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It is difficult to point to a recent picture of South Korean President Moon Jae-in in which he is not beaming.
This should not be surprising. Be it hosting an A-list North Korean delegation to the Winter Games, successfully navigating perilous diplomatic waters between China, Japan and the US, or benefitting from a domestic opposition that is in utter disarray, the sun is shining upon Moon.
The liberal politician, a former special forces soldier, ex-human rights lawyer and key aide to the late liberal president Roh Moo-hyun, assumed office after his second presidential bid in May 2017, when he won the snap election called following the impeachment of conservative rival Park Geun-hye (currently on trial and in detention) in March of that year.
Bright outlook for Moon
Moon is a masterly people politician who never tires of taking selfies with fans. His popularity has taken two minor dents this year after his government’s moves to ban Bitcoin trading and promote an inter-Korean women’s ice hockey team proved unpopular among youngsters. But his support base remains massive.
“Right now his popularity is at one of the all-time highest for a South Korean president – over 60% support is unprecedented,” said James Kim, a research fellow who studies public opinion at the Asan Institute. “Things are looking good for him.”
He is the master of the political landscape. His Democratic Party has 121 seats in the 300-seat National Assembly, while the conservative opposition is close behind, with 117 seats. But the conservatives, since Park’s ouster, have been in disarray and are facing a leadership issue, which is not expected to be resolved until later this year.
The only plebiscite this year – in July – is local elections, which cannot dent his power on national policy-making power. On the streets, anti-Moon demonstrators – the predominantly elderly “flag protesters” – are winning little traction. “There are ongoing protests against what he is trying to do, but they are a minority voice and are not getting articulated in the media or the National Assembly,” said Mike Breen, author of ‘The New Koreans.’ “They are Christian/conservative/anti-North Korean/pro-Park Geun-hye, so are not really denting Moon’s popularity.”
Korea’s government appoints the heads of terrestrial broadcasters, so Moon may confidently anticipate positive TV coverage. The privately-owned conservative print media lost much of its reader base last year when it turned against Park. While right-wing dailies are sniping at some of Moon’s key policies – notably, his moves to reign in the power abuse of conglomerates and promotion of a minimum wage – they are critics only. “None of them are proposing alternatives,” Asan’s Kim said. “It is not constructive.”
This lack of effective political opposition, combined with ineffectual protests and media criticism, grants Moon a clear political run in which to push through his agenda, until National Assembly elections in 2020.
A balancing act on all fronts
While he currently enjoys an unusual lack of opposition at home, Moon’s delicate maneuverings between powerful conflicting interests overseas have been adroit.
Moon has kept key ally the United States on-side by retaining a missile defense system installed in South Korea on the orders of his predecessor. This system infuriated China, which sees it as a threat to itself. At a summit with Chinese President Xi Jin-ping in December, Moon convinced a reluctant Beijing to reverse many of its earlier (unofficial) sanctions against Korean companies and sectors.
He has shown equal delicacy in defusing the “comfort woman” issue, which has long bedeviled relations with Tokyo. He has assuaged domestic opinion by publicly meeting and sympathizing with ex-comfort women and their supporters while demanding further apologies from Japan. But on the diplomatic front, he has not reversed a landmark 2015 agreement between the two capitals, disappointing civic groups who have been championing the issue, embarrassing and angering Tokyo.
A firm anti-nuclear politician, Moon has endorsed strong sanctions and upgraded Korea-US military drills against North Korea while calling for it to denuclearize. But Moon has also been firm that there must be no war in Korea, and has been consistently held out for talks with Pyongyang.
That consistency was rewarded at the Winter Games, when the highest-powered North Korean delegation ever came South. Included in it, was Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, the first member of North Korea’s ruling dynasty to visit Seoul in the divided peninsula’s history. There had been high hopes in the South that she would convey a letter from her brother inviting Moon to summit there. That message was, indeed, delivered.
Although many South Koreans were irked at Seoul’s insistence on an inter-Korean women’s ice hockey team – which lost 8-0 in their first match, against Switzerland – the optics of IOC President Thomas Bach, Moon and Kim sitting together in the stands were powerful. Excited rumors are already spreading online that the joint team may be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Challenges in Pyongyang, perils in Seoul
Moon should enjoy his time in the sun; his next steps need to be even more adroit than his previous ones.
To the surprise of many, US President Donald Trump fully endorsed Moon’s engagement with Pyongyang, putting the South Korean president in the unusual position of leading the American president.
While US Vice President Mike Pence undiplomatically declined to speak to, or even acknowledge the North Koreans during his visit to the Winter Games (snubs the North Koreans returned), he has since made an apparent about-face. The Washington Post, on February 11, reported a conversation with Pence on Air Force Two during his return to the US. Pence said he and Moon had agreed on an engagement plan with Pyongyang, with first Seoul, then potentially Washington, entering direct talks with the regime.
Even so, Moon’s biggest task still lies ahead. Establishing contact with the Kim regime is easier than negotiating with it, particularly as Pyongyang has said it will never abandon its nuclear arms. “Moon is under no illusions on the centrality of the nuclear issue, he is not going to come back from Pyongyang waving a piece of paper about business deals,” said author Breen. “If the North does not want to talk about it, he may not even go.”
This means Moon’s success – and legacy – may be beholden to the leader north of the DMZ.
“What will happen after the Games will determine whether Moon has achieved success or not, and the ball is in Kim Jong-un’s court,” said Kim Byung-joo of the Korea Development Institute. “If North Korea comes out with a bit of a forthcoming posture, Moon’s visit to Pyongyang could materialize.”
To enable a visit to Pyongyang, Moon may have to convince the Americans to scale back or delay annual spring military drills – something the US side, pursuing a policy of “maximum pressure,” is reluctant to do. This could place Moon in a tricky position. “He could veto things or restrict access to bases if he wanted to,” said Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert at Duke University. “But it would seem pretty difficult and could cause frictions, unless it is a mutual decision.”
Further down the line, and regardless of how well he manages inter-Korean and Korea-American relations, Moon is facing a potentially even more menacing dynamic domestically: The dire record of all previous South Korean presidents in their late-office and/or post-office terms. Since the establishment of the republic in 1948, one has been exiled in disgrace, one assassinated, one sentenced to death, three have seen family members jailed, one has committed suicide and one has been impeached.
“The South Korean president has too much power, so too much is expected of him, which means that, after about a year, people start to be disappointed, then you get the inevitable scandals involving aides and family members,” warned Breen. “I don’t think he will escape this pattern.”