When Moon Jae-in was elected president of the Republic of Korea in May, in the wake of the momentous popular protests that had led to the impeachment and ouster of his predecessor, he inherited the roaring Seoul street distrustful of the government; the raging northern neighbor who seemingly “went off rail” with the “right-in-your-face” nuclear and endless missile tests; an unpredictable U.S. ally who threatened to break off the strategic free trade agreement and unleash war on the peninsula; as well as deteriorating relations with prickly China and unyielding Japan. It was a difficult hand to play.
Yet, in his first hundred days, President Moon was able not only to pacify the Seoul street, but also to begin to rebuild the public trust in government institutions and earn high marks for his progressive policies, dynamic performance and open, communicative leadership style — which contrasts with corporate collusion and obsession with backroom deals, lackluster performance and self-centered leadership of his predecessor. His sky-high popular approval ratings — hovering around 80 percent — allow him to push ahead with truly remarkable liberal reforms, such as a major job-creation plan for the public sector, a substantial increase in the minimum wage, a raise in the basic pension for all senior citizens, and a vow to improve public health insurance coverage, as well as a nuclear-free energy policy with a commitment not to raise electricity fees for five years. Although his critics contend that his domestic policy proposals are “too radical,” “extremely populist,” “can’t be paid for,” and are likely to “undermine the competitive advantages of Korean economy” and “stifle future growth,” the Korean public loves President Moon’s socioeconomic policies and supports his management of state affairs.
Strength at home gives President Moon confidence in dealing with the country’s international threats and challenges. His maiden visit to Washington in June, with its highly anticipated summit with President Trump, was a complete success. It reassured both the Korean and American peoples that the ROK-U.S. military and security alliance was as strong as ever. Not only did he assuage some American fears that the new progressive government in Seoul was “going its own independent way,” but, as a reliable and responsible ally, the United States under the Trump administration agreed not to take any military action against North Korea without Seoul’s consent. As President Moon stated in his Aug. 17 news conference, “The United States and President Donald Trump too have agreed to discuss any options it may take [against North Korea] with South Korea, regardless of what kind of options it takes.”
It was an act of courage, a harbinger of hope, an expression of indefatigable optimism, and a demonstration of visionary leadership for President Moon to publicly declare that there will be no war on the Korean peninsula under his watch. This bold statement sends a powerful message to the world that Moon Jae-in is strongly committed to maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula by the means of international diplomacy