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INTERVIEW | Moon Chung-in on Escalating Tensions on the Korean Peninsula

A former advisor to three South Korean presidents, Moon explains what's behind the rocky regional geopolitics and what to expect on the Korean Peninsula.



Professor Moon Chung-in attending the CogitASIA conference in 2015 (Crawford Forum. Public Domain)

North Korea's latest military pursuits in the Korean Peninsula have put its neighbors on edge. Since January 2024 alone, the autocratic regime has test-fired multiple ballistic and cruise missiles, one of which has likely been topped with a hypersonic glide vehicle.  In an interview with JAPAN Forward, former South Korean presidential advisor Moon Chung-in discussed the developing crisis in the region. 

At the backdrop is North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's attempts to sway South Korea's upcoming legislative elections and the United States presidential election in November. 

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has shown little signs of yielding. During a cabinet meeting in early 2024, Yoon vowed to punish "multiple times stronger" should the North take provocative actions. President Yoon warned of potential election meddling by the North through military pressures and dissemination of fake news in another meeting in January. 

The rocky regional geopolitics has invited a slew of speculations from experts. Two renowned American specialists contended that the North was on the verge of seeking war. Meanwhile, a former US negotiator on North Korean nuclear issues didn't rule out a potential nuclear conflict. 

Moon Chung-in is the former special advisor to President Moon Jae In on national security and foreign affairs. He served as an advisor to several presidents on security and diplomacy, including the late Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Moon is the James Laney Distinguished Professor at Yonsei University and Vice Chairman of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament (APLN)

Excerpts of the interview follow.

On North Korea's Strategic Thinking

Entering 2024, North Korea is intensifying its military maneuvers. What is behind Kim Jong Un's calculus? 

First, it seems to be a reactive move to intensified joint military maneuvers by the US and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Second, such behavior can also be seen as a defensive move to counter any offensive military actions by Seoul and Washington. North Korean leadership thinks that if it shows any sign of weakness and unpreparedness, South Korea and the US will undertake surprise attacks against the North. In a sense, it is a reflection of North Korea's inertia-driven strategic culture.  


Has the Kim regime made a strategic decision to go to war, as Robert Carlin and Siegfried Hecker argue? Is the Peninsula on the brink of war?  

While Kim Jong Un's oratory is hostile in nature, his statements are actually conditional. He's basically saying, "If we 'have' to go to war, we will not shy away from it. We will use all of our weapons, including our nuclear arsenal, to defeat the South and reclaim the land for our regime." But again, this is contingent on the actions of Seoul and Washington. It doesn't imply that the regime will instigate an armed conflict proactively.

However, we cannot exclude the possibility of an accidental clash and escalation thereafter. At the moment, tensions in the disputed Northern Limit Line are sharpening. Kim recently stated that he would not acknowledge the buffer zone in the NLL. He added that he would consider even a 0.001-millimeter intrusion into his territorial water as an act of war. 

Under the Yoon administration, the rules of engagement changed. The 9.19 Comprehensive Military Agreement [of September 2018] was terminated, a buffer zone in the West Sea was nullified, and critical communications lines were suspended. Meanwhile, rearmament in the demilitarized zone was restarted.

With such vital guardrails being demolished, communication lines halted, and confidence measures dissolved, an unpremeditated clash cannot be ruled out. 

Korean Demilitarized Zone from the South Korean side (Daniel Oberhaus, Public Domain)

Comparing the Approaches of South Korean Presidents

How does President Yoon Suk-yeol's North Korean policy compare to his predecessor, President Moon Jae-in? 

Fundamentally, the Yoon administration views his predecessor Moon Jae In's "peace initiatives" on the Korean Peninsula as being bogus. Therefore, instead of cultivating peace, the incumbent government focuses on hardline policy, leaving war on the table as a potential option. To that end, President Yoon's policy centers on building credible deterrence and strengthening alliances with the US. Whereas, his predecessor focused on dialogue and diplomacy. 

