Inter-Korean Relations

Primary Author: Daniel Wertz

Updated by Andrew Yeo

Last Updated September 2023

A reunion meeting of divided families, courtesy of Divided Families Foundation via Wikimedia CommonsA reunion meeting of divided families, courtesy of Divided Families Foundation via Wikimedia Commons



Korea claims a history that goes back thousands of years, despite invasions, at one time or another, by its neighbors including the Chinese, the Mongols, and the Japanese. Although there have been several periods of competing kingdoms co-existing on the Peninsula over the course of Korea’s long history, Korea’s last dynasty ruled over a unified and highly ethnically homogeneous state for over 500 years until Japan annexed Korea in 1910. Korea would remain subject to Japanese colonial rule until 1945.

At the close of World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to a temporary division of the Korean Peninsula at the 38th parallel until a provisional government could be established. However, the emergent Cold War ended plans for placing a unified Korea under international trusteeship, and the division of the Peninsula hardened: the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south was declared on August 15, 1948, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north followed a month later. The modern division of the country at the 38th Parallel was based on geopolitical considerations and not on any pre-existing geographic or cultural divisions within Korea.

Centuries of external invasion and foreign intervention, including Japanese colonial occupation and the Cold War division of the Korean Peninsula, has heightened the sense of geopolitical vulnerability for the two Koreas, but especially North Korea given its current state of economic underdevelopment and political isolation. Surrounded by major powers including China, Russia, Japan, and the United States, the geostrategic realities of the past and present therefore continue to influence the foreign policy development and unification strategies of North and South Korean leaders.


Inter-Korean Relations During and After the Cold War

War broke out on June 25, 1950, with the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) invading and quickly occupying much of the southern half of the Peninsula. The U.S. soon intervened in the conflict under the aegis of the United Nations Command (UNC), which was followed by the intervention of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army. Peace negotiations began in 1951, as a stalemate developed roughly along the 38th Parallel, and on July 27, 1953, the UNC (represented by the U.S.), the KPA, and the People’s Volunteer Army signed an Armistice Agreement establishing a demilitarized zone (DMZ) across the Peninsula.”1While the Republic of Korea was represented in the Armistice as a member of the UNC, its military was not a direct signatory. The Armistice left some issues unaddressed, such as a maritime boundary, and the 1954 Geneva Conference, convened as a provision of the armistice, failed to achieve the envisioned peaceful settlement.

The scale of destruction and brutality of the Korean War intensified the enmity between the North and South. In the years after the war, the two Koreas competed for legitimacy and international recognition abroad, with a developmental dictatorship emerging in the South and a highly-centralized personalist regime in the North. For the next several decades, government-to-government contact between the two Koreas was almost nonexistent. In the late 1960s, a sharp rise in clashes along the DMZ, along with the attempted assassination of ROK President Park Chung-hee, increased inter-Korean tensions to their highest point since the war.2

However, with U.S.-China rapprochement fundamentally changing the security architecture of East Asia in the early 1970s, the governments of both Koreas found it in their interests to begin a dialogue with one another. Inter-Korean talks, initially held under the auspices of the Red Cross, led to the first Joint Statement on reunification, issued on July 4, 1972. Yet this détente on the Peninsula was short-lived. In 1974, the ROK’s First Lady, Yuk Young-soo, was killed during another unsuccessful assassination attempt on Park, carried out by a Japanese-born North Korea sympathizer. North Korean agents also attempted to assassinate Park’s successor, President Chun Doo-hwan, during a presidential trip to Myanmar in 1983, and bombed a passenger flight, Korean Air Flight 858, in 1987. Although there were some additional periods of cautious inter-Korean engagement in the latter years of the Cold War—for example, a small number of separated South and North Korean family members were allowed to briefly reunite in Seoul and Pyongyang in 1985—these periods of dialogue did not last long.3

Significant inter-Korean dialogue resumed under South Korea’s first democratically elected President, Roh Tae-Woo (in office 1988-1993). Roh’s policy of Nordpolitik led to South Korea’s establishment of diplomatic relations with North Korea’s traditional major allies, the Soviet Union and China. As part of this policy, the Roh administration also reached out diplomatically to North Korea, permitting direct inter-Korean trade in 1989 for the first time and initiating inter-Korean sports exchanges.4 In December 1991, the two Koreas signed a “Basic Agreement” on reconciliation, nonaggression and exchange and cooperation.5 Shortly afterward, the two Koreas issued a Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, pledging not to possess, produce, or use nuclear weapons and prohibiting uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing.6

