If one reads what is written about South Korean president Moon Jae-in in conservative South Korean media and, especially, on the more extreme conservative websites, the current tenant of the Blue House looks very bad.
At best, Moon Jae-in is portrayed as a naive politician who has a starry-eyed infatuation with North Korea and the North Korean problem, who swallows, wholesale, the patently dishonest and insincere promises of Pyongyang.
Many critics of the incumbent president claim that he is willing to jeopardize their vital alliance with the United States in order to appease and placate the North.
His more extreme critics, especially vocal in cyberspace, even describe Moon Jae-in as a crypto-communist, or rather, crypto-Jucheist, a person whose actual goal is to surrender to the North Koreans or accept a compromise heavily skewed in their favor.
However, such statements are produced by the opposition, whose supporters have a passionate dislike of President Moon and his team, and a more careful look at President Moon’s policy indicates that the South Korean leader can hardly be accused of being naive or gullible.
Actually, President Moon Jae-in has proved himself to be a very successful, if sometimes manipulative, diplomat who, so far, has successfully handled some pretty challenging problems.
The right handling of North Korea is, literally, a life and death question for the South Koreans
There is little doubt that Moon Jae-in, a devotee of late President Roh Moo-hyun (of Sunshine Policy fame), has always been inclined to take a softer position on North Korea.
His ideal outcome is likely the long-term peaceful coexistence of the two Korean states, which will be presented to the general public, rather disingenuously, as a ‘slow advance towards unification.’
However, when Moon Jae-in won the presidential elections in a landslide in May 2017, he immediately saw that he was facing a crisis of a scale the peninsula has not been seen for decades.
In other words, Pyongyang had demonstrated that it came close to becoming the third country in the world, after Russia and China, which is capable of delivering a destructive nuclear strike against the United States’ major urban centers.
Additionally, in 2017, the North Koreans successfully tested a thermonuclear explosive device, far more powerful than the fusion nuclear devices they had been testing since 2006. It was a major change in the security equation for the United States.
At the same time, there was a new and very unconventional leader in Washington. Donald Trump reacted to the breakthrough success of the North Korean missile scientists and nuclear physicists in a highly aggressive manner: the U.S. President and his top officials began to talk about the possible use of deadly force. To demonstrate that they meant business, U.S. aircraft carriers began to cruise towards Korea.
Moon Jae-in and his advisors have been involved in spin-doctoring on an industrial scale over the last one and half years
The expert community has remained divided on whether Donald Trump was serious back in 2017. Some people believe that the U.S. President was merely bluffing, while others claim that the war in late 2017 was virtually weeks away.
However, for all concerned, including South Korean diplomats, the chance of war looked frighteningly real at the time.
Needless to say, the outbreak of military conflict in Korea would be a disaster for South Korea. There is little doubt that most of, if not all, the fighting would occur in the Korean peninsula.
Indeed, Seoul was almost certain to become a sea of fire – as North Korean diplomats had promised a number of times. So Moon Jae-in, being a responsible politician, had no choice but to act.
It was not easy since Moon Jae-in had little actual leverage. The North Koreans were not going to discuss nuclear issues with the South, even though Pyongyang was equally terrified by the extreme bellicosity of Washington, and, starting from late 2017, he began to search for ways to mitigate the crisis.
The UN Security Council resolutions, which effectively banned nearly all kinds of economic exchanges with North Korea, also limited South Korea’s freedom of actions. However, there was one area where Moon Jae-in could act, and it was the area of symbolic politics, or if you like, ‘mood-building.’
This is what Moon Jae-in began to do – he smiled, he arranged summits with Kim Jong Un (with little if any results), he invited North Koreans to the Winter Olympics and arranged countless similarly spectacular, if not very politically significant, events.
From late 2017, the Moon Jae-in administration has been waging a concentrated campaign to persuade the Americans (and the rest of the world) that the North Koreans, in spite of all their ostensible bellicosity and nuclear and missile tests, were actually willing to seriously consider denuclearization if provided with sufficient security guarantees and economic rewards.
This claim is patently untrue: the North Korean decision-makers see denuclearization as equivalent to group political suicide, and will probably never seriously consider such an option.
However, for the sake of ‘mood-building,’ it was the right thing to say since, according to this logic, the North Koreans were willing to talk, and therefore the Americans, instead of sending aircraft carriers, should send envoys.
President Moon Jae-in has proved himself to be a very successful, if sometimes dishonest and manipulative, diplomat
It remains to be seen to what extent Moon Jae-in and his advisors really believed in the possibility of the denuclearization. However, this author, believing that most of Moon Jae-in advisors are reasonable, smart, and well-informed people, has little doubt that they knew that their statements were not quite factually correct (to put it mildly) from the very beginning. But what else could they do?
Before we self-righteously start accusing the Moon administration of lying, we should ask one simple question: what was the alternative? Had the Moon Jae-in government openly accepted the unpleasant reality of the situation, had it admitted that chances for North Korea’s denuclearization are, well, zero, these admissions probably would have greatly strengthened the position of the American hardliners.
