As pundits across the political sphere debate the significance of last week’s Singapore summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, there is at least one person who is quite certain of the meeting’s benefits: South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Thanks in large part to his successful mediation between the U.S. and North Korea, Moon’s Democratic Party scored a landslide win in South Korea’s local elections last week. Ruling party candidates took 14 of the 17 metropolitan mayoral and gubernatorial contests, with the opposition Liberty Korea Party managing victories only in its traditional stronghold of Daegu and the surrounding North Gyeongsang Province.
The timing of the election means that it has gone largely ignored in post-summit analyses, coming as it did one day after the historic meeting between Trump and Kim (given Moon’s role in facilitating the summit, this coincidence has been strangely overlooked in coverage of the issue).
However, the newfound political capital that Moon has received as a result of the election, and more importantly how he goes about spending it, will be perhaps the most crucial determinant for North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization.
To understand why, it’s important to realize that the Moon administration has been advocating not just for inter-Korean rapprochement, but a move toward a confederation with North Korea as a first step towards the reunification of the peninsula. This is such a high priority for the government that it went so far as to include it in the title of the “Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula” following Moon’s landmark summit with Kim in April.
It’s why the Hankyoreh – South Korea’s leading liberal newspaper – ran a column praising the “hidden plan” for unification immediately after the inter-Korean summit. It’s also why South Korean conservatives have been so animated against any signs of reconciliation, fearing that the Moon administration is set on selling the Republic out to the regime in Pyongyang.
Perhaps because merging the two systems together seems like such an audacious and unrealistic undertaking, this storyline has remained largely under the radar of Western media.
The Moon administration has been advocating not just for inter-Korean rapprochement, but a move toward a confederation with North Korea
Indeed, the issue is only ever really touched upon obliquely, for instance in articles questioning whether improving inter-Korean relations will drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States, or when Moon’s special advisor on North Korea policy, Professor Moon Chung-in, makes comments questioning the utility of the alliance or the long-term need for U.S. troops in the country.
Thus far, the Moon administration has been able to downplay the special advisor’s remarks by noting that he serves in an informal capacity, and thus his quotes shouldn’t be interpreted as official policy.
With improved inter-Korean relations still in the nascent stages, no real concessions have been required on the part of South Korea, which has helped to keep Moon’s approval rating at over 70% since his own meeting with Kim Jong Un. After all, who – with the exception of certain sections of the U.S. foreign policy establishment and hardline South Korean conservatives – would begrudge peaceful relations between North and South?
A RINGING ENDORSEMENT?
But with the vast majority of the South Korean public having now signed off on Moon’s North Korea policy, the question now becomes how far they are willing to follow him on the idea of confederation.
Both the Moon government and the Kim regime are placing a priority on speed in implementing the Panmunjeom Declaration, without having substantially fleshed out the details of what a “confederation” between the two sides would actually look like. And this is where the risks inherent in Moon’s peace wager become clear.
Galloping toward an inter-Korean confederation at the speed of a “10,000 league horse” may not be exactly what the South Korean public has in mind
As long as progress is sustained in this direction, North Korean leaders will continue to play nice, thus further weakening support for international sanctions that are already showing signs of breaking down.
Considering the vast scope of North Korea’s nuclear program, and given Siegfried Hecker’s estimate of a 10-15 year timeline for full denuclearization, there is no shortage of symbolic acts that the regime could take (such as last month’s destruction of the nuclear test site at Punggye-ri) to signal compliance with the Singapore declaration signed by Kim and Trump.
Yet what happens when inter-Korean confederation begins to seem like more of a concrete reality than an abstract fantasy? Support for reunification among the South Korean public, while still enjoying a majority, has been trending steadily downward in recent years, particularly among the younger generation. Galloping toward an inter-Korean confederation at the speed of a “10,000 league horse” may not be exactly what the South Korean public has in mind.
Given this reality, Moon must be careful about getting too far out ahead of public sentiment in his confederation drive. Doing so would risk a conservative revival in the 2020 legislative elections, thus throwing his North Korea policy into turmoil and jeopardizing all of the recent gains for inter-Korean reconciliation.
This would have a far more significant impact on North Korea’s denuclearization process than the substance – or lack thereof – of whatever it was that Trump and Kim agreed upon in Singapore last week.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Blue House
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