Inter-Korean relations were tumultuous under Roh’s successor Kim Young Sam (in office 1993-1998). Initially taking a hard line position as the first North Korean nuclear crisis mounted, Kim changed course and planned a summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, which would have been the first meeting of the two Koreas’ leaders since the country’s division. However, Kim Il Sung died a few weeks before the summit was to take place. North Korea criticized the South over its failure to send a condolence message and to a halt in inter-Korean dialogue.7 North-South relations continued on an up-and-down track over the next several years over issues including food aid, North Korean submarine incursions, and regional diplomacy.8


The Sunshine Policy

Kim Dae Jung (in office 1998-2003), a prominent South Korean pro-democracy activist, became president of South Korea in 1998 and instituted the "Sunshine Policy" to promote reconciliation with the DPRK. As part of this policy, the ROK government began allowing South Korean NGOs, businesses, and private citizens to have contact across the DMZ and ramping up bilateral food and fertilizer aid to the North, which was recovering from a devastating famine. In 1998, an arm of South Korea’s Hyundai Group began operating tours of Mt. Geumgang in North Korea.9 In June 2000, Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il met in Pyongyang for the first presidential summit for the first time since the division of Korea, leading to a dramatic shift in South Korean attitudes toward the North as well as in policy.10 The two sides agreed to begin family reunion meetings and decided to establish the inter-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) near the DMZ.11 The Sunshine Policy was premised on separating humanitarian and economic cooperation from political issues; the administration continued engagement even as the two Koreas faced off in naval clashes near the Northern Limit Line—the disputed maritime boundary between the two Koreas—in 1999 and 2002, and as the U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework on North Korea’s nuclear program fell apart in late 2002.

Roh Moo Hyun (in office 2003-2008), who succeeded Kim Dae Jung as president of the ROK in 2003, continued and intensified reconciliation efforts with North Korea under the “Policy for Peace and Prosperity.” This policy saw increased bilateral aid and humanitarian assistance from South to North as well as substantial government-sponsored investment in the KIC. However, the Roh administration’s approach to North Korea was complicated by the deepening nuclear crisis on the Peninsula. In the fall of Roh’s first year in office, the first round of Six Party Talks—a series of multilateral negotiations to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program—was convened. Following the DPRK’s first nuclear test in October 2006, South Korea reduced its aid and temporarily suspended fertilizer and food shipments to the DPRK, although investment in the KIC continued. With the Six Party Talks process showing some progress in 2007, Roh met with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang for a second inter-Korean Summit in October 2007, during the waning months of Roh’s presidency. The Summit outlined multiple new inter-Korean economic development projects, such as the creation of a West Sea Economic Center in the North Korean port city of Haeju. However, the next South Korean administration did not implement the ambitious projects outlined in the Summit agreement.


Cooling Relations under Lee Myung Bak

The inauguration of President Lee Myung Bak (in office 2008-2012) on February 25, 2008, heralded a major change in inter-Korean relations under a new conservative government. Before taking office, Lee indicated that he would adopt a “pragmatic” approach toward North Korea.12 His "Initiative for Denuclearization and Opening up North Korea" promised North Korea a $3,000 per capita income 10 years if Pyongyang abandoned its nuclear program. This initiative linked inter-Korean aid and cooperation to denuclearization more strongly than had been the case under the Sunshine Policy. Lee also promised to make addressing human rights issues in North Korea a more prominent part of ROK policy.

Upon taking office, the Lee administration dramatically curtailed aid to the North, but continued inter-Korean cooperation at the KIC and Mt. Geumgang. However, following the shooting death of a South Korean tourist in a restricted zone of Mt. Geumgang in July 2008, Lee ordered a suspension of tourism at the resort until a joint investigation could be conducted;13the DPRK refused to allow such an investigation.14 Inter-Korean relations continued to deteriorate in early 2009, with North Korea declaring all past inter-Korean agreements “nullified”15 and the Lee administration condemning nuclear and missile tests by the North. However, Lee did not shutter the KIC despite the worsening atmosphere between the two Koreas, seeing the KIC as “one conduit for us to keep that window of dialogue open.”16

A new opening in inter-Korean relations arose in August 2009 when North Korea sent a high-level delegation to Kim Dae Jung’s funeral; the delegation subsequently met with President Lee. During this time, North Korea released a South Korean worker who had been detained at Kaesong and the two Koreas convened a reunion of separated families for the first time since 2007. However, this would prove to be another short-lived détente.

