With Pyongyang rejecting or ignoring all attempts by Seoul to build bridges, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is under pressure to take a firmer line against Kim Jong Un's regime in North Korea. Julian Ryall reports.
In the nearly three months since he assumed office in Seoul, President Moon Jae-in has done everything in his power to build bridges with the regime in North Korea and reduce tensions that bedevil the Korean Peninsula. At every turn, Moon's overtures have been rebuffed or simply ignored . If anything, his olive branches have been met with more rhetoric, belligerence and missile launches.
North Korea's recent launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a range that puts most of the continental United States within reach of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons may, however, prove to be a turning point in Moon's approach to dealing with Kim Jong Un.
"The latest missile launch could lead to fundamental changes in the northeast Asian security structure," Moon said in an emergency meeting of the National Security Council on Saturday, July 29. Moon added that South Korea should "consider our own sanctions" against Pyongyang.
Within hours of the ICBM launch, Moon also announced that his administration had decided to deploy the four remaining US Army Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile systems. That was a reversal of a decision announced only 16 hours previously that the deployments would not go ahead until extensive environmental impact assessments could be carried out, a procedure that could take several months to complete, in order to placate local residents.
Moon's attempts to build a working relationship with North Korea have come under fire in the South Korean media, with popular tabloids in particular calling for him to take a firmer line.
The Chosun Ilbo newspaper ran an editorial on July 18 headlined "Seoul seems hell-bent on being duped again by North Korea," in which it criticized the government's decision to ask for talks between military officials from North and South to avoid provocations on the border, as well as discussions between representatives of the Red Cross about the resumption of reunions of families separated since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
The editorial accused Moon of "begging" the North for links to resume and pointed out that any meeting would only serve as an opportunity for the North to make demands of the South while the North continues with the development of nuclear weapons and missiles.
"Why on earth does the government expect that the North will change if it offers a few concessions?" the article asked.
"A fundamental shift in the North's attitude is necessary to achieve denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula, and neither North Korea nor any other autocratic regime has ever made any fundamental changes without strong and continued pressure from the international community," it concluded.
And while South Korea's presidential Blue House officials have underlined in recent days that the administration remains committed to a twin-track approach of seeking talks while applying pressure, the emphasis may have shifted marginally from one to the other.
"I do not believe it would be correct to say that Moon has changed his mind on North Korea; I would say that after three months as president, he has become alive to the hard facts of life when it comes to dealing with Pyongyang," said Rah Jong-yil, a former head of South Korean intelligence.
"After trying many things, he is now being compelled to make choices and decisions that he would not have done previously because this is the reality of our relationship with the North," he told DW.
"Many leaders have come to power in Seoul with firm plans of how they are going to advance the relationship with the North, how they are going to communicate with the various Kim regimes, but sooner or later they all become disillusioned."
"Moon cannot just keep repeating his plans for better ties in the face of what is happening in the North," he said. "He has to react differently. But I do believe that if he did get a different response from the other side, then he would again be ready to talk."
Garren Mulloy, an associate professor of international relations at Daito Bunka University, said that Moon is not performing a sea change in his policies toward Pyongyang, but is instead "hedging."
"When he came in, Moon said he did not want the THAAD system to be deployed, but now he is putting in the second lot of missiles and he clearly believes that it is better to have missile defense than not to," Mulloy told DW. "But I would say this is Moon hedging his policies rather than hardening them."
"He will continue his efforts at detente but he also knows that he needs a contingency plan that he can show to his constituents - particularly the left, which supported him and his position on THAAD in the election," Mulloy said. "So he needs to make it clear that he is making efforts to achieve his aims through both the soft and the hard approaches."