By: Wan Suk Hong

Limitations both inside and outside of South Korea are circumscribing the effectiveness of the Moon Jae-in administration’s New Northern Policy, including the ebb and flow of the relationship between the two Koreas and the division itself as well as the administration’s relationship with China and Russia, the central axis of northern cooperation, which oppose the US in international power relations.

Implementing the policy will always be a challenge because South Korea is an ally of the US while also a close neighbor to China and Russia. South Korea’s only strategic option in this geopolitical environment is a kind of “hedging,” in which it maintains its strong alliance with the US while developing a friendly relationship with China and Russia.

The problem for Seoul is that hedging is becoming more and more difficult as confrontation and competition between the US, on one side, and China and Russia, on the other, intensifies.

Given this, South Korea should strengthen its networking strategy, with hedging at its core, while arbitrating conflicts of interest and tensions among the greater powers.

The Moon Jae-in administration announced its New Northern Policy as its core foreign policy priority along with the Responsible Northeast Asia Plus Community and the New Southern Policy when it was inaugurated on May 2017. The New Northern Policy started off with President Moon’s announcement of the Nine-Bridge strategy in September of that year at the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) held in Vladivostok, Russia.

The policy is meant to be preemptive in coping with international economic uncertainties due to strengthening protectionism, the US-China trade war, and the global financial crisis. In doing so, the Moon administration is also aiming to find a new growth driver for the South Korean economy, which is currently suffering from low growth and investment, and to lessen trade dependency on certain countries.

In addition to this, the New Northern Policy is a proactive strategy to cope with the new continentalism that is brewing in Eurasia. After the Cold War, continental countries such as China, Russia, India, and Kazakhstan achieved rapid economic growth. This increased demand for railways, pipelines, expressways, and electrical grids tremendously. Countries in the vast north are connecting closely with one another, building infrastructure networks, and establishing new international relations built around cooperation and integration, probably for the first time ever since the Silk Road era.

Kent Calder, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, called this geopolitical trend the emergence of “New Continentalism” in his book published in 2012. South Korea is among the countries pursuing this trend, and the New Northern Policy is a part of this.

The policy is a shift from the former maritime-centric development strategy to one that pursues both a maritime and a continental strategy. It is also important in terms of foreign policy, acting as a new diplomatic “signpost” of South Korea’s increasing autonomy, using structural changes in the post-Cold War international order. It is, furthermore, the manifestation of South Korea’s ambition to be an independent, or leading, player as new continentalism emerges. It also means that South Korea will not be confined to China’s economic sphere nor will it indefinitely bandwagon under the US security umbrella. It is a foreign policy containing all the national aspirations discussed above.

How New is the New Northern Policy?

The policy has its roots in the Roh Tae-woo administration’s Northern Policy, back in the late 1980s. This earlier policy aimed for South Korea to improve its status in the international arena, develop new markets in the north, gain initiative in the inter-Korean relationship, and create a friendly environment for stability on the Korean Peninsula and for peaceful unification through an improvement in South Korea’s relationship with the USSR and the eastern bloc communist countries, as part of East-West reconciliation. The basic notion, that the issue of the Korean Peninsula should be resolved by advancing into the continent, continued on after the Roh administration. The South Korean government has implemented similar policies since then, such as the Sunshine Policy, the Policy of Peace and Prosperity, and the Eurasia Initiative, but none of these was consistent or sustained.

In the two years since its inauguration, the Moon administration has made efforts to produce visible results. First, it established the Presidential Committee on Northern Economic Cooperation, an organization. It established the committee as a control tower to systematically and effectively push the policy forward. Its overall goal was specified in 16 main aims and 56 detailed tasks. Second, it pursued South Korean-led improvement in the relationship between the two Koreas and economic cooperation by aptly including the “Korean Peninsula Driver Theory” and the “New Economic Map of the Korean Peninsula” in the policy. The latter, especially, pursues a common market through economic cooperation between the two Koreas.  Ultimately, however, it is a blueprint to expand the South Korean economy’s geographical boundaries to North Korea and the continent through supra-border cooperation.

Third, the New Northern Policy is expanding and strengthening geo-economic ties with Russia’s New Eastern Policy. The Putin administration’s New Eastern Policy focuses on the Far East region’s development and seeks vibrant cooperation with Asia-Pacific countries as part of Russia’s national development strategy in the 21st century. For South Korea, projects such as building railroads, gas pipelines, and electrical grids that pass through North Korea and connect it to the North, developing overseas food production bases, securing stable fish catches, and advancing to the North Pole are more than just economic benefits. They are the lifeline of South Korea’s future existence and prosperity. With this in mind, the Moon administration proposed its Nine-Bridge strategy.

The administration has announced various policies and the establishment of new organizations to achieve these goals. President Moon himself visited China once, in December 2017, Russia twice, in September 2017 and June 2018, and Central Asia once, in April 2019, emphasizing cooperation with northern countries.