In November 2009, ships from the North and South Korean navies engaged in a skirmish along the Northern Limit Line, the first such clash in seven years. The following March, a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, sank after an explosion, killing 46 South Korean sailors. An international investigation of the incident reported that “the evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine.”17 North Korea rejected the report,18 and some South Korean and U.S. scholars also questioned the investigation.19 China did not assign culpability to the sinking, a stance echoed in the UN Security Council Presidential Statement issued in response.20 In November 2010, as the ROK conducted live-fire military exercises near the NLL, the DPRK military fired around 170 artillery shells at Yeonpyeong Island, resulting in the deaths of two South Korean Marines and two South Korean civilians.

Inter-Korean relations for the remainder of Lee’s Presidency remained tense. South Korea demanded an apology for the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents as a precondition for resuming dialogue, which North Korea refused to give. The two sides held secret talks initiated by the South in April 2011 in Beijing, but this attempt at rapprochement was unsuccessful.21 Following Kim Jong Il’s death in December 2011, the ROK issued a statement “convey[ing] sympathy to the North Korean people,” but did not send an official delegation to Pyongyang.22 After Lee condemned North Korea’s April 2012 launch of a satellite using ballistic missile technology, North Korea began an intense personal campaign against him, signaling the end of any interest in dialogue for the remainder of Lee’s term.23


Park Geun Hye and Trustpolitik

Park Geun Hye was elected President of South Korea on December 19, 2012, promising to strengthen the economy, modify the social safety net, and improve relations with North Korea.24 Park campaigned on taking a more pragmatic approach to North Korea, premised on building trust through renewed dialogue while responding forcefully to any new provocations. She also pledged to build a multilateral institution for regional cooperation, which would include North Korea. In a Foreign Affairs essay, Park Geun Hye outlined her vision of trustpolitik, arguing:

North Korea must keep its agreements made with South Korea and the international community to establish a minimum level of trust, and second, there must be assured consequences for actions that breach the peace. To ensure stability, trustpolitik should be applied consistently from issue to issue based on verifiable actions, and steps should not be taken for mere political expediency.25

President Park’s inauguration came at a period of high tension on the Peninsula. North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in February 2013 and responded strongly as the U.S. and ROK began conducting joint military exercises the following month. Over the course of a few weeks, North Korea declared the Armistice Agreement “completely nullified,” severed the last inter-Korean military hotline, and declared a “state of war” with South Korea, as nuclear-capable U.S. bombers flew over South Korea in a show of force. North Korea also withdrew its 53,000 workers from the KIC, leading South Korea to withdraw its personnel from the KIC in turn.26

Over the next few months, however, the two Koreas gradually returned to dialogue, seeking to reopen the KIC and address other issues such as family reunions and the possible reopening of the Mt. Geumgang resort. Kim Jong Un had himself begun promoting a policy of simultaneous economic and nuclear development (i.e. byungjin line) and was looking to improve the economy with limited economic reforms.27 The two sides reached a breakthrough in August 2013, agreeing to a number of measures aimed at preventing disruption of the KIC during future crises and to take steps to develop it further. These included a guarantee not to restrict employee access or withdraw workers unilaterally; the resumption of communications links and the creation of a joint North-South committee for overseeing the KIC; and a pledge to make a mutual effort to attract investment in the KIC from abroad.28

Follow-up on this agreement, and talks on other inter-Korean cooperation issues, took place sporadically thereafter including plans to hold a reunion for separated families at Mt. Geumgang which took place on February 2014. However, inter-Korean talks on re-starting tourism at Mt. Geumgang were unsuccessful.29 Initial working-level inter-Korean talks on some of the issues addressed by the Kaesong agreement failed to make progress.30 However, South Korea also initiated other elements of its Trustpolitik policy by increasing funding for UN agencies and NGOs conducting humanitarian work in the North, and by sending experts north of the DMZ to engage in joint projects in fields, such as environmental protection and archaeology.31 In November 2014, three high-ranking DPRK officials briefly visited the ROK to attend the closing ceremony of the Asian Games in Incheon, where North Korean athletes were participating.32 However, this visit did not build any momentum for subsequent high-level talks.