The Washington hawks would immediately jump on this opportunity. They would loudly insist that the unfixable North Korea should be prevented from going nuclear – if necessary, by using lethal force. Needless to say, such efforts could easily provoke a massive military confrontation, which has always been Moon Jae-in’s worst nightmare.
Therefore, Moon Jae-in and his advisors have been involved in spin-doctoring on an industrial scale over the last one and half years. No matter what’s actually happening in and around North Korea, the Blue House has very valid (and also rational) reasons to insist that all problems are of a temporary nature, that, with due patience and diplomatic skills, the holy grail of denuclearization is going to be delivered.
These might be insincere statements but, as I have said, these statements are politically necessary – not to keep Moon in power, but to keep his country out of war.
However, while loudly insisting that North Koreans are closet peace-lovers, Moon Jae-in’s government has tried to avoid confrontation with the United States. Compared to his late mentor, President Roh Moo-hyun, Moon Jae-in and his people have taken the utmost care to keep in mind U.S. interests.
They are willing to make a great number of concessions on secondary issues, like those related to trade and economic exchanges. For example, South Korean negotiators did not take a tough stance when they talked to the Americans about possible changes in free trade agreements.
The South Koreans accepted the U.S. demand for a significant increase in the amount of the payments for U.S. military presence without much resistance. One could assume that even the previous conservative Park Geun-hye administration would be less willing to accommodate American demands than Moon Jae-in’s Blue House.
This policy is also rational. The South Korean government wants to have Washington’s ear and they don’t want to be excessively annoying when confronting the United States on the issues that they consider to be secondary.
After all, the right handling of North Korea is, literally, a life and death question for the South Koreans. Therefore they are going to be extremely accommodating on all other matters.
And what about North Korea itself? The North Korean government, which was remarkably willing to follow the South Korean playbook in 2018, has refused to work with Seoul during the last few months. Some people see this as a miscalculation by Kim Jong Un, but I do not share this view.
Right now, after the collapse of the Hanoi meeting, the North Koreans, above all, need to talk to the United States. This is necessary for Pyongyang for two reasons. First, they just want to win time and wait out the unpredictable President Trump – and this is much easier if you can talk to Washington and make some promises you are not normally going to keep.
Second, they still hope to forge a lasting compromise, which would probably include a freeze (or even reduction) of their nuclear potential in exchange for sanctions being partially lifted.
It is understood in Pyongyang that Donald Trump, being a rather unconventional U.S. President, will be more willing to accept such a compromise than any of his predecessors and, for that matter, successors.
However, in order to increase the chances of a conversation with the Americans, North Koreans need the active support of the South – and, paradoxically, this is the major reason why they are not actually returning South Korea’s love calls in recent months.
It pays for Pyongyang to be somewhat rude, since an unnerved Moon Jae-in will be an even a better lobbyist for some kind of a deal
Moon Jae-in, of course, would also like to see the Americans and the North Koreans talking. Like Kim Jong Un, he also would like to win time, with reaching a workable and lasting compromise being the best possible outcome.
However, he also has another goal in mind: being the president of a democratic country, he has to keep his constituents happy. It means that Moon Jae-in will have to produce some visible achievements, which can be presented to the average South Korean as visible proof of his success.
Since the UN sanctions regime prevents South Korea from having any substantial economic exchange with North Korea, the South Korean government’s choice is limited to what can be best described as symbolic actions – like joint cultural events, sports, concerts, nationalist-ridden ‘scholarly events,’ and the like.
But there is one problem: the North Korean government is not particularly interested in symbolic concessions right now. They want South Korea to be even more active in dealing with the United States and that means that they actually want Moon Jae-in to be uncomfortable.
It seems North Korea’s assumption is that Moon Jae-in, facing an uncooperative North Korea, will double and triple his efforts to push the Americans back to the negotiation table. Talking to the Americans is far more important for Pyongyang than all the syrupy rhetoric about ‘national reconciliation’ and dance performances at the DMZ.
Therefore it pays for Pyongyang to be somewhat rude, since an unnerved Moon Jae-in will be an even a better lobbyist for some kind of a deal.
So, was Moon Jae-in’s North Korea policy a success? I would answer this question firmly in the affirmative. This policy was, in many regards, ostensibly based on the wrong assumptions. However, the same things could be said about many successful policies of countless governments since time immemorial.
However, the major goal of this policy can only inspire sympathy. Moon Jae-in wants to prevent a military conflict in Korea, which looked likely in the first year of his rule. So far, he has been successful in achieving this aim.
It’s especially remarkable that he achieved this, having so little leverage. So, the South Korean President has shown himself to be a skillful diplomat. I’m not sure whether future generations will feel enough gratitude for this, but this author believes they should.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Pyeongyang Press Corps
If one reads what is written about South Korean president Moon Jae-in in conservative South Korean media and, especially, on the more extreme conservative websites, the current tenant of the Blue House looks very bad.At best, Moon Jae-in is portrayed as a naive politician who has a starry-eyed infatuation with North Korea and the North Korean problem, who swallows, wholesale, the patently
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.