However, there seems to be no measure of success observable by either the public or the media. The Nine-Bridge strategy that was supposed to lead the New Northern Policy – cooperation in electricity, gas, shipbuilding, marine products, a North Pole route, ports, railroads, industrial complexes, and agriculture – has not yet yielded any concrete results. So, as a whole, the Moon administration’s New Northern Policy does not seem to be generating better results than the northern policies of previous administrations.

Obstacles and Strategies to Overcome Them

Traditionally, two structural factors have weakened the push for northern policies. First is the ebb and flow of the relationship between the two Koreas and the division itself. In short, North Korea is blocking South Korea’s path to the continent. It acts as a vital obstruction point for South Korea’s cooperation with China and Russia, the hub countries of the north. Increasing tensions due to developments in Pyongyang’s nuclear program fractured South Korea’s relationship with North Korea.

Moreover, North Korea physically cuts South Korea off from the north, which has made efforts by various South Korean administrations to connect with the north through logistical, transport and energy networks meaningless. This teaches us that without stable management of North Korea, and without improvement or betterment in the relationship between the two Koreas, any form of northern policy will not be easy.

It is therefore crucial to continue the dialogue between the two Koreas, establish military trust, peacefully resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, and resume operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex and tourism to Mount Kumgang.

The second major obstacle is that China and Russia, the central axis of new continentalism, oppose the US in international power relations. South Korea is bound to be conscious of Washington’s views as it pursues northern policies, because it is in an alliance with the US. The US is also not free from claims that it has, albeit in appropriate ways, limited South Korea’s access to the north. South Korea’s northern policies have restricted diplomatic maneuverability due to changes in international relations, especially power games among key players. This weakness in South Korean diplomacy is clearly shown in the fact that trade between South Korea and Russia was halved due to US sanctions against Russia after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and in the continuing after-effects in the South Korea-China relationship due to the deployment on South Korean soil of the US THAAD antimissile system.

The fate of the New Northern Policy lies in South Korea’s diplomatic goals. The policy will always be challenging because South Korea is an ally of the US while also a close neighbor to China and Russia. South Korea’s only strategic option in this geopolitical environment is a kind of “hedging,” in which it maintains its strong alliance with the US while developing a friendly relationship with China and Russia.

Some instances of this include when South Korea did not participate in sanctioning Russia after the 2014 Ukrainian crisis, despite US pressure, and when it participated in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2015, which the US opposed. The problem for South Korea is that hedging is becoming more and more difficult as confrontation and competition between the US, on one side, and China and Russia, on the other, intensifies.

In this case, South Korea should strengthen its networking strategy, with hedging at its core, while arbitrating conflicts of interest and tensions among the greater powers. South Korea is now in a considerably better position than ever before to pursue its own national interests while influencing Northeast Asia’s strategic environment.

The Moon administration’s “Korean Peninsula Driver Theory,” a sort of networking strategy, has resulted in positive changes in its relationship with North Korea and between North Korea and the US. South Korea’s role lies in building trust and encouraging constructive relationships among all players, a role that it should fulfill. A strategy of regionalism could also enhance South Korea’s diplomatic autonomy, meant to create institutionalized security mechanisms in the region via the promotion of peace initiatives in Northeast Asia and strengthening of existing small, multilateral cooperation activities.

In order to overcome the strategic limitations of the New Northern Policy, a meticulously thought-out strategy is necessary. First, South Korea’s diplomatic leadership should be strengthened so that the New Northern Policy is not dependent on major power relationships. A 60-day visa waiver between South Korea and Russia, signed in 2013, hugely contributed to human and material exchanges between the two countries. A free trade agreement (FTA) with the Eurasia Economic Union, with Russia as the core member, also seems necessary.

Second, a two-track approach is needed to reduce the North Korean nuclear risk while pursuing economic cooperation with the North; multilateral cooperation including North Korea should be distinct from bilateral or multilateral cooperation excluding it. This is a desperately needed measure so that the North Korean nuclear issue will no longer act as an obstacle to economic cooperation between South Korea and its northern neighbors.

Third, cooperation should be strengthened, centering on areas where the politics of major powers surrounding South Korea can be circumvented. A channel between South Korean and Russian economic actors, weaker than that between South Korea and the US or between South Korea and Japan, practical cooperation between legislative actors such as the meeting of Eurasian parliaments that South Korea and Russia established in 2016, or a strategy where local rather than national governments drive cooperation and lead the New Northern Policy can be useful examples.

Lastly, diplomatic ingenuity is necessary in order to increase shared economic interests in the north, including with North Korea, and between the US and South Korea. The New Northern Policy will be able to achieve its original goals if South Korea positions itself thoughtfully in the international political arena, while keenly observing dynamics among major powers surrounding the Korean Peninsula and observing the policy recommendations made above. The remaining three years of the Moon administration don’t leave much time to achieve this.

Wan Suk Hong is a Professor, GSIAS at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. This was written for the East Asia Foundation, a Seoul-based think tank. The views expressed are his own and not those of EAF.