Beginning in 2014, Park steered Trustpolitik policy in a different direction, putting an increased emphasis on unification as a central part of her inter-Korean policy. In response to a press question at her New Year’s speech that year, Park said that “unification is a jackpot.”33 Her subsequent speech in Dresden largely focused on calling for enhanced inter-Korean exchanges and repeated the theme of unification. 34 DPRK state media criticized this emphasis on unification, interpreting it as premised on North Korean collapse and South Korean-led unification through absorption.35

In August 2015, two ROK soldiers on patrol in the DMZ were seriously injured by land mines placed outside of their guard posts. A UN investigation concluded that the mines had been deliberately planted by North Korean soldiers, a charge that North Korea denied.36The ROK government responded by resuming its loudspeaker propaganda along the border, which both sides had agreed to halt in 2004. The North fired four shells into the South in response to this, and the ROK responded with a barrage of artillery fire. Subsequent high-level talks resulted in a compromise: the DPRK expressed “regret” over the injuries, while South Korea agreed to end the loudspeaker broadcasts “unless an unusual incident occurs.”37 The two sides also agreed to arrange a new round of family reunions, which was held in October.

In February 2016, Park announced an immediate closure of the KIC, largely in response to DPRK’s fourth nuclear test. In a speech addressed to the National Assembly, Park argued that funds from the KIC had gone to the leadership of North Korea’s Workers’ Party (KWP) and that the security of South Korean workers at the KIC was under constant risk. She added that it had “become indisputably clear that the existing approach and good intentions will by no means work in countering the North Korean regime’s determination to develop nuclear weapons.”38 In addition to the KIC shutdown, the South Korean government announced plans to tighten sanctions on the North. In response, the DPRK Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea announced that the KIC would be placed under military control, South Korean assets there would be frozen, and military-to-military communication with the South would be terminated.[ii]“CPRK Warns S. Korean Authorities of Most Serious Consequences of Total Suspension of Operation in KIZ,” Rodong Sinmun, February 12, 2016,

South Korea’s policy change also led to a shift in its security policies, its diplomatic engagement with North Korea, and its approach to North Korean human rights. After North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in January 2016, the United States and ROK announced plans to deploy a THAAD missile defense battery to South Korea. Seoul also signed a military intelligence sharing agreement with Tokyo to improve deterrence against North Korea. In March 2016, the ROK National Assembly passed the North Korea Human Rights Act, which had been pending for 11 years due to disagreements over its content and fears that its passage would damage inter-Korean relations.39


Moon Jae-in and a (Brief) Renewal of Inter-Korean Relations

In the wake of Park’s corruption scandal and eventual impeachment in late 2016/early 2017, South Koreans elected a progressive leader, President Moon Jae-in (in office 2017-2022), a human rights lawyer and son of North Korean refugees, in May 2017 after nearly a decade of conservative rule.40 Consistent with past progressive South Korean leaders, Moon advocated peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula through engagement and dialogue. Although the Moon government also applied sanctions to North Korea in response to missile and nuclear tests, it adhered to an approach of unconditional engagement (dubbed by some as “Sunshine Policy 2.0”) even during heightened geopolitical tensions and periods of diplomatic unresponsiveness.41

Moon’s initial efforts at dialogue with North Korea, including offers for humanitarian aid and calls to resume family reunions, were largely met with silence from North Korea. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula accelerated in 2017 as North Korea conducted a series of missile tests, and U.S. President Donald Trump threatened “fire and fury” against the Kim regime.42 North Korea further ratcheted tensions by conducting a sixth nuclear test in September 2017.43 By November 2017, the Kim regime declared that it had become a full-fledged nuclear state with nuclear-strike capability.44

A thaw in inter-Korean relations

Despite significant U.S.-North Korea nuclear escalation in late 2017, inter-Korean relations (and later U.S.-North Korea relations) experienced a dramatic thaw in 2018 that would lead to three inter-Korean summits between Moon and Kim. During his annual New Year’s Day speech, Kim Jong Un wished South Korea a successful hosting of the upcoming Winter Olympics and signaled greater openness to dialogue.45 In a rapid series of moves, South and North Korean officials reactivated a transborder hotline for the first time in two years on January 3.46 Six days later, South and North Korean officials held face-to-face talks for the first time since December 2015. During the discussions, North Korean officials rebuffed South Korean efforts to bring up its nuclear program, but both sides reached a deal allowing Pyongyang to participate in the Winter Olympics and to resume cross-border military communications.[iii]Andrew Jeong, “North Korea to Send Delegation to Winter Olympics, Refuses to Discuss Weapons,” Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2018,

The Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang provided an opportunity for both sides of the Peninsula to come together in a show of unity on the world stage. North and South Korean athletes marched together under a “unified Korea” flag during the opening ceremony and fielded a joint women’s ice hockey team.47 Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jung, and a high-level North Korean delegation attended the opening ceremony and delivered a rare invitation to Moon to visit Pyongyang for a summit.48

