How should one feel toward South Korean President Moon Jae-in? Respectful? Sympathetic? Derisive? After his New Year’s address Tuesday morning, perhaps all three.
Delivering his customary speech via live TV, Moon spoke at length on inter-Korean relations. These relations are obviously critical for any South Korean leader, but it is a policy field Moon has prioritized to a greater extent than any of his predecessors.
He has summitted three times with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un; no previous South Korean leader met a North Korean leader more than once.
After his speech, observers may have been torn between admiration for Moon’s decent nature and despair at his credulity.
Short on strategy
In his address, Moon admitted that inter-Korean relations depend upon Pyongyang-Washington relations. He then made a plaintive call for resumption of Pyongyang-Washington dialog, which is currently dead in the water – perhaps irretrievably so.
He also suggested a range of symbolic inter-Korean initiatives.
One was to turn the Demilitarized Zone – the 4-km wide, undeveloped space that keeps the two Koreas from each other’s throats – into a UNESCO world heritage site. Another suggestion was a repeated call for joint North-South hosting of the 2032 Olympics.
He also said that if the Koreas could “find a realistic way to realize inter-Korean railroad and road linking projects,” that would “greatly support the resumption of tourism between the two Koreas and the vitalization of tourism in North Korea.”
A more modest suggestion was for North Korean athletes to join the East Asian Weightlifting Championships and the World Table Tennis Championships, both being held in South Korea this year.
Moon reserved his closing remarks on North Korea for a personal initiative. “I hope South and North will make efforts together so that the conditions for Chairman Kim Jong Un’s reciprocal visit can be created at an early date,” Moon said.
During their September 2018 summit in Pyongyang, Kim had agreed to make a return visit to Seoul. That would have been a historic first, but despite much excitement in Seoul at the prospect – both the speaker of the National Assembly and the mayor of Seoul told foreign reporters of plans for the visit – Kim never showed.
No explanation for the broken promise was ever delivered by Pyongyang.
Of course, one may respect Moon for holding out, hope against hope, for better cross-DMZ relations.
He has made clear the potential for an inter-Korean “peace economy” that not only would obviate conflict by weaving the two Koreas together, but would also provide a new growth locomotive for both, and for Northeast Asia as a whole.
And of course, as president of South Korea, he is entirely right to prioritize peace 101%. War would be a murderous, destructive catastrophe for Koreans in both states.
Moon’s stubborn determination to stick to his guns on these issues is also admirable. A focus on long-term, big-picture issues that will outlive a single presidential term is the mark of the visionary; the ability to maintain a consistent and principled policy line through thick and thin is a mark of the statesman.
As Churchill proved during the darkest days of World War II, a true leader must be able to look past present failures in the expectation that the long-term strategy will bear fruit.
One can also have sympathy for Moon – probably the nicest fellow ever to inhabit the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential mansion. A people person, Moon is always ready to pose for a selfie with a fan, and he looked truly moved when he met the family member of a disaster victim at a recent Town Hall meeting.
One would certainly need a cold heart not to sympathize with Moon’s dilemma on peninsula issues, for in that space his hands are tightly bound.
Seoul is allied to Washington – and for all the twaddle that is talked about equality, it is no equal alliance. Washington has clear and obvious primacy – as the hyperpower does in all its alliances.
Moon’s oft-stated dreams of inter-Korean amity and investment are meaningless without US buy-in. But with Washington determined to keep the sanctions screw tightly wound on North Korea, no such buy-in appears likely.
So why derision? Simply because Moon’s wishful thinking about Kim and North Korea suggests a degree of naiveté verging on the fantastical.
By making the classic liberal error – “If we are nice to them, they will be nice to us” – Moon appears to have overlooked the essential nature of North Korea: that it is a family-run dictatorship in which all concerns – notably, public welfare and freedom – are subordinated to the continuance and survival of its system.
Seen in this light, the good egg Moon’s ebullient personal interactions with the ruthless Kim raise eyebrows, given Moon’s pre-presidential record as a human rights lawyer. His desire to maintain their chumminess is apparent in his repeated (and repeatedly dashed) hopes for a Kim visit to the South.
Cynics and experts – on North Korea, they tend to be one and the same – scoffed at the likelihood of a Kim visit, originally set for December 2018. The scoffing got louder as time passed and further visits were mooted by officials. A crescendo was reached when those hopes were aired for a Kim visit to the ASEAN-South Korea summit in Busan in November.
By then, some experts even expressed concerns that Seoul officials had lost the plot. After all, Kim has only ever engaged in a handful of international bilaterals. A multilateral where he would not be center stage would be entirely new ground. And in an enemy state, no less.
Yet, on Tuesday, Moon extended the wistful invitation yet again.
His other suggestions for symbolic cooperation look, if anything, even more problematic.
A joint Olympic hosting (!) would demand a historically unprecedented degree of cross-border movement and cooperation. Frankly, it is an impossibility, absent major change in North Korea.
That proposal also overlooks the astounding level of non-cooperation North Korea delivered during the recent FIFA World Cup Qualification match between North and South in Pyongyang – where the game was played to an empty stadium.
Transforming the DMZ into a peace wonderland has long been mooted by starry-eyed activists in the South. Alas, it looks a little meaningless when set against the bigger, starker reality that two armies, representing two opposed states and systems, would remain deployed on either side of it.
The mention of rail and road systems as linkages was depressingly empty: Moon suggested no way this long-held dream could be achieved in the present climate.
Moreover, his statements on revitalizing tourism in North Korea appear disingenuous, overlooking the reason a joint tourism resort in North Korea was shuttered: In 2008, a North Korean guard shot a South Korean tourist dead.
Since then, Pyongyang has repeatedly entreated the South to reopen the complex. That puts the onus on Moon’s administration, not Kim’s, to initiate a move. Moreover, tourism to North Korea is, de jure, un-sanctioned. Why Moon does not enable South Korean tourism in North Korea is known only to him.
Fantasy versus reality
Speaking broadly, symbolic inter-Korean initiatives – such as the blowing up of a handful of small guard posts inside the DMZ last year – are beloved of Moon, reunification dreamers and peace activists.
Experts say, however, that they are of minimal interest to the pragmatic Pyongyang, which seeks actual policies and concrete concessions from its southern neighbor.
Moon’s speech comes after Pyongyang, cognizant of Seoul’s inability to take independent cross-border initiatives, has been trashing inter-Korean agreements by test-launching missiles, while lambasting Seoul in state media. At 2019’s end, press releases from Pyongyang’s Central Committee of the Workers’ Party Plenum simply ignored South Korea.
All the above suggests South Korea’s Mr. Nice Guy needs to ditch his rose-tinted spectacles when gazing North and don clearer lenses.
Sound policy needs to be based on long-term aims, but cannot be divorced from rational appreciation of ongoing facts. Basing it upon past initiatives that have very obviously been overtaken by events, while replacing strategy with wishful thinking, is a recipe for failure.