Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News.
It seems like only yesterday that South Korean President Moon Jae-in was shortlisted for TIME magazine’s person of the year. Having arguably averted a nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula, few would have disputed the former human rights lawyer’s role as regional peacemaker.
But politics is a game for losers. A sluggish economy, stalling inter-Korean negotiations, and growing scandals mean that halfway into his five-year term his approval rating has hit a record 40% low.
Adding to problems at home, a trade war with Japan and sidelining from U.S.-DPRK talks mean that South Korea is becoming increasingly isolated and the embattled Democratic Party leader is teetering on the brink of lame duck status.
Seoul is now arguably more isolated than its neighbor to the north. To reverse his recent popularity nosedive, Moon needs a return to what he does best: foreign policy activism.
EARLY FOREIGN POLICY SUCCESS
Moon came to power promising both greater transparency in the presidency and an untangling of national corporate and political interests. His economic policies sought to change the country’s toxic work culture and promote income-led growth, giving more economic power to the middle and lower classes.
Despite an early emphasis on domestic affairs, during his first two years in office South Korea’s progressive leader relied heavily on gains made in foreign and inter-Korean policy to compensate for poor economic performance at home.
Specifically, Seoul played a mediating role between Pyongyang and Washington on denuclearization talks, culminating in the June 2018 Kim-Trump Singapore summit. Deescalating regional tensions and the rapprochement with North Korea gave Moon a pass on his administration’s difficulties tackling the country’s stagnating economy.
Consequently, at its peak in May 2018, Moon was polling at a whopping 83%. His pushing for negotiations also kept South Korea at the center of regional and global relations, at the expense of other regional players – and rivals – such as Japan.
FORTUNES SHIFT IN HANOI
But the momentum from Singapore stalled in Hanoi. The failure of either side to make progress during the second summit last February bogged down negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang and derailed hopes for inter-Korean rapprochement.
Moon’s linking inter-Korean cooperation to U.S.-DPRK nuclear negotiations backfired when diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang stalled.
And while the third meeting between Trump and Kim at the DMZ in June this year provided Moon with a much-needed ratings bump, celebrations were short-lived. Trump’s focus on optics couldn’t hide that little was achieved during the impromptu ‘handshake for peace’.
South Korea has gone from being at the center of regional and global diplomacy to being arguably more isolated than North Korea
The U.S. President appears to have lost interest in North Korea, perhaps distracted by gathering clouds of impeachment at home. Pyongyang has since made it clear it has no interest in negotiating further with Seoul, slamming Moon following a speech the South Korean leader made in August.
Pyongyang’s condemnation has been followed by a series of missile tests. With inter-Korean relations again on the rocks, Moon appears to have nowhere to go. If the South Korean leader is neither mediating peace nor solving the country’s economic woes, what is he doing?
HISTORY DISPUTES WITH JAPAN TURN INTO TRADE DISPUTE
Pyongyang and Seoul remain at loggerheads. But crisis on the Korean peninsula is the status quo. Of greater concern for regional security is the disintegration of ROK-Japan relations.
Another relationship characterized by long-term discontent, Seoul and Tokyo have embarked on their own trade war. The dispute has roots in Japan’s 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean peninsula and the failure of the two U.S. allies to resolve lingering mistrust.
Starting with Japanese restrictions on the chemicals needed for semi-conductor manufacturing — a vital part of South Korea’s technology economy — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is weaponizing trade policy for national security concerns.
The resultant back and forth between Seoul and Tokyo sent shockwaves through both countries’ economies, and sparked nationalist rallies in South Korea and cracks running through the U.S. security alliance.
South Korea reciprocated Japan’s blacklisting of Korean businesses, scrapping an intelligence-sharing pact supported by the U.S. Street protests and spontaneous boycotts by Moon’s political constituency added fuel to the fire, pressuring him to take a hard-line against Tokyo.
To date, efforts to de-escalate the situation have made little headway.
PROBLEMS WITH THE U.S.
The dispute with Japan also strains Seoul-Washington relations.
Tensions between Washington and Seoul started with Trump’s call to revise the KORUS (Korea-U.S.) free trade agreement. Budget disputes subsequently bled over into a renegotiation of the defense cost-sharing agreement. The U.S. is now asking for U.S.$5 billion from Seoul, while according to a recent survey, 96% of South Koreans are against any increase.
Making matters worse, when South Korea announced the termination of the GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement) intelligence pact, Seoul instantly became the ‘bad guy’.
In just a few months, South Korea has gone from being at the center of regional and global diplomacy to being arguably more isolated than North Korea.
Moon Jae-in’s good fortunes started, and are likely to end, with his North Korea policy. Kim Jong Un’s stonewalling on cooperation means that South Korea’s idealistic leader is struggling to balance his domestic losses with nordpolitik wins.
With a little over two years remaining in office, Moon’s challenge is reversing South Korea’s isolation and returning Seoul to a leading diplomatic role in East Asia.
The embattled Democratic Party leader is teetering on the brink of lame duck status
Securing South Korea’s stake in expanding Southeast Asian markets is one way to boost the ROK’s overseas standing and secure economic opportunities. November’s ASEAN summit in Busan was the right place for reviving Seoul’s diplomatic credentials in the region.
Resolving the dispute with Japan without losing face is also of crucial importance. As is mollifying an ‘America-first’ Trump administration intent on trade and defense shakeups.
Having said his, the litmus test for Moon’s mid-term results will, as so often, be North Korea. The South Korean administration needs a new and creative way to reconnect with the North and capitalize on 2018’s gains. Even if it means risking U.S.-led sanctions, it’s time to rethink the dual-track approach for a renewed focus on inter-Korean relations.
If President Moon plans to see out his term, he needs to return to the assertive foreign policy that characterized so much of his first two years.
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News. It seems like only yesterday that South Korean President Moon Jae-in was shortlisted for TIME magazine’s person of the year. Having arguably averted a nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula, few would have disputed the former human rights lawyer’s role as regional
Dr. Markus Bell is a cultural anthropologist and lecturer in the University of Sheffield's School of East Asian Studies. A graduate of the Australian National University, he is a specialist of migration and forced movement in contemporary Asia. Follow him @mpsbell