To continue the diplomatic trend, South Korean National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong led a 10-member delegation to Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong Un to persuade the leader to improve inter-Korean ties and begin dialogue with the United States.49 As a result of the meeting, U.S. CIA Director Mike Pompeo made a clandestine trip to Pyongyang in April of 2018 to meet with Kim Jong Un in preparation for a potential summit between Trump and Kim to reinvigorate potential bilateral nuclear talks.50 Two days later, Kim Jong Un announced that he would stop nuclear and missile testing, and shut down the Punggye-ri nuclear site where six previous nuclear tests were conducted, but made no mention of giving up nuclear weapons. The declaration came ahead of a meeting with Moon and served as a precursor to a bilateral meeting with Trump.51

Adding to the momentum, on April 27, 2018, Kim Jong Un crossed the border into South Korea for a historic inter-Korean summit held at the Peace House in Panmunjeom, becoming the first North Korean leader to set foot on South Korean soil.52 Both leaders agreed to work toward “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” and vowed to declare an official end to the Korean War within a year. They also signed the Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula, which called for the end of military activities around the region, establishment of a joint-liaison office in the Kaesong area, and the reunification of Korea.53 The Declaration marked a high-point in Moon’s diplomatic efforts and a greater sense of optimism among South Koreans for improved relations with North Korea, even though it lacked a more detailed commitment or timeline from Pyongyang to abandon nuclear weapons.54

Further diplomatic progress was made in the ensuing months of the summit. In early May, North and South Korean soldiers dismantled loudspeakers that once blared propaganda over the armistice line.55 North Korea also changed its time zone to match South Korea’s time as part of “the first practical step” toward unification.56 North Korea also destroyed the Punggye-ri nuclear test site on May 24, and its surrounding tunnels and buildings as foreign journalists watched.57 To revive a potential meeting between Kim Jong Un and Trump that Trump had abruptly cancelled, Moon and Kim Jong Un held a second summit inside the Demilitarized Zone on May 26 to discuss implementation of their peace initiatives and ways to improve relations with the United States.58

The flurry of diplomatic activity between the two Koreas helped facilitate U.S.-North Korean diplomacy leading to the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore on June 12.59 On the military front in July of 2018, the two Koreas resumed ship-to-ship communications for the first time in a decade60 and restored a military communication line on the western part of the peninsula.61 In August of 2018, a group of South and North Korean divided families briefly reunited at Mount Kumgang, the first family reunion since October 2015.62 Ahead of the third inter-Korean summit in September 2018, Seoul and Pyongyang opened a joint liaison office at the site of the former KIC, enabling both sides to directly communicate about issues of concern “24 hours, 365 days” with 20 people on both sides staffing the offices.63

On September 18, 2018, Moon arrived in Pyongyang for his third inter-Korea Summit.64 During his visit, Moon became the first South Korean leader to give a speech to the North Korean public during the Mass Games and called for the permanent removal of nuclear weapons and peace on the peninsula.65 Both leaders signed the Pyongyang Joint Declaration of September 2018. The two sides also adopted the “Agreement on the Implementation of the Historic Panmunjom Declaration in the Military Domain” to further expand cessation of military hostilities. They also promoted inter-Korean economic cooperation such as connecting infrastructure including roads and railways.66 North Korea also stated it would permanently dismantle the Dongchang-ri missile launch and engine testing facilities, and declared it was prepared to permanently close the nuclear production facility in Yongbyon if the United States took “reciprocal steps.”67 Both sides agreed to halt field training exercises and artillery drills in the border area to lower temperatures in the region.68 Following the breakthroughs from the third summit, Moon ratified the recent deals struck with Pyongyang, triggering immediate opposition from conservative lawmakers.69

In the spirit of engagement, a group of South Korean experts in November 2018 traveled across the border into North Korea by train to research ways to update the North’s railways to ease cross-border trade and travel.70 South Korea also promised to deliver antiviral medication and other medical supplies to North Korea as part of an effort to combat the spread of infectious diseases, such as influenza.71

