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Wang Son-taek is diplomatic correspondent for South Korea's YTN news network and one of the country's leading journalists on North Korea and diplomatic affairs.
Big foreign policy problems have been slowly building up around South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
North Korea has viciously insulted him while conducting missile test after missile test. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has attacked him with trade restrictions. The U.S. has officially expressed strong concern and disappointment with Seoul’s decision to end GSOMIA (the General Security of Military Information Agreement between South Korea and Japan).
Out of these problems, the North’s insults have got to hurt the most. Pyongyang has ridiculed Mr. Moon as an “idiot,” a “scared dog,” and that comments made during his speech on Liberation Day on August 15 would make the “boiled head of a cow (fall into) a side-splitting laughter.”
It’s surreal to watch North Korea insult Mr. Moon — he had had such a good relationship with Chairman Kim Jong Un. People from around the world will be able to recall that photograph they took after climbing to the top of the legendary Mount Baekdu together last September.
It’s awkward for Mr. Moon because he has been pushing a policy of engagement with North Korea despite strong demand from conservatives to confront them more directly.
The North Koreans have usually been respectful to those who have met with their supreme leaders. But this was not the case with Mr. Moon.
So how on earth did this embarrassing turn of events come about?
IT ALL STARTED AFTER HANOI
The 2019 Hanoi Summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un seems to have marked the turning point of the Moon-Kim relationship from best to worst.
Chairman Kim showed large disappointment after the summit ended with no agreement. And then North Korea began to review their policy on the summit.
They didn’t announce the results of this review, but there were personnel shifts in the foreign policy realm and big changes in communication with the South.
The North Koreans have usually been respectful to those who have met with their supreme leaders
The North probably concluded that they had badly calculated the major proposed the trade-off of dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities in return for partial sanctions relief.
The plan was prepared by a negotiation team under the United Front Department (UFP) of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). Chairman Kim fired the chief of the UFD, Kim Yong Chol, and hired the vice minister of the foreign ministry, Choe Son Hui, to be his chief advisor on foreign policy.
The problem is that the UFD had created the ‘Yongbyon formula’ with South Korea — Moon and Kim had included the idea in their joint declaration in September last year. There is the possibility that Chairman Kim thought that the South Koreans maliciously provided them with this recommendation for some reason.
South Korea doesn’t seem to have been successful in explaining why and how they had supported the idea after the summit. Chairman Kim got angrier at the South and exploded with emotion as Mr. Moon did not give a plausible explanation or apology.
COULD GO TIT-FOR-TAT WITH THE NORTH…
What are Mr. Moon’s choices?
Conservative South Korean presidents have preferred to take harder measures against North Korean insults, like going tit-for-tat and sending over the same kind of language back at them, or responding with some other kind of pressure or sanctions.
This reaction is good in that it looks cool or macho. But when South Korea has historically engaged in tit-for-tat with the North, inter-Korean relations have only deteriorated.
Former presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye tried to put pressure and sanctions on North Korea when they were faced with provocations from the North. But the North always responded by increasing the level of provocation: for example, by sinking the Cheonan in March 2010, by shelling Yeonpyeong island in November 2010, and by advancing development in nuclear weapons and missiles.
There is a small possibility that President Moon would take this option, if his law-abiding instincts are awoken and come to dominate his mind.
Every time the North has fired missiles since his inauguration in May 2017 he has ordered counter launches of missiles that were more sophisticated than the North’s. He raised his country’s defense budget by 8.2% last year, an increase much larger than previous years.
Peace and prosperity can only be achieved by dialogue and negotiation between the two sides
However, it’s not likely that he’ll do this because it’s too different from his policy line. He said he would pursue a policy of engagement with the North, and this is what his supporters want.
Moon really wants to improve the relationship between the two Koreas, and it’s been proven that hardline policies have deteriorated the security situation on the Korean peninsula.
…OR MAYBE TACTICAL PATIENCE?
Even when the North bursts into a flood of insults, tactical patience can still be an option because peace and prosperity can only be achieved by dialogue and negotiation between the two sides.
Former President Roh Moo-hyun was patient with the North. North Korea had despised the South since the early days of President Roh’s term, but the South did not complain and instead proposed providing two million-kilowatts of electricity aid to the North.
Mr. Chung Dong-young, minister of unification under Roh, visited the North in June 2005 proposing the provision of electricity. But even though the trip contributed to the resumption of the Six Party Talks, South Korean conservatives were not particularly pleased.
The displeasure piled up when President Roh went to Pyongyang in October 2007, as the presidential elections were being held just a couple of months later.
The conservatives saw the trip as a campaign event for the ruling party candidate, Mr. Chung Dong-young, and with the nation sharply divided, Mr. Chung lost the election by a huge margin.
There’s every possibility that President Moon may follow President Roh’s tactical patience since it goes with the policy of engagement he is pushing.
However, this strategy will provoke another round of dangerous debate on appeasement in Seoul, and it will lead the ruling party to lose the election again.
TACTICAL SEPARATION OF ECONOMICS AND POLITICS
The separation of economics and politics under President Kim Dae-jung serves as a shining example of what to do when pursuing a policy of engagement and the North is throwing insults southwards.
In June 1999, a couple of North Korean naval ships intruded into the South Korean territory around a disputed area in West Sea, and one of the bloodiest battles between the two Koreas since the end of the Korean War erupted.
It was a serious situation, as at the time South Korean tourists were staying at the famous Mount Kumgang in North Korea. It was extremely embarrassing to then-President Kim because he had been an important leader in engagement with the North.
However, he reacted quickly and clearly, separating the economy from politics. Under his instructions, the South Korean navy retreated, with one sunken North Korean naval ship and more than a dozen North Korean soldiers dead without any casualties on the Southern side.
The South Korean tourists continued the tour program and returned back home safely.
Despite the bloody battle, official and unofficial contact between the two Koreas continued, and they finally agreed to have that historic first summit a year later.
President Moon Jae-in would like to follow this golden example, but it’s not so easy — the tactical separation of economics and politics requires bipartisan support. The strategy is clearly contradictory because it is too dangerous for the conservatives and too warlike for the progressives.
There is no bipartisan support for Mr. Moon at the moment, and he could be on the receiving end of harsh criticism from both political camps if he decides to go with this kind of policy.
WHAT TO DO
The best thing for Moon to do might be to construct a bipartisan support system in Korean society, adopt the policy of separating economy and politics, and leave room for recovering trust with the North.
However, he won’t do this because he doesn’t believe the opposition party would help him and he hates to ask for their help anyway.
He won’t take option number 1 of going tit-for-tat with the North either, because it goes against his identity and promise of building a peace regime on the Korean peninsula.
So, there is only one option left — tactical patience. It will give him a little bit of hope in getting some results in foreign policy, but he will have to risk losing a sense of national pride and the major elections in the years to come.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: Joint inter-Korean summit press corps