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Seoul’s Peace Initiative at Odds with Biden’s Coalition-Building Strategy

South Korean President Moon Jae-in removes his mask as he witnesses a signing ceremony at Parliament House, in Canberra, Australia, Dec. 13, 2021.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in removes his mask as he witnesses a signing ceremony at Parliament House, in Canberra, Australia, Dec. 13, 2021.

South Korea’s efforts to revive diplomacy with North Korea stand at odds with the Biden administration’s strategy of building an international coalition to counter the dual threats posed by North Korea and China, experts say.

Nearing the end of his presidency in May 2022, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been accelerating his peace initiative to reengage with Pyongyang. The effort comes amid long-deadlocked nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang as well as a stalled inter-Korean dialogue.

To revive talks, the Moon government has been pushing a declaration formally ending the Korean War of the early 1950s. Such a declaration would need the support of the U.S. and China, two nations engaged in intense rivalry.

The Moon government considers “making a political declaration of ending the war a starting point for peace negotiations,” according to the South Korean Foreign Ministry’s website.

Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, said Seoul’s drive to gain China’s support for the declaration contributed, in part, to its decision not to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics.

“The Olympics would give them an opportunity to have some private conversations with the Chinese to find out how much [Beijing is] willing to play a role in helping to get North Korea and South Korea together, at least some sort of inter-Korean dialogue,” Gause said.

Seoul is “not considering” a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, Moon said last week at a press conference held after a bilateral summit with Australia. The U.S. and several other nations are withholding diplomatic entourages from the Games to protest China’s human rights abuses.

Seoul’s peace initiative

Moon also said the U.S., China, and North Korea agree “in principle” to declare a formal end to the Korean War.

Yet the Biden administration continues to take a tough stance toward Pyongyang. Earlier this month, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a set of sanctions on North Korea-related entities and individuals for violating human rights.

The Biden administration has said it will conduct its foreign policy “centered on the defense of democracy and the protection of human rights.”

U.S.-led efforts to counter Chinese influence and draw attention to Beijing’s human rights record are also a complicating factor.

South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told VOA’s Korean Service last week that Seoul “is well aware of the international community's concerns and related discussions on the human rights issues in China.”

The ministry continued, “Recognizing that human rights and democracy are important universal values, the Korean government is communicating with the international community and China, voicing its opinion in an appropriate way.”

US-ROK diversion

Robert King, who served as special envoy for North Korea human rights issues during the Obama administration, said when it comes to human rights, “South Korea is essentially in the same place as the United States.”

King continued, however, that the difference in their approach to human rights stems from Seoul's priority toward "engagement with the North" to revive its peace initiative, giving less attention to human rights violations of the regime, whereas "the United States has focused more on issues of denuclearization and human rights" over inter-Korean engagements and dialogue.

In December 2020, Seoul passed a law banning the dispersal of leaflets and other materials into North Korea.

The measure sparked concern in Washington that it could undermine international efforts to provide outside information to the people of North Korea.

The State Department told VOA’s Korean Service in May that the U.S. “continues to promote the free flow of information into, out of, and within the DPRK.”

In response to the State Department's statement supporting the free flow of information into North Korea, the South Korean foreign ministry said, “The ROK government believes that it is important that North Koreans have access to information, and that it is necessary to bring about positive changes to North Korean society by promoting access to information.”

Gary Samore, former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction during the Obama administration, said Seoul’s overall relations with Washington have been “extremely good” and “cooperative within the limits of its overall position in the region including its relations with China.”

Samore continued, “In the case of South Korea, it wants to work with China on the North Korean threat. And therefore, it has a different relationship with China than others.”

Joseph DeTrani, who served as special envoy for six-party denuclearization talks with Pyongyang during the George W. Bush administration, said, “I think the U.S. appreciates the difficult position South Korea is in and respects their decision knowing that they are living in that neighborhood and dealing with a great power that’s the People’s Republic of China.”