The fragility of inter-Korean relations

As rapidly as inter-Korean relations experienced improvements in 2018, they quickly hit an impasse and then downturn following the abrupt end to the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi in February 2019. Although the Moon government persisted with engagement efforts, inter-Korean relations eventually fell victim to broader geopolitical forces and external shocks including deteriorated U.S.-North Korea relations and the coronavirus pandemic in January 2020. The latter resulted in the regime closing its borders for over three years (as of August 2023, borders still remain largely closed), further isolating the country and decreasing the number of North Korean defectors entering South Korea to a few dozen individuals (see figure 2). While Moon saw the pandemic as an opportunity for “realistic and practical” cooperation with Pyongyang,72 North Korea raised tensions by exchanging gunfire over the DMZ73 and criticizing ongoing U.S.-ROK military drills in May 2020.74 In a sign of worsening tensions in June, Pyongyang severed all communication channels with Seoul75 and later destroyed an inter-Korean joint liaison office in Kaesong, signaling frustration with the lack of progress with Moon and Trump.76

With tensions rising, South Korea urged the north to suspend a plan to launch propaganda leaflets across the border after threatening to float 12 million leaflets as part of its largest psychological campaign.77 To reciprocate, South Korea banned the launch of anti-North Korean propaganda leaflets into the North despite opposition from South Korean human rights activists and prominent defectors.78 Tensions also arose when North Korea shot and killed a South Korean Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries official who had crossed into North Korean waters.79

In the New Year of 2021, Moon hoped to improve relations with Pyongyang and promised to sit down with North Korea “anytime, anywhere” to discuss cooperation.80 Moon offered COVID-19 vaccines to the North in June.81 Although both countries restored cross-border hotlines in July 202182, North Korea stopped responding to the hotline a month later.83 The positive atmosphere in inter-Korean relations were further undermined when North Korea threatened “a serious security crisis” in retaliation for U.S.-ROK joint military drills in August 2021.84 A month later, North Korea successfully tested newly developed long-range cruise missiles.[vi]Kim Tong-Hyung, “North Korea says it tested new long-range cruise missiles,” AP, September 13, 2021,

During the waning months of Moon’s presidency, North Korea expressed a willingness to return to the negotiating table in exchange for sanctions relief, while Moon pushed for peace and rapprochement on the peninsula.85 In October 2021, North Korea resumed communication through a cross-border military hotline with South Korea.86 However, tensions in U.S.-North Korea relations constrained Moon’s diplomatic outreach to North Korea.


Defense, deterrence, and an audacious plan under Yoon Suk Yeol

Although Moon continued to pursue diplomatic efforts with North Korea until his remaining time in office in May 2022, North Korea had already begun dramatically increasing the number of missile tests earlier that year, including an ICBM test in March 2022 a few weeks after South Koreans elected conservative presidential candidate Yoon Suk Yeol to office. North Korea would go on to conduct over 90 cruise and ballistic missile tests in 2022 including several long-range ICBM tests.87

Yoon, like his conservative predecessors, viewed inter-Korean engagement with greater skepticism, especially with tensions escalating on the Korean Peninsula by the time of Moon’s departure. President Yoon prioritized deterrence and defense on the Korean Peninsula by resuming large-scale joint military exercises with the United States, permitting the deployment of additional U.S. strategic assets on the peninsula such as U.S. strategic bombers and nuclear submarines, and seeking greater U.S. extended deterrence commitments.88 South Korean threat perceptions were further heightened in December 2023 when five North Korean drones entered South Korean airspace.89

The Yoon government also renewed efforts to address North Korean human rights, appointing Ambassador Lee Shin-wha as South Korea’s ambassador for international cooperation on North Korean human rights in July 2022. The Ministry of Unification also published its first publicly released report on North Korean human rights in March 2023, prompting North Korea to publish its own report criticizing South Korean human rights violations.90

Despite the lack of diplomatic engagement between the two Koreas during Yoon’s first year in office, the Yoon government unveiled its “Audacious Initiative” to promote inter-Korea relations in August 2022. The Audacious Initiative promised major South Korean economic investment and aid to North Korea should the regime cease developing its nuclear program and take substantive steps towards denuclearization.91 Yoon’s engagement plan was immediately mocked by North Korea as “absurd” with the regime comparing it to President Lee Myung Bak’s “Vision 3000” proposal92 The Kim regime also criticized Yoon for assuming that North Korea would seek denuclearization in return for economic improvement. As of August 2023, there have been no major inter-Korean meetings conducted between the Yoon government and the Kim regime. Yoon contends, however, that dialogue between the two Koreas is necessary for peace on the Korean Peninsula.93 The easing of pandemic-induced border restrictions in North Korea in September 2023 at least reopens the possibility of increased people-to-people interaction between North and South Korea.

Figure 1: Inter-Korean Trade

Source: ROK Ministry of Unification

Figure 2: North Korean Defectors Entering South Korea 

Source: ROK Ministry of Unification