018,

11 Choe Sang-hun, “Hard-Line U.S. Tactics Will ‘Block’ Path to Denuclearization, North Korea Warns,” The New York Times, December 16, 2018,

12 Conor Finnegan, “Pence canceled North Korea human rights speech, with Trump administration concerned about state of nuclear talks,” ABC News, December 22, 2018,

13 Robert Carlin, “North Korea Carefully Revs Up Public Warnings to Washington,” October 22, 2018,

14 “North Korea Condemns U.S. Sanctions, Warns Denuclearization at Risk,” December 16, 2018,

15 Chad O’Carroll, “Obstacle to progress? What to make of U.S. inflexibility on DPRK sanctions relief,”NK News, November 6, 2018,; Matthew Pennington, “Pompeo backs away from denuclearization goal for North Korea,” AP News, October 3, 2018,; Steve George, “No sanctions relief without steps to denuclearize, Mattis tells North Korea,” CNN, June 3, 2018,

16 Jung Min-kyung, “Allies cooperation to end hostility on Korean Peninsula, excited to hear results of Koreas’ railway survey: top US nuclear envoy,” The Korea Herald, December 21, 2018,

17 Dagyum Ji, “U.S. gives “strong support” to survey on inter-Korean rail connection: ROK MOFA,” NK News, November 21, 2018,

18 Choe Sang-hun, “U.S. Will Review Travel Ban on North Korea, Envoy Says,” The New York Times, December 19, 2018,

19 “U.S. to Help South Korea Get Flu Drugs to North Despite Stalled Nuclear Talks,” The New York Times, December 21, 2018,

20 “Moon’s job approval rating dips to record low: poll,” The Korea Herald, November 26, 2018,

21 “Moon’s plummeting approval ratings and the conservatives’ counterattack,” Hankyoreh, November 30, 2018,

22 “64% of South Koreans agree to relaxing sanctions on North Korea,” Hankyoreh, November 28, 2018,

23 “Six out of 10 S. Koreans in favor of N.K. leader’s possible visit to Seoul: poll,” Yonhap News, December 13, 2018,

This originally was published by the Asun Forum.