On one hand, there is a mass murdering dictator who is desperate to improve his country’s economy while retaining his nuclear arsenal.
On the other is a stubborn and intellectually incurious American President who insists that his personal relationship with the former remains good, but will not lift sanctions on North Korea “until the right time.”
Stuck in the middle is South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has been dubbed a foreign policy genius — reverently and derisively by his supporters and detractors, respectively.
When the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics presented an opportunity for negotiations to take place, President Moon quickly discarded his (unconvincing) pretense of being a hawk and resumed the policy of inter-Korean detente that he helped to create in the early 2000s while he was chief-of-staff to then-President Roh Moo-hyun.
Unlike his former boss, however, President Moon has had several things going for him.
Firstly, Kim Jong Un is a different type of leader compared to his father. While both he and his father may fundamentally have the same goals, the son is more willing to take risks by engaging in at least superficially peaceful overtures.
Secondly, even though no one ever accused President George W. Bush of being particularly well-read or knowledgeable while he was in office, he looks like Zbigniew Brzezinski next to the current White House occupant.
Finally, President Moon himself is a far more competent leader than his former boss. Whereas President Roh was obtuse enough to publicly declare “What’s wrong with being anti-American” as well as admit that he was doing his best to act as North Korea’s spokesman, President Moon has proven himself to be far more savvy.
Not only has he gone on to say that the ROK-U.S. alliance should go on forever, when Liberty Korea Party’s floor leader Na Kyeong-won quoted a Bloomberg article and said that President Moon was acting like North Korea’s spokesman in the National Assembly, his office reacted angrily (and his party reacted heavy-handedly and foolishly) and said that the remarks were an insult to the president and to all South Koreans who desire peace.
Despite all of the serendipitous advantages that President Moon has going for him, all of his efforts have been squandered because of his inability to mask his desperation for an end-of-war declaration.
From the very beginning, his vision for South Korea’s economic future depended on the premise of the Korean War formally coming to an end. Amid clear signs of an economic slowdown, President Moon has doubled down on his unpopular economic policies and continued to push the notion that formally ending the Korean War would be, to use a phrase that might cause some people in the Blue House to cringe, a “bonanza.”
And now the chickens have come home to roost.
So far, President Moon has played the role of mediator between the United States and North Korea. After the Hanoi Summit ended in failure (despite the positive spin put forward by all the parties involved), President Moon has belatedly sought to inject South Korea in the negotiations – pushing for trilateral summits.
However, President Trump is not interested in sharing the limelight with President Moon. If ever a deal is reached that satisfies President Trump (a BIG if), he wants all the glory to himself.
President Moon Jae-in has even lost Kim Jong Un’s trust
Furthermore, over the past two years, slowly but surely, President Moon has lost the Trump administration’s trust. Though it has not been confirmed, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has reportedly said that Kim Jong Un and South Korean National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong are “liars.”
After repeatedly saying that North Korea is serious about denuclearization — only for Kim Jong Un’s actions to belie those statements — it is only natural for the United States to no longer believe any statement of that nature coming from the Blue House. President Trump expressed his disdain for President Moon most succinctly when he said “they (South Korea) do nothing without our approval.”
Furthermore, President Moon Jae-in has even lost Kim Jong Un’s trust. So far, both President Moon and Kim Jong Un have met three times, and each time they met, Kim Jong Un has expressed firmly that sanctions-relief must come first.
But now that President Trump has said multiple times that sanctions will not be lifted — despite the fact that President Trump has personally met with Kim Jong Un twice — Kim Jong Un now realizes that President Moon Jae-in has no control whatsoever over how denuclearization talks proceed.
Frustrated by the utter lack of progress, Kim Jong Un has said publicly that South Korea should stop being a neutral middleman, but rather as an active participant. Specifically, he said “The South should not act as an ‘overstepping mediator’ or a ‘facilitator’ and should rather get its mind straight as a member of the (Korean) nation and boldly speak up for the interest of the nation.”
Never mind the insulting implication that there is only one Korea and that nation is represented by the DPRK. Kim Jong Un is no longer satisfied with South Korea being a middleman, but rather wants President Moon Jae-in to actually be his spokesman.
Kim Jong Un has the confidence to say this. After all, he knows that as long as the status quo remains unchanged, he can continue to stay in power and avoid sanctions in innovative ways while President Moon becomes more and more desperate to see improvements as he and his party lose domestic support from voters.
But President Moon Jae-in cannot do either. Due to the role that he has set up for himself, as well as his personal convictions, he cannot fully endorse President Trump’s position because that would mean the complete breakdown of his North Korea policy.
Likewise, he cannot fully endorse Kim Jong Un’s position because that would be the death knell of the ROK-U.S. alliance.
As long as Kim Jong Un refuses to denuclearize, the United States will not lift sanctions. As long as sanctions remain in place, his inter-Korean economic vision, which includes reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex, Mount Kumgang Tourism, and the linking of South and North Korean railway lines, remains nothing more than a fantasy.
As long as President Trump insists that there will be no sanctions relief until “the right time,” Kim Jong Un has no reason to meet with either President Moon or President Trump again.
Kim Jong Un has already met with President Trump twice and with President Moon thrice. Even a dictator like Kim Jong Un needs to produce results after having such public summits with enemy leaders. Failing to produce results will mean that Kim Jong Un will have no choice but to once again promote hardline positions.
As long as sanctions remain in place, Moon’s inter-Korean economic vision remains nothing more than a fantasy.
Once again, the Korean peninsula remains in deadlock.
President Moon will stick to his guns. He cannot afford to shift his tone or his favored policies without publicly admitting that he has failed and squandered his political capital by chasing after a pie in the sky vision.
Whether he chooses to admit it or not, however, there is no doubt that President Moon’s North Korea policy isn’t working, and will not work.
As much as people may dream, there is no place for neutrality in inter-Korean relations. President Moon, or most like whoever succeeds him, will need to rethink South Korea’s position long and hard.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Blue House
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