Moon Jae-in shines as he drives diplomacy with Pyongyang

By Kim Tong-hyung  /  AP, SEOUL

Wed, May 16, 2018 - Page 9

To his supporters, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is a master negotiator who is fixing decades of bad nuclear diplomacy with North Korea. To his critics, he is falling prey to the same old trap that has claimed previous South Korean presidents — but with an important difference: This time the stakes are much higher.

Whoever is right, it is hard to ignore Moon’s role as the architect behind a new global push to settle the nuclear standoff with the North.

The outcome of his efforts might hinge on a meeting in Singapore next month between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump, who spent months contemplating military strikes against the North before Moon steered him to the table.

Moon, a soft-spoken liberal, last month hosted Kim in a summit that saw them stride hand-in-hand across the border and pledge the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, an ambitious declaration that was light on specifics.

Moon does not have the power to resolve North Korea’s weapons programs on his own.

However, in hustling between Pyongyang and Washington to set up the Kim-Trump summit and offering to broker other meetings with Pyongyang, Moon is fulfilling his promise to push South Korea into the driver’s seat in diplomacy with the North.

“South Korea has never had a leader like Moon, who actively embraced a leading role in planning and coordinating a global approach to the North,” said Hong Min, a senior analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification.

“He managed to convince Washington that Pyongyang would change course after a year of brinkmanship. He convinced Pyongyang he would be able to move Washington,” Hong said.

Despite the dangers — a derailed Trump-Kim summit might revive the animosity that enveloped the peninsula last year — Moon’s push has proven wildly popular: A Gallup Korea poll last week measured his approval rating at 83 percent, a striking number in a country deeply divided along ideological and generational lines.

PULLING THE STRINGS

Moon’s central presence could be seen on Wednesday last week in a three-way meeting in Tokyo when he got the prime ministers of Japan and China to issue a joint statement in support of the inter-Korean declaration, which he is looking to sell as a meaningful breakthrough that could create a positive atmosphere for the Kim-Trump meeting.

The recent flurry of diplomatic activity was almost unimaginable for most of last year, when the North ripped off a torrid run of weapons tests, including an underground detonation of a purported thermonuclear warhead and three separate tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with a range that could strike the continental US. Kim and Trump exchanged insults and threats of nuclear annihilation, drowning out Moon’s repeated calls for diplomacy.

The dynamics shifted after Kim used his New Year’s speech to propose talks with the South to reduce animosity. The North then sent hundreds of people to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games in the South, including Kim’s sister, who conveyed her brother’s desire for a summit with Moon.

Moon later brokered the meeting between Kim and Trump.

FINDING HIS SPACE

Moon, the son of North Korean war refugees, has vowed to build on the legacies of liberal South Korean presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun and their so-called “Sunshine Policy,” which Moon had a hand in building.

Seoul’s economic inducements resulted in a temporary rapprochement, and two summits with the North in 2000 and 2007 that involved then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Critics say it gave the North a lifeline as it pursued its nuclear dreams.

Moon has said the decade of hardline conservative policies he ended when elected last year did nothing to stop Pyongyang’s weapons advancements.

He has balanced his criticism of the North’s nuclear program with hints of ambitious economic promises in exchange for a “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.”

While Moon is in a significantly tougher spot than his liberal predecessors, who governed when the North’s nuclear threat was nascent, he also has more time — four more years in his term — and political space to assert his voice.

Kim Dae-jung’s engagement with North Korea was often a source of discord with the hardline administration of then-US president George W. Bush. Disagreements between Washington and Seoul continued during Roh’s government, and the Koreas were never able to build on Roh’s last-minute summit with Kim Jong-il in 2007.

For all their differences in personality, Moon has been able to maintain a coordinated approach with Trump on North Korea. Moon has so far stayed firm on sanctions, and he offered vocal support to Trump’s pressure campaign last year during the North’s weapons tests.

While reaching out to the North in past months, Moon has credited Trump at every step, even suggesting that he take the Nobel Peace Prize if there is peace on the Korean Peninsula.

“It’s not a bad way to approach the North — Moon playing the good cop to Trump’s bad cop,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University.

WILL KIM JONG-UN DENUKE?

There are doubts about whether Kim Jong-un will ever agree to fully relinquish the nukes he likely sees as his only guarantee of survival.

Moon has maintained that Kim Jong-un is genuinely interested in dealing away his nuclear weapons in return for economic benefits.

However, North Korea for decades has been pushing a concept of “denuclearization” that bears no resemblance to the US definition. The North vows to pursue nuclear development unless Washington removes its troops from the South and the nuclear umbrella defending South Korea and Japan.

Moon might face credibility problems if it becomes clear that Kim Jong-un will not give up his nukes easily. Seoul could also be pushed aside if Washington chooses to deal more directly with China, the North’s only major ally and economic lifeline.

Moon has been upstaged by separate summits between Kim Jong-un and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), which were seen as strengthening the positions of both countries ahead of the Kim-Trump talks.

The focus might now shift from Moon to Kim Jong-un, who some believe might want to drag out negotiations until Trump is replaced by a US president seen as less willing to ponder the use of military force against the North at the risk of triggering war.

Another scenario has Kim Jong-un seeking a deal where he gives away his ICBMs, but retains some of his shorter-range arsenal in return for a reduced US military presence in the South. This could satisfy Trump, but undermine the alliance between Washington and Seoul.