The first attempt at resuming civilian inter-Korean exchange under the new Moon Jae-in administration was called off this week. The South Korean Committee for the Implementation of the June 15 Joint Declaration had received approval from the Moon administration to make contact with the North and had proposed a joint North-South ceremony on June 15 to commemorate the historic inter-Korean summit in 2000. But the North, taking issue with the South’s recent support of new UN sanctions against the country, rejected the proposal.

Implementation of the June 15 Declaration for Peaceful Reunification

The All Korean Committee for the Implementation of the June 15 Joint Declaration (June 15 All Korean Committee) was established in 2005 to carry out the joint declaration signed in 2000 by the late leaders Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il. The declaration, embraced by Koreans in the north, south and overseas, outlines shared principles for national reconciliation and peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. During the liberal Roh Moo-hyun administration, the June 15 All Korean Committee, with chapters in the north, south and overseas, organized exchanges involving thousands of representatives of all sectors of North and South Korean societies as well as the diaspora. Its efforts were stymied by the subsequent Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye governments, which took a hardline stance towards the North and all but shut down inter-Korean contact.

As soon as the Moon administration gave the green light to resume contact with the North, the southern chapter of the June 15 All Korean Committee proposed a joint commemoration in Kaesong on June 15. It would have been the first such gathering in nine years, and organizers had hoped to create a delegation of one hundred civil society representatives from the South to travel to the North.

Root of the Impasse

North Korea, however, rejected the proposal for a joint commemoration on June 15 and took issue with the South’s support of new UN sanctions against the country.

On June 3, a spokesperson for South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had announced, “Our government supports the UNSC’s June 2 unanimous vote in adopting resolution 2356 in the face of continued ballistic missile launches by North Korea.” He praised the vote as an “affirmation of the resolute will of the international community to denuclearize North Korea.”

Referring to the political change and the election of liberal president Moon Jae-in in the South, Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the North’s Worker’s Party, commented on June 6, “What’s important is not who is in power but whether or not s/he has the will to respect and carry out the shared principles of national reunification as embodied in the June 15 and October 4 joint declarations.” It went on to emphasize the need to “resolve the fundamental reason for the collapse of North-South relations.”

North-South engagement and cooperation, which had been vibrant during the late Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations, came to an abrupt halt with the election of conservative Lee Myung-bak, who adopted the “May 24 measure” in 2010. Lee blamed the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan on North Korea (which denied the allegation) and introduced the May 24 measure, which banned all visits by South Koreans to the North, halted all North-South trade and humanitarian aid, and curtailed South Korean business investments in the North. The new South Korean administration has not taken an official stance on the May 24 measure, and its support of the new UN sanctions against the North raises questions on its willingness to chart an independent path for peace on the peninsula.

North Korea also rejected proposals by humanitarian aid organizations, such as the Korean Sharing Movement and Peace 3000 to visit the North. The Korean Sharing Movement was the first group to be approved by the South Korean Ministry of Unification to contact the North and had even secured an invitation from the North to deliver anti-malarial medication. But the organization’s director Kang Yeong-shik confirmed this week that they had to call off their delegation, which had planned to visit the North on June 10.

“I believe the Moon Jae-in administration will faithfully carry out the June 15 and October 4 joint declarations,” said Lee Chang-bok, Chair of the southern chapter of the June 15 All Korean Committee at a press conference in Seoul on June 9, “But it’s still early days in the new administration. The second deputy chief of the National Security Office, which is a critical department that needs to handle this matter, recently resigned, and the administration has yet to name the Minister of Unification. It may be too early for the administration to pursue this matter with zeal.”

US-South Korea summit will test Moon’s resolve for independent path

The June 15 All Korean Committee will hold separate June 15 commemorations in the North, South and overseas this year, but announced plans to continue to pursue joint ceremonies on August 15, which marks Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, and October 4, the 10th anniversary of the joint Declaration on the Advancement of South-North Korean Relations, Peace and Prosperity.

All eyes will be on Moon when he travels to Washington at the end of this month to meet with Trump. The summit will be a key indicator of whether he will stand up to Trump or assume a compliant stance that hinders efforts for national reconciliation. It will also be a measure of his will to carry out the June 15 Joint Declaration, which states the South and the North will “resolve the question of reunification independently” and defines “the Korean people”—not the Korean state or a foreign power—as “the masters of the country.”

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