Another distinction arises from how each administration views the North and its strategy for reunification. The Yoon administration seeks to disengage with and constrain the Kim regime. And [it seeks to] reunify the Peninsula under liberal democratic ideals. Contrastingly, the Moon administration emphasized peace and coexistence and advocated gradual unification. 

Finally, the incumbent administration stresses the importance of fostering close ties with Washington and Tokyo over building domestic consensus. In other words, President Yoon believes division within South Korea over the North Korean issue is a fait accompli. Therefore, he seeks to work with its allies while designating peace-seekers in his country as "anti-state forces." 

On the other hand, Moon prioritized domestic consensus through continued dialogue. Which one of the strategies will ultimately prevail remains to be seen. 

There has been speculation that if Donald Trump retakes the White House, he may acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear-armed state while incentivizing them to downsize their nuclear and missile capacities. What are your thoughts? 

I think the idea of negotiating with the North as a nuclear-armed state is becoming more widely accepted as a realistic approach in the US. 


The international community will certainly not recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, abiding by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Reducing their nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capacities in the short term while searching for ways of complete denuclearization in the medium and long term seems a more practical strategy than demanding Complete, Verifiable, and Irreversible Denuclearization from the get-go.  

Thus, it seems essential for the US and South Korea to provide the DPRK with tangible incentives. For example, sanction relief and even diplomatic normalization with the US in the negotiation process.

But this sort of approach might bode ill with people in my country and create a political quandary. Most South Koreans will not want to recognize the North as a nuclear weapons state. They will oppose any diplomatic negotiation with a nuclear-armed North Korea. 

Nuclear Weapons on the Korean Peninsula

Will this mean that South Korea might eventually seek its own nuclear weapons? 

President Yoon reiterated in his New Year's remark that Seoul will not be pursuing a nuclear weapon despite North's escalating military actions. Instead, Seoul and Washington formed a Nuclear Consultative Group through the Washington Declaration. That is intended to enhance extended deterrence.   

There are talks, particularly among conservatives, of redeploying American tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula. Personally, I don't see this as a strategically and logistically viable option. 

First, bringing back tactical nuclear weapons removed in 1991 from the Peninsula could actually destabilize our deterrence posture. It would increase the possibility of North Korea's preemptive strike. 

Second, there is a logical problem as these weapons are limited in stock. Finally, Beijing and Moscow may not welcome the redeployment and change their nuclear calculus regarding the Korean peninsula. That could, in turn, further undermine South Korea's security posture.  

What's really preventing South Korea from going nuclear?

Now, let's assume South Korea eventually took the path of acquiring nuclear weapons. Some experts suggest we can go nuclear in less than a year. Even President Yoon agrees with this technical assessment. However, the pursuit of an independent nuclear weapons program will entail very serious negative repercussions. 


First, such a nuclear path will endanger, rather than enhance, Seoul's security. That is not only because of intensifying nuclear arms races with the North and hostile nuclear posture from Beijing and Moscow. It is also because of the weakening of the alliance with the US. A nuclear South Korea will lead to a completely different security relationship with the US. 

Second, economic costs will also be prohibitively high because of sanctions imposed by the UN and individual countries. 

Third, South Korea's burgeoning civilian nuclear industry will be seriously damaged. 

Fourth, the policy shift could ignite a nuclear domino that could seriously jeopardize peace and stability in Northeast Asia. "A nuclear North and South Korea" could easily lead to a nuclear Japan and Taiwan. 

Finally, the quest for independent nuclear weapons will critically damage South Korea's international reputation. In that case, it would be the first democratic country to withdraw from the NPT regime. 

Some argue that the effects of international sanctions and reputational damage incurred from obtaining nuclear weapons will be minimal. They cite India, Pakistan, and Israel as examples. But note that these countries had different economic backgrounds than ours when they began their nuclear weapons program. They were seeking import-substitute industries. However, South Korea is an export-driven economy, and the effects of economic sanctions will be far more detrimental to us.  


Authors: Kenji Yoshida and Jason Morgan


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