South Korea's President Moon Jae-in. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
South Korea's President Moon Jae-in. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The most intriguing personality at last week’s Group of 20 meeting was the least discussed: Moon Jae-in of South Korea.

President of Asia’s No. 4 economy for all of two months, Moon sits directly at the nexus of the two biggest challenges facing those 20 world powers.

One is North Korea, which may soon have the capability to deliver nuclear warheads to the continental US. The other is deepening inequality delegitimizing democratic governments everywhere and sparking populist backlashes.

Raising the stakes on both fronts is the extent to which solutions may depend on Donald Trump’s whims.

In Poland last week, the newish US president said he’s cooking up some “very severe things” to curb Kim Jong-un’s “very bad behavior.”

Should they include 59 Tomahawk missiles — mirroring Trump’s Syria attack — Moon’s options become excruciatingly limited. If Trump launched an economic attack via trade tariffs, then Moon’s efforts to spread the benefits of growth to the North would get infinitely harder.

Even so, the world has much riding on Moon’s success — or failure.

Moon, 64, is right that the only way forward with Pyongyang is dialogue.

As unpalatable as it sounds, where has tough talk, ever-tightening trade sanctions and demands Kim give up his nukes gotten us? Kim pulled off at least 11 missile tests since February alone, including the North’s first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile on July 4.

Each event draws outrage in Tokyo and Washington and talk of stern action. Moon’s inclination is closer engagement with Pyongyang, a “Moonshine policy” to replace the “Sunshine policy” championed by the late and former president Kim Dae-jung.

Face it, Kim Jong-un giving up his nukes is a total non-starter.

The point isn’t to appease or reward Pyongyang, but to accept reality. Face it, Kim Jong-un giving up his nukes is a total non-starter.

There’s a reason efforts to denuclearize the Korean peninsula are the diplomatic equivalent of Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity -– figuring what never worked before will suddenly succeed.

That reason is George W. Bush. In 2002, the then-U.S. president lumped three nations together as an “Axis of Evil” and attacked one of them — Iraq — a year later. The message to Iran and North Korea was simple: race to build a nuclear deterrence to avoid Saddam Hussein’s fate.

The background explains why the denuclearize-or-else starting position for Trump and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on North Korea is one Kim can’t even consider.

The handshake: Abe & Trump. Photo: Cabinet Public Relations Office/via Reuters

Omnipotent as he may be, Kim has a bunch of trigger-happy Cold War relics looking over his shoulder, generals who might not stand by if he agreed to disarm.

Moon’s policy of dialogue and a new mixture of carrots and sticks is the only way forward.

Yes, China’s Xi Jinping has considerable leverage over Kim’s economy. But Trump is miscalculating in thinking Xi is about to turn the screws on Pyongyang.

Moon, frankly, might have better luck prodding Xi to dock Kim’s allowance than Trump. Washington should be talking with Moon far more than it has so far.

South Korea, meanwhile, is on the frontline of the dark sides of globalization.

South Korea, meanwhile, is on the frontline of the dark sides of globalization.

Moon inherited an open, export-reliant economy that’s fallen into a stagnant-wage funk made worse by record household debt levels.

His predecessor Park Geun-hye pledged to reduce the role of giant family-owned conglomerates towering over the nation to launch a startup boom.

Instead, her presidency was co-opted by their monopolistic ways. That lead to Park’s impeachment, arrest and considerable soul-searching about Korea’s ability to compete in the Chinese age.

Moon plans to increase government spending to reduce youth unemployment and create more innovative space for small-to-midsize enterprises.

The problem is bigger, though, as China’s overcapacity floods world markets. Beijing also is building a more vibrant private sector — thanks, largely, to state subsidies — in direct competition with South Korea’s 50 million people.

Korea’s challenge is true of much of the broader G20: how to move up the value chain to preserve hard-won gains in living standards as global dynamics shift under your feet.

The world has much riding on how Moon fares in reining in Pyongyang and retooling a top-12 economy.

In the grand scheme of things, Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, one that overshadowed all else in Hamburg, may prove rather irrelevant to posterity.

How history records this moment may have far more to do with innovative solutions coming out of the South Korean capital.

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