Following his recent summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has landed in the United States to play the role of intermediary and peacemaker.
There, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, he has met with US President Donald Trump and – apparently knowing exactly which buttons to press – has appeared on Fox News to make his case.
But in the eyes of some observers, Moon is embarking upon a path that is strewn with both danger and legal barriers. In addition to his diplomatic outreach to Kim, he is aggressively pursuing economic engagement with North Korea, despite the serious roadblock that international sanctions present.
Why has Moon chosen this route?
Liberal, engager, peacemaker
The first answer is simple. Moon is a liberal.
His early political beliefs were formed by his experiences as a student activist during the period of South Korea’s right-wing, authoritarian rule, and subsequently as chief of staff for South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun from 2003 to 2008.
His approach to dealing with the threat posed by North Korea has been dubbed “Sunshine 2.0” – a resurrection of the policy of engagement, rather than confrontation, with North Korea, which was first set in motion by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung from 1998 to 2003.
But beyond his tendency to see economic and political interaction with the North as the preferred modus operandi regarding Pyongyang, there are other more compelling reasons for Moon to seek rapprochement with Kim.
Last year US President Donald Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” and there was open talk in Washington about a preventive or preemptive strike on North Korea.
Any US attack could escalate into a full-scale war with Pyongyang. Even in the event of limited conflict, heavy collateral damage to the northern parts of South Korea would likely ensue, with the densely populated greater Seoul metropolitan area bearing the brunt of the damage.
In this atmosphere, Moon realized the tensions that led to Washington’s warning needed to be reduced and his political beliefs pointed him down the path toward that objective. So, seen from this viewpoint, Moon is not just a liberal – he is a pragmatist and a peacemaker.
Undeniably, Moon’s approach has lowered the chances of conflict. And dialog about denuclearization is occurring – albeit in fits and starts with plenty of challenges ahead. However, Moon now appears to be overplaying his hand.
Stoking Trump’s ego
In recent months, he has routinely presented Trump with overly optimistic reports about the exchanges between the North and the South. As one example, Moon has claimed that Kim is prepared to comply with the long-standing US ultimatum for “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.”
Moreover, Moon has unabashedly stroked Trump’s ego. For his part, Trump is anxious to accomplish what no other American president has been able to do – defang the Kim regime. He is therefore vulnerable to Moon’s blandishments.
And now we have a better understanding of Moon’s broader agenda. Not only is his policy a resurrected version of past liberal failures, it is based upon a need for domestic political gains. “Sunshine 2.0” is actually more like “Moonshine 1:0” – a mixture of political needs coupled with outright untruths that cause those who swallow his words to lose touch with reality.
For example, his recent trip to Pyongyang involving leaders of several South Korean chaebol – family-run conglomerates – was designed to foster an atmosphere of acceptance of economic engagement with the North. This was despite UN and other sanctions prohibiting such activity.
Business and politics
We do not know what promises, if any, those scions of private-sector businesses were allowed to make to their North Korean interlocutors – or what the company heads were promised in return. We can, however, presume that if any promises were made, capitalistic profit motives were involved.
Regardless, interjecting commercial interests into political dialogue that concerns national security is a lapse of good judgment.
One wonders whether South Korean taxpayers are aware that it is they who will be paying for the potential government contracts that some chaebol are salivating over. If the average South Korean believes that Moon’s wage-led growth will indeed solve South Korea’s current economic downturn, that is one thing; it is a domestic issue.
It is quite another when such an approach draws a major security partner into the risk-taking.
When one party is placed at risk, it has the right to voice objections about the behavior that causes the risk. It is entirely appropriate, since South Korea continues to rely upon American blood and treasure to guarantee its freedom and safety, for the United States to object to the risks Moon’s policy will generate.
However, Moon is doubling down, and recently crossed a line – the line of truth – when he baldly stated that Kim’s conditional offer to shut down the North’s Yongbyon Nuclear Complex in the September Pyongyang Declaration has the same meaning as the verifiable and irreversible closure desired by the United States. That claim is dubious.
Even more recently, Moon stated that so much progress had been made toward denuclearization that not even the North Koreans themselves could reverse the process. Such a statement either reflects ignorance of Kim’s likely endgame, or is disingenuous.
But, if Seoul has all along misrepresented what the North has been saying with regard to denuclearization, it does not help that Washington is stuck like broken record on denuclearization first, when virtually all experts recognize that is not going to happen.
We will soon come to an inflection point. How does a dysfunctional Washington deal with a disingenuous Seoul?
One thing is certain: nothing good can come of a path paved with misleading statements used as political stepping stones. Kim must be chortling with glee.