This is a local re-post of an article I wrote for The National Interest a few weeks ago.
Basically, Moon Jae-In is now in charge of détente with North Korea. Trump is too checked out, too lazy, and too ill-informed to run this thing properly. Trump blew Hanoi because he got outwitted by his own staff (Bolton), because Trump doesn’t know anything about the issues, so he didn’t know how to push back on Bolton, or even realize he was being manipulated by him. So it’s up to Moon now.
But Moon lacks a national coalition in South Korea to push through a major change in relations with North Korea. South Korean conservatives are sliding into paranoid delusions that Moon is being manipulated by the North. The Liberty Korea Party is totally cut out of this process and furious. The big three newspapers in South Korea are all center-right, and all are skittish if not hostile to Moon’s initiatives.
Moon is running this from his left-liberal base, but it’s not big enough. He won with only 41% of the vote. If he does not get at least some conservative buy-in on a new relationship with North Korea, the right will destroy ‘Moonshine’ when it next re-takes the POTROK, just as it destroyed ‘Sunshine’ in 2008.
The full essay follows the jump:
One of the great ironies of the inter-Korean détente process of the last twenty-six months is the Americanization of it. South Korean President Moon Jae-In has met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un four times already. Moon has spent decades of his political life preparing for this effort. And the issues are most critical, of course, for the people who live on the Korean peninsula. Yet much of the debate has been dominated by US President Donald Trump’s erratic outreach to Kim.
This is both unfortunate and predictable. Unfortunate because it sidelines South Koreans from the most important policy issue facing their country. And predictable because of Trump’s capacious personality. Trump has a well-established tendency to make policy issues into personal psycho-dramas in which we are all spectators. As South Korea’s primary security partner, US engagement was always required, but under a more traditional president, the South Koreans likely would have led this more clearly. As it is, under Trump, the South Korean news services are often reduced to translating his tweets on the evening news and hosting panel discussions to divine them.
Moon has taken some criticism for this. There is a clear hankering on both left and right here to take control of this process. South Koreans are slowly grasping Trump’s mixed motives and poor knowledge of the actual issues of denuclearization here; there was much laughter when it was revealed that Trump strong-armed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe into nominating him for a Nobel Peace Prize for his Korean efforts.
Moon’s time has now come. The Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim this month collapsed. No one is quite sure what to make of it. There is much confusion, with hardliners on both sides jockeying with doves. North Korea gave that unique press conference to push back on Trump’s interpretation of Hanoi, while US National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seem to be sparing over how toughly to proceed.
This is an ideal chance for Moon to step up and reconcile all parties with a major initiative. But Moon faces growing challenges at home. His approval rating his slipped significantly, from over 80%, when he pushed back on Trump’s 2017 war threats, to around 45% now. Much of this is due to the economy. South Korean unemployment has recently spiked. But an element is also Moon’s continuing vagaries on North Korea coupled to grandiose rhetoric.
Moon has promised a revolution in inter-Korean affairs. The hype here has been enormous. I have seen books for Moon’s speeches about ‘a new era of peace’ available for purchase at gas stations even. Yet Moon has been disturbing short on specifics. This was understandable a year ago when détente was just beginning during the Olympics. But now, it is becoming harder and harder to determine what exactly Moon’s goals are and his strategy to get there. This would be less troublesome were it not for the soaring rhetoric, leading even to another bout of unification hype.
In practice, Moon’s primary initiatives seem to be re-opening inter-Korean economic projects – namely, tourism at Mt. Diamond and the inter-Korean export processing zone at Kaesong in North Korea – and rolling back international sanctions on the North. Both of these efforts are controversial. The site closures stem from issues still unresolved – a South Korean tourist was shot at Mt. Diamond, while the North habitually threatened Kaesong with arbitrary demands. No apology or acceptance of responsibility of the former event was ever given, nor is it clear that North Korean behavior on Kaesong will be any different than before.
The effort to rollback sanctions is even more debatable, given that they represent the collective will of the international community to punish North Korea for openly violating UN Security Council resolutions against its nuclear and missile programs. The South Korean left has long looked at global sanctions against the North as an ignorable foreign intrusion into Korean affairs. Moon’s constant pushing on the sanctions regime has riled allies and provoked domestic opposition.
And there is Moon’s real achilles’ heel. Moon has done little to groom and build domestic consensus inside South Korea for his outreach. South Korea is highly presidentialized. Moon has taken advantage of that to push his détente effort with little outreach to other stakeholders in South Korea. The legislature has complained that Moon has not shared information with them, and the conservative opposition party has been so cut out that the South Korean right now spawning conspiracy theories that Moon is a tool of Pyongyang. Moon has also insisted that his agreements with North Korea do not require formal legislative approval.
Proponents will argue that Moon has a unique window to push through change and should not dither, and that South Korean presidents routinely govern in this monarchic manner. The latter is indeed the case, but Moon is promising a revolution in politics which his similarly haughty predecessors did not. Dramatically changing relations with North Korea – to the point of renewed talk of unification – is not the same as ramming through yet another infrastructure white elephant. Moon’s initiatives – if successful – cut to the core of South Korean sovereignty. This is the reason for the very sharp response from South Korean conservatives.
Moon may indeed be right about his detente – but South Korea is a democracy. For political change of this scale, Moon needs public support and at least some buy-in from the right, which is now digging in its heels. Without it, Moon, who campaigned as a democrat opening closed South Korean politics, will be damned as yet another unaccountable president. And when the unsolicited, ignored conservatives returns to power, they will undue all of Moon’s effort. Moon can lead where Trump has failed, but he needs to rally a national consensus – reaching beyond just his coalition – to sustain an outreach of this magnitude.