Two years into his five-year term as president, Moon Jae-in is in unfamiliar territory.
For the first year and a half of his administration, he enjoyed high popularity. Now as economic issues have become more prominent domestically and progress with North Korea has stalled, his popularity rating is under 50%.
On the international scene, Moon is the only South Korean president to have met multiple times with a North Korean leader. While these meetings initially seemed to show promise of substantial change and a new opportunity for inter-Korean relations, now it appears that little has changed given Pyongyang’s lack of actionable interest in denuclearization.
At the end of his first year in office, President Moon met with Kim Jong Un, a meeting which resulted in the Panmunjom Declaration. This appeared to be a major breakthrough in inter-Korean relations.
His second meeting with the North Korean leader was unexpected and sought to bridge the gap between the United States and North Korea to ensure that a summit meeting would take place.
This May 2018 meeting helped to ensure that the Singapore Summit did take place. After the Singapore Summit, the third inter-Korean summit of 2018 did not help to bridge the divide between ideas and reality with regards to North Korea’s denuclearization.
However, much was done to promote rapprochement and cooperation in an outwardly visible manner at the meeting in Pyongyang, which demonstrated Seoul’s continued desire to move forward on joint projects.
But apparently, Moon was not able to convince Kim Jong Un to take steps towards denuclearization as a showing of goodwill after the Singapore Summit.
President Moon is increasingly sidelined in a process that he helped to facilitate
Pyongyang’s continued hedging on the definition, scope, and timing of denuclearization stretched from the Singapore Summit all the way to the Hanoi Summit, which clarified Pyongyang’s position on denuclearization. During these months between summits, little concrete action was taken by Pyongyang and proposed inter-Korean projects were put on the backburner.
The trust in Kim Jong Un’s stated intentions that drove policy in Seoul appears to have been greatly misplaced. In the aftermath of Trump-Kim part two, few are convinced that denuclearization is being seriously pursued by North Korea. Washington’s agenda, increasingly, is not always in sync with Seoul’s desires as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned fairly recently.
Now, with a third possible summit being discussed, President Moon is increasingly sidelined in a process that he helped to facilitate. Just a year after the Panmunjom Declaration, Seoul’s current plans to develop deeper inter-Korean relations were recently dismissed as “empty talk” by Pyongyang, which is clearly aiming to make a deal with the Trump administration through direct talks.
Over the past year, President Moon has moved from facilitator to third wheel, as North Korea now feels it can bypass South Korea and deal directly with the United States.
In the aftermath of the Singapore summit, the differences in approach between the U.S. and South Korea became more apparent. Policy emanating from Seoul did not appear skeptical towards Pyongyang’s intentions, and the Trump administration seems to have eventually realized that the summit did not lead to groundbreaking results.
This is why Washington has remained reluctant to make changes (e.g. relax sanctions) prior to Pyongyang’s taking actionable steps towards denuclearization. Despite some progress in inter-Korean relations, attempts at economic integration are on hold until progress is made on denuclearization because of the current sanctions against Pyongyang.
In the aftermath of the Singapore summit, the differences in approach between the U.S. and South Korea became more apparent
But the Moon administration’s desire to continue these projects has not disappeared, as Seoul apparently was giving consideration to lifting sanctions against Pyongyang and closer economic cooperation is clearly desired by the Moon administration. These hopes, however, are not likely to become reality as long as the current sanctions regime against North Korea remains.
President Trump has less of a focus on retaining binding alliances and more of a transactional approach to foreign policy. This was seen with the renegotiation of cost sharing in which Seoul agreed to pick up a greater tab to retain the American military presence in South Korea.
He also showed a transactional method of action when he unilaterally canceled joint military exercises with South Korea after Kim’s charm offensive in Singapore.
This potentially damaged the readiness posture to keep South Korea more secure. President Moon pursued action unilaterally as well in matters that could have been alliance decisions that involved greater consultation.
The deployment of THAAD led to an undeclared trade war between China and South Korea. In an effort to resolve this issue, President Moon came to an agreement with China relating to THAAD in late 2017. The agreement limited the ability of American technology to thwart North Korea’s missile capabilities.
Both Washington and Seoul have shown a willingness to engage in actions that are in their own best interest without serious contemplation of the long-term results on the alliance between the two nations.
As President Moon nears the midway point of his term in office, it is clear that the honeymoon phase of his presidency is over.
Despite détente with North Korea, meetings with Kim Jong Un, and playing the role of facilitator between Pyongyang and Washington, his position has weakened with regards to inter-Korean affairs.
South Korea would like to engage in more inter-Korean projects but has to wait, due to the current sanctions against North Korea. Pyongyang increasingly sees less use in working with Seoul when it can work with its primary benefactor in Beijing and continue to test deal-making with Washington.
It is clear that the honeymoon phase of his presidency is over
While different priorities and proximity to North Korea has partly driven the agendas being pursued by Washington and Seoul, it appears that, increasingly, self-interest is replacing alliance cooperation.
A third Trump-Kim meeting has been speculated about — should it go ahead, it would likely involve some sort of grand bargain. This outcome may be the best result for President Moon’s political future.
In April of 2020, South Korean voters will get to cast their only national referendum on President Moon’s leadership, when they vote in the quadrennial parliamentary elections. Short of a major breakthrough, Moon may not like what they say.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Blue House
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