S.Korea ruling party candidate seeks to outdo Moon with N.Korea nuclear talks

·4 min read
Former South Korea's Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok speaks during an interview with Reuters in Seoul

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) - The top security adviser of South Korea's ruling party presidential candidate said his team aims to overcome previous failures in bridging North Korea and the United States, and present a more "persuasive" strategy to jumpstart nuclear talks.

In an interview with Reuters, Lee Jong-seok, a former unification minister who now advises Lee Jae-myung https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/skoreas-bernie-sanders-tops-presidential-polls-with-talk-universal-basic-income-2021-09-13 on North Korea, also envisioned what he called a more principled approach toward Pyongyang's ceaseless missile launches. That could include describing internationally banned weapons tests as "provocations," a term Pyongyang has publicly denounced.

In October, Lee Jae-myung became the candidate to run in the March 9 election for retiring President Moon Jae-in's Democratic Party. He is in a tight race https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/skoreas-ruling-party-presidential-candidate-pushes-nuclear-powered-submarines-2021-12-30 against the conservative opposition People Power Party's Yoon Suk-yeol.

A key architect of the "Sunshine" policy of cross-border engagement who visited Pyongyang for a historic 2000 summit, Lee Jong-seok steers the Lee campaign's inter-Korean peace-building committee crafting North Korea policy.

Lee's remarks signal a clean break from Moon, whose government has been accused of being too soft on North Korea, refraining from joining international condemnations and descriptions of its missile tests as "provocations."

Such a reference had long been used under both conservative and liberal leaders, but not by Moon's administration since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's sister slammed it in September as an "arrogant, self-righteous" example of double standards https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/nkorea-accuses-us-double-standards-missiles-hampering-talks-2021-09-17.

Lee said no formal discussions have been held within the campaign, but it would be reasonable to define nuclear and ballistic missile tests as provocations, as those are banned under U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolutions.

"It's a common word but has been too politicised," said Lee, who is also a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute.

"Telling them to scrap all military activities would mean they don't deserve an army at all, but the tests using any nuclear and ballistic technology can be considered provocations in light of global norms."

The candidate Lee on Thursday urged the North to halt "provocations" following its sixth missile test in a month https://www.reuters.com/world/china/nkorea-fires-projectile-into-sea-off-east-coast-skorea-says-2022-01-26, calling it an attempt to meddle in the election.

His administration, if elected, would devise a roadmap where Washington can actually ease sanctions in phases when Pyongyang takes steps to dismantle its nuclear and missile programmes, with a so-called "snapback" clause designed to restore the sanctions if it backpedals, the adviser said.

But the adviser ditched Moon's previous offer https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-usa-moon-idUSKCN1QI405 of concessions to the North instead of U.S. sanctions relief by reopening inter-Korean factory and tour projects, which he said has proved unworkable.

Moon had floated the idea as he offered to mediate between Kim and former U.S. President Donald Trump. But following their failed 2019 summit, he was blamed for raising unrealistic expectations https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-usa-southkorea-idCAKBN23T0F2 for his own inter-Korean agenda.

Like Moon, Lee Jae-myung has vowed to resume exchanges and individual tourism to North Korea, which is not banned by the UNSC. The adviser said while that could be a way to improve cross-border ties, a Lee administration would not treat it as a path to denuclearisation, which has to be addressed more directly.

"Restarting the factory and tour initiatives wouldn't bring progress on the nuclear issue. You have to face the challenge head on," Lee said.

"Sanctions have failed to break North Korea, and forcing unilateral denuclearisation proved unfeasible. So we want to come up with a reasonable, convincible proposal in a more transparent manner."

Lee, who had briefly advised Moon and was invited to a dinner on the sidelines of the landmark 2018 summit between Moon and Kim, said Moon worked hard and could not be blamed for the current stalemate in the negotiations.

But those earlier mediating efforts were made too secretly, with Moon officials never clearly presenting viable ideas, and eventually being left out in the cold without knowing where both sides differed, he said.

There is growing fatigue in South Korea since the failed 2019 summit and especially over the recent missile tests, while the Joe Biden administration remains preoccupied with Ukraine, Iran and other foreign policy crises.

Such circumstances, however, makes it all the more imperative for Seoul to step up and suggest a solution, Lee said.

"Despite a distracted Biden and U.S. distrust in the snapback element, we will try to persuade them as an ally and move forward, or face even greater escalation," he said.

"We might not be able to resolve the nuclear issue, but our goal is to lay the groundwork for sustainable, irreversible progress on denuclearisation and peace."

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

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