Moon Jae-in

Can South Korea’s Moon Jae-in find a path to reconciliation with North Korea?

Donald Kirk considers the dilemma confronting the South Korean president, as he seeks an independent course that balances a need for US defence protection with his wish for dialogue – and reconciliation – with the North

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 August, 2017, 10:08am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 August, 2017, 7:02pm

South Korean President Moon Jae-in must be a severe disappointment to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Far from fulfilling the dreams of some of the extremists who supported him in the snap election in May, which ended nearly a decade of conservative rule, he prefers to show serious resolve in the face of the North’s refusal to back down from escalating threats.

North Korea’s propaganda machine has not yet begun cascading personal insults on Moon, as it did on his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, now ousted from office, jailed and facing sentencing in a wide-ranging corruption scandal. But Moon is under fire for yielding to American demands, kowtowing to Washington and abandoning the cause of peace.

That’s to be expected, after Moon not only applauded the latest UN sanctions on North Korea but said perhaps it would be necessary to strengthen them – and then compounded this show of determination by calling for a “complete and thorough overhaul” of South Korea’s already formidable armed forces.

Moon, however, is no pro-America pushover. Actually, he is attempting to pursue an independent course that’s likely to alter South Korea’s relationship with the United States, even as US President Donald Trump vows to heap “fire and fury” on the North. Hours after Trump’s warning, the North ratcheted up its own threats to fire missiles on US targets, by singling out the strategic US Pacific territory of Guam.

Watch: North Korea threatens Guam after Trump warns of ‘fire and fury’

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Incredibly, Moon would still like nothing better than to renew the “sunshine policy” of reconciliation with North Korea, as pursued in a decade of liberal rule during the presidencies of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, from 1998 to 2008.

They both died in 2009, but no one forgets that Moon, as Roh’s chief of staff, engineered his summit in Pyongyang with Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, in 2007. Moon, in one of his first acts after his election three months ago, let it be known that he would dearly like to meet Kim Jong-un, in a dramatic bid to reverse worsening North-South relations.

So far, Moon has received no response to this overture. Nor, for that matter, have he or his ministers got anywhere in suggestions for more rounds of visits by members of rapidly ageing families separated by the Korean war or for exchanges on a number of levels, as were happening regularly in the “sunshine” era.

In fact, while Moon has waited for answers, Kim Jong-un has ordered two tests of long-range missiles theoretically capable of hitting anywhere in the United States while boasting of the North’s rapid progress toward miniaturising a warhead to fit on the tip of a missile. The North already has mid-range missiles ready to fire at targets in Northeast Asia, including the major US air base on Guam, from which B1 bombers flew on sorties over South Korea to show off US strength after the latest missile tests.

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Considering the US-South Korean alliance and the speed with which the US under president Harry Truman came to the rescue of South Korea after the North Korean invasion in June 1950, Moon’s show of cooperation with the Americans should not really be a surprise.

What is surprising to an assortment of liberals, leftists and progressives, though, is that he did not appear likely to follow such a course while pledging an independent policy before his election.

Thus it comes as a shock to disillusioned adherents that Moon has no desire to order the removal of the controversial counter-missile battery known as THAAD, for Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, implanted by the Americans on a golf course about 200km south of Seoul. Having opposed THAAD before his election, now he’s saying more such batteries might be a good idea.

If Moon appears somewhat ambivalent, he is still showing his desire for independence from the fetters of the American relationship – albeit not in a way that will be pleasing to North Korea. Most recently, he has asked for South Korea to be free of the agreement with the United States that limits the range of South Korean missiles, to strengthen its missile programme. Why not be able to develop missiles suitable for firing at much greater distances – as does North Korea?

What next for US and South Korea, as China stands by nuclear-armed Kim Jong-un?

That’s not a notion that China is going to like, considering the Chinese already see THAAD as a threat to their defences and continue to punish the South by banning tour groups from going there. Moon would like nothing better than to maintain warm relations with China, in view of the lip service that China pays to sanctions and the hope that somehow China will persuade Kim Jong-un to tone down his rhetoric and negotiate a deal for freezing his programme. Nonetheless, like Trump, he cannot be at all certain that China will act effectively to stymie Kim’s ambitions.

Some of Moon’s advisers, moreover, are showing a desire for still more independence from American constraints by suggesting South Korea begin developing its own nuclear warheads – a prospect that would surely lead to a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia. A South Korea membership in the global nuclear club would elevate the confrontation to a new level.

Moon, however, does remain committed to the dream of reconciliation. He is ordering a halt to the launch from South Korea of balloons laden with leaflets for showering on North Koreans, and he keeps talking, perhaps wistfully, of North-South dialogue on any number of levels.

The flame of reconciliation still burns in his vision of the future for both Koreas – not to be trumped by the fire and fury of his American ally.

Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea