“Is Moon Jae-in pinko?” asked the title of a Korea Times op-ed published last year. Written by a senior editor, the piece began: “Some detractors of Moon Jae-in would call him and his supporters a bunch of commies and claim that they shouldn’t be trusted to run the country.” This is the stock criticism of members of the South Korean left – that they are closet communists, with Moon often held up as a shining example.
While it is too early to tell if Moon’s presidency is a success, it is already clear his legacy will be determined by his approach to North Korea.
Having taken an enormous political risk in courting the North since coming to power last year and turning this Winter Olympic Games into an unlikely chance to bring peace to the peninsula, Moon could turn out to be the real winner of the Games. Or its biggest loser.
“Critics call him a red – a communist – because his approach to North Korea is dovish,” Tae Ki-soo, Moon’s biographer, told NPR in May. But Tae said he didn’t see that as a bad thing. “Moon treats North Koreans as human beings – because of his parents.”
Moon’s parents were North Koreans who defected in 1950 aboard the SS Meredith Victory, the ship that evacuated more than 14,000 refugees in a single trip during the Korean War. “They despised the North Korean Communist regime,” Moon told CNN in September. “They fled to seek freedom.”
Some critics have even gone so far as to argue that one of Moon’s favourite snacks, pig’s feet, which is also popular in the North, is further evidence of his communist ways.
But what has really incensed opponents has been his decision to invite the regime to this week’s Olympics. Michael Breen, author of The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation, told This Week in Asia that Moon’s supporters “tend to be unification romantics, so it was very educational for them to find that young people aren’t very impressed with the North Koreans coming to the Games.”
North Korea has repeatedly snubbed Moon’s efforts at rapprochement. But those efforts paid off when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un accepted Moon’s invitation to participate in the Olympics. Seoul wasted no time in making arrangements. The two Korean teams plan to march together during the opening ceremony under the Korea Unification flag, the North’s Samjiyon Orchestra will perform during the Games, taekwondo teams from both countries will hold a demonstration together, skiers from the South have been sent to train with their counterparts at a resort in the North and a joint women’s ice hockey team has been formed.
But many were upset that South Korean hockey players have been thrown under the bus for political gain. For Lim Jin-gyu, an amateur singer and songwriter who lives in central Seoul, this created mixed feelings about the entire event. “In terms of peace,” he said, “it’s necessary. But it was done in a rush and it took an opportunity away from South Korean players.”
Others are reluctant to see the North’s participation as anything more than a clever attempt to hijack the Olympic limelight.
“The rapprochement approach of Moon will fail as all previous attempts have,” said Andrew S. Natsios, co-chairman of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. “Only more pressure will work. The North Korean leadership is indifferent and do not care what pain and suffering they inflict on their own people.”
The first indication that this may be the case came last week when the North cancelled a joint performance at one of its resorts because it said it was “insulted” by South Korean media reports about its plans to hold a massive military parade on the eve of the Olympics. The conservative South Korean Chosun newspaper observed: “Seoul voluntarily postponed holding joint military exercises with the United States during the Games. But now it says North Korea’s massive military parade is no big deal. Just whose side is the government on?”
Moon’s North Korea policy has cost him substantial political capital, dragging his approval rating from 82 per cent in the early weeks to 59.7 per cent last month, the lowest since he took office in May. It has also led to more red-baiting and accusations that he is “pro-North”, as claimed last month by the floor leader of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, Kim Sung-tae. But despite poor ticket sales, a roofless stadium and other woes, the Games do promise to be an improvement on the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, which were prefaced by North Korea bombing Korean Air Flight 858, began with a flock of doves being accidentally burned alive on the Olympic flame and featured Korean judges unfairly giving a gold medal to a Korean boxer simply to please the audience.
“Moon’s overtures towards North Korea and North Korean participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics are viewed sceptically by many Koreans,” said Charles K. Armstrong, professor of Korean studies at Columbia University, “especially younger citizens who are much more critical of North Korea and less interested in unification than their elders”.
But if the Games go well, this succès de scandale could become the highlight of his career – and Moon clearly knows it. In his September address to the UN General Assembly, he referenced the candlelight protests that saw his predecessor removed from power by saying, “I believe that Pyeongchang will become a candlelight that sheds light on peace when peace is threatened.”
It will soon be clear whether he has made the right call. Until then, Sung-Yoon Lee, professor of Korean studies at Tufts University, warns against being quick to judge. As with any controversial leader, he said, it’s easy to be cynical.
“South Korean leaders, in particular, inspire quasi-cultish adoration and condemnation,” which the professor attributed partly to “the erosion of the Confucian ethic by the deleterious effects of democracy”.
As a result, Lee added, one mostly finds facile analyses that praise Moon as a hero or condemn him as a communist. He said that if the Olympics led to Moon subverting UN sanctions, he would become complicit in the North’s human rights abuses. But if his sports diplomacy leads to basic concessions such as contact between separated families or the closing of concentration camps, “then Moon’s [presidency] will be an unprecedented success.” ■