2018 has been a good year for South Korean President Moon Jae-in. From the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics to the Singapore Summit, President Moon has kept his word in regards to taking over the driver’s seat in inter-Korean relations, North Korea has ceased testing missiles and nuclear weapons, and President Trump has stopped threatening North Korea with fire and fury.
President Moon has every reason to feel good about himself and his accomplishments. However, it is also true to say that his legacy will be short-lived.
Around the time his predecessor, President Park Geun-hye, was impeached and imprisoned, it was revealed to the public how imperial her presidency really was. Not only did she refuse to give press conferences or say a single word that was not pre-scripted for her, even senior cabinet members seldom got to meet her.
So when President Moon assumed power, he was understandably eager to distance himself from everything that she stood for. Early on in his presidency, he promised to open up the era of the Gwanghwamun president, and that he would “be willing to communicate with people at any time” and that he would “directly brief the media on important issues.”
What he did not say was how he selective he would be when it came to whom he would communicate with. And therein lies the problem.
It is clear that it was a mistake to assume that President Moon’s foreign policy would be a repetition of President Roh Moo-hyun’s foreign policy. President Moon is far more adept and practical than his previous boss, who once rhetorically asked “What’s wrong with being anti-American?”
However, that’s not saying much at all. While it is true that he is not fomenting anti-American sentiments, he is also proving himself to be only a nominal ally to the United States.
It was a mistake to assume that President Moon’s foreign policy would be a repetition of President Roh Moo-hyun’s foreign policy
The fact of the matter is that President Moon did not bother to discuss with the United States about the inter-Korean military agreement signed during the Pyongyang summit in September before signing it.
So much so that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was particularly angry about the no-fly zone agreement over parts of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), as it would effectively prevent close air support drills and bar live-fire drills involving fixed-wing aircraft and air-to-ground guided weapons in the area.
American annoyance with President Moon does not end there. Earlier this month, when foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha suggested that the Moon administration was considering lifting sanctions that South Korea imposed on the North in 2010 after the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, the American response was swift and unambiguous.
American displeasure was expressed most succinctly when President Trump said, in his usual brusque manner, “They (South Korea) won’t do it without our approval. They do nothing without our approval.”
STERN WARNING ON SANCTIONS
The most obvious example of the increasing rift between Seoul and Washington, and perhaps what could have been the death knell of the ROK-U.S. alliance had things gone differently, were the phone calls made by the U.S. Treasury to several South Korean banks when it was reported in the news media after the Moon-Kim summit in Pyongyang that several of South Korea’s largest banks were considering reopening their branches in North Korea – specifically around the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region and the Kaesong Industrial Complex.
According to an interview published in the JoongAng Daily, the U.S. Treasury official who called the South Korean banks to remind them of ongoing sanctions against North Korea sounded like “the Grim Reaper.”
South Korean banks were not the only institutions that got the phone call. Among those that were contacted directly by the U.S. Embassy in Seoul were executives from Samsung, Hyundai Motors, LG and SK – people who accompanied President Moon Jae-in on his three-day summit in Pyongyang in September. The purpose of the call was to ensure that South Korean conglomerates were not violating international and American laws vis-a-vis sanctions against North Korea and to inform them that they were to expect a follow-up call from the U.S. Treasury.
The choice laid before South Korean businesses is stark – access to the North Korean economy or the United States economy.
On October 26th, South Korea’s Financial Services Commission Chairman Choi Jong-ku officially said “Opening bank branches in North Korea will be possible only after conditions (the lifting of international sanctions) are met.”
On November 2nd, the U.S. Treasury canceled the conference call without giving any specific reasons as to why. The call was not necessary. The message was loud and clear.
Kim Jong Un wants sanctions to be lifted immediately. He has tied the lifting of sanctions with what he calls “the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” He claims that by keeping the sanctions in place, that erodes trust between Pyongyang and Washington. Recently, his regime has threatened that it may “resume” building up its nuclear forces.
As for Donald Trump, whether it is realistic or not, his administration continues to insist on“the final, fully verified denuclearization” of North Korea – and that until that happens, maximum pressure (which isn’t as maximal as it used to be) will continue to remain in place.
As long as this calculus remains unchanged, President Moon’s castle in the sky will remain just that.
Sooner or later, Donald Trump will leave the White House
While it is true that there is growing divergence in the ROK-U.S. alliance, and it is legitimate to worry about that divergence, it is wrong to imply that the differences are in any way existential or even historic. No two nations’ goals are ever in perfect alignment with one another. Differences are bound to appear, and that is par for the course in diplomacy.
Besides, considering the toxic anti-American protests and sentiments that swept through South Korea in the early 2000s, the divergence that we see today is incomparably civil. However, that does not mean that the alliance will continue to enjoy smooth sailing indefinitely.
Sooner or later, Donald Trump will leave the White House. The chaos presidency will end, the U.S. State Department will stop hemorrhaging talent and eventually recuperate from its losses, and American diplomats and bureaucrats will once again be able to properly do their jobs without having the rugs pulled from underneath them by disruptive 3 am. “presidential” tweets.
When that day comes, however, the conspiratorially dubbed American Deep State will seek revenge against those whom they believe to have wronged them. And among that list of names will be South Korea.
Donald Trump’s presidency can be boiled into a single word – anti-intellectual. Instead of deep reflection, he relies on his gut. Instead of rigorous policy debates, he has 280-character tweets. Instead of seeking to further national interests, he seeks applause and adulation. Whether his presidency lasts for two or four or eight years, future historians will refer to it as the Lost Years.
These are trying times for the U.S. national security bureaucracy; and President Moon has chosen to take advantage of their weakened state by going after their exposed Achilles’ heel – Trump’s vanity.
Those in the national security bureaucracy – people who have experience and expertise and those who were there long before Trump moved into the White House and who will remain there long after he leaves – have always been hawkish toward North Korea and also been suspicious of President Moon’s intentions.
So much so that in February 2017, then-Presidential candidate Moon and his proposed North Korea policy was one of the topics of discussion in a U.S. Congressional hearing.
Knowing how easy a mark Donald Trump is, President Moon began to flatter him at every possible opportunity
President Trump seems to be the only person in the U.S. government who honestly believes that North Korea’s suspension of testing of missiles and warheads is a positive step. As for the rest of the national security bureaucracy, however, no such illusion exists. Previous attempts at engagement have convinced them of one thing – that the North Koreans are liars.
Recognizing that the U.S. national security bureaucracy will be an obstacle, instead of setting realistic expectations and maintaining close coordination with Washington, President Moon – either in cahoots with or independently from Kim Jong Un – launched a charm offensive against a single target – President Trump himself.
KEEPING TRUMP HAPPY
Knowing how easy a mark Donald Trump is, President Moon began to flatter him at every possible opportunity. From “humbly” suggesting that President Trump deserved the Nobel Peace Prize to outrightly saying to him “You are, indeed, the only person who can solve this problem,” Moon has gotten Trump personally involved in his inter-Korean vision.
It didn’t take long for the North Koreans to get in on the game as well. From hand-delivering letters in comically large envelopes where Kim Jong Un refers to Donald Trump as “Your Excellency,” to less-than-subtle KCNA screeds about how Trump has enemies from within, it began to appear that South and North Korea are engaged in a coordinated effort to flatter Trump at the expense of the U.S. national security bureaucracy.
No matter how much John Bolton or Mike Pompeo or James Mattis and every one of their staff members may object, and no matter how well learned and experienced they are, and no matter how disgusted they may be at what is happening, at the end of the day, they serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States.
Someday, Trump will be gone, but the career bureaucrats will remain. And they will remember how President Moon pushed a wedge between them and an infantile boss. They will remember how President Moon flattered their boss into going to Singapore to sign a meaningless declaration that did nothing to forward their interests while paving the way to weaken sanctions.
They will remember how their boss became the world’s laughing stock for tweeting that North Korea was serious about denuclearization when in fact it was President Moon who was whispering those words into his ear. They will remember how the world laughed at their boss when he professed that he was in love with Kim Jong Un.
They will remember how the leader of an allied nation weakened their interests, tied their hands behind their backs, and led astray their gullible and stupid boss. Their next boss will be less gullible and stupid, and neither they nor the next U.S. president will look at President Moon or South Korea with much fondness.
And meanwhile, North Korea will have done nothing to have denuclearized.
It is not just the U.S. that President Moon has kept in the dark. He has also largely ignored conservative lawmakers in the National Assembly as well as the Republic of Korea Armed Forces.
According to the 9/19 Military Agreement between South and North Korea, both sides agreed to establish so-called peace zones near the Northern Limit Line (NLL) and the MDL. Among the things agreed is that both sides would respect those peace zones as no-fly zones.
The establishment of those no-fly zones means that South Korea’s Air Force is not permitted to send any of its aerial units to reinforce the Northwest Islands Defense Command, which was specifically established in response to North Korea’s bombardment of Yeonpyeongdo in 2010 – an attack which resulted in the deaths of two ROK marines and two civilians.
It is difficult to imagine that these decisions were not met with any resistance from the top brass.
President Moon does not appear to have any plans for the economy
More importantly, however, President Moon has also been ignoring conservative lawmakers in the National Assembly. So much so that the conservatives are calling his presidency the My Way Presidency. Despite strong conservative opposition to the deals that President Moon has made, he signed the agreements into law without parliamentary approval.
And this will come back to haunt him.
IT’S THE ECONOMY, STUPID
Trouble is brewing in South Korea’s economy. The trade war between the US and China continues to intensify. The youth unemployment rate reached its highest level since the country’s financial crisis situation in the late 1990s. Higher minimum wage has had a downward effect on the economy. The real estate bubble continues to balloon and the measures that the Moon administration has taken has ended up hurting those very people he had intended to help.
Everywhere you look, the signs couldn’t be any clearer. The economy is in trouble, and things will only get worse, but President Moon does not appear to have any plans for the economy. He merely seems to have hypothetical scenarios in which integration – in whatever form it occurs – with North Korea will somehow boost trade and, thus, the economy. More castles in the sky.
Of course neither the boom-bust cycle nor South Korea’s structural economic problems is President Moon’s fault. However, what is President Moon’s fault is the policies, or the lack thereof, he has pursued to rectify those problems.
Since his predecessor, President Park Geun-hye, was impeached in 2016, South Korea’s conservatives have lost tremendous amounts of support from the voters.
After her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, and other prominent conservative leaders over the years had been arrested and jailed over charges of corruption and abuse-of-power, the conservatives have been effectively made leaderless; but not rudderless.
Though there isn’t a clear leader that conservatives can rally behind, their goal has been made simple: to oppose President Moon and everything he does.
Each passing day that President Moon fails to do anything to change the perception that he is either powerless or unable to help to resolve the country’s economic woes, conservatives gain that much more support.
Conservatives are angry. They are angry over President Moon’s and the progressives attempt to stifle conservative voices on social media websites like YouTube under the guise of stymieing “fake news.”
There was even a massive unified rally of conservative organizations against the state-run Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) corporation held in front of KBS’s headquarters on October 24. They accused KBS of fabricating propaganda that was favorable toward President Moon’s policies. This is shocking: it would be comparable to American conservative voters protesting against Fox News for having a liberal bias.
2018 has been a good year for President Moon Jae-in. 2019 will be less kind
Whether this increased support for the conservatives will translate into votes for conservatives in the next election remains to be seen. But what is beyond doubt is that voters’ sense of disappointment and disillusionment with President Moon is palpable and real.
Right after President Lee Myung-bak and the conservatives took power from President Roh Moo-hyun and the progressives, one of the first thing that he did was to reverse the Sunshine Policy that had been pursued by President Roh and the policy’s architect, President Kim Dae-jung.
Whoever becomes the next South Korean president, assuming President Moon continues to mishandle the economy, will be a conservative politician. And that future South Korean president will reverse President Moon’s policies. They’d have no reason not to: President Moon did not seek parliamentary approval, has not had any conservative endorsement, and has also invited American anger.
President Moon appears to believe in his own rightness, and that will be his ultimate downfall because no foreign policy (even if North Korea is not recognized as a foreign country by the Republic of Korea Constitution) – no matter how ingenious – has any chance of success if it is born in the minds of a few and carried in the hearts of none.
That is a painful lesson that many leaders around the world have learned the hard way. It appears that it is a lesson that President Moon will also have to learn the hard way as well.
2018 has been a good year for President Moon Jae-in. 2019 will be less kind. And when his administration careens into the history books, he will come to learn much too late that his legacy will be very short-lived.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Blue House
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