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N Korea at crossroads

Moon's like-minded aides steer conciliatory North Korea policy

Senior officials focused on American alliance find themselves crowded out

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang on Sept. 18.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- As South Korean President Moon Jae-in pursues a conciliatory approach toward the North, those who share his vision are playing a bigger role in his inner circle, sowing the seeds of discord with Washington.

Meanwhile, senior officials who place importance on South Korea's alliance with the U.S. have taken a back seat.

Inter-Korean rapprochement gathered steam in late September when Moon held another summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang. There, defense chiefs from both sides signed a wide-ranging military agreement that, among other steps, halts military exercises and puts no-fly zones in place.

On the economic side, the two countries will begin work on a cross-border railway system by early December. The project aims to create conditions for economic cooperation.

During his European trip earlier this month, Moon relayed Kim's declared intention to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. When Moon was in France, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, the South Korean president told his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron that the international community should move to ease sanctions against North Korea if it shows real progress in dismantling its nuclear program.

When Moon met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, he played the part of Kim's messenger by informally delivering the North Korean's invitation for the pope to visit Pyongyang.

These developments have not gone down well in Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo aired his displeasure on the phone with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha after the two Koreas signed a military agreement without consulting the U.S. beforehand.

In late September, the U.S. Department of the Treasury reportedly reminded commercial and state-backed South Korean banks of their obligation to uphold sanctions against North Korea after hearing about plans to open up branches in the North and sell financial products there.

President Donald Trump eventually chimed in. When told on Oct. 10 that Kang was open to lifting unilateral sanctions on Pyongyang, he immediately threw cold water on the idea. "They won't do that without our approval," said Trump. "They do nothing without our approval"

Communication between the U.S. and South Korea "has stagnated to a severe level," a diplomatic source in Seoul said. But Moon seems undeterred.

Moon Chung-in, a top foreign policy adviser to President Moon, says Seoul does not need Washington's consent.

"South Korea and the U.S. maintain the strongest cooperative relationship," said a source close to the presidential Blue House. "The inter-Korean rail connection will proceed soundly on schedule."

South Korea's national security and foreign policy team is dominated by the likes of Moon Chung-in -- those who hold reconciliation between the two Koreas a higher value than the American alliance. Many of those figures hail from the administration of late President Roh Moo-hyun, who pursued a "sunshine policy" with the North after taking office in 2003.

Chung Eui-yong, South Korea's national security adviser and the counterpart to Trump's John Bolton, is sympathetic to the alliance with the U.S. But his deputies and the top brass in the National Intelligence Service all trace their roots to the National Security Council and similar posts during the Roh era. Moon himself once served as Roh's chief secretary.

Although Roh's government extended olive branches to Pyongyang, it worked closely with the U.S. as well. During that period, Seoul sent troops to Iraq and signed a bilateral free trade agreement with Washington. A turf war ensued between the elements in the Blue House wishing to break free from U.S. influence, and Foreign Ministry figures seeking to maintain the alliance.

Setting Moon's presidency apart is the overwhelming dominance of the Blue House in foreign policy matters. The Foreign Ministry lost clout as a result of the impeachment and removal of Moon's immediate predecessor, President Park Geun-hye.

"The National Security Office controls foreign policy and the national security agenda, and the agencies purportedly in charge of those areas are being alienated," said a legislator belonging to the opposition Liberty Korea Party.

The few remaining officials who lean toward the U.S. are being squeezed out. First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Lim Sung-nam, a holdover from the Park administration, was replaced in late September by Cho Hyun, the second vice minister. Cho served in the Roh Blue House, but he was involved in trade policy, not in resolving the North Korean nuclear problem.

As one of Roh's closest aides, Moon should know full well how difficult it is to balance the U.S. and North Korea. That he is putting the weight of his administration toward North Korean reconciliation speaks to the strength of his convictions.

If North Korea does make good on dismantling its nuclear program while cooperating with the U.S., then a pathway to a resolution of the decades-old conflict will open up for Moon. But the Trump administration is anything but predictable. If U.S.-South Korea relations come to an impasse, all that may remain is a damaged alliance and North Korean nuclear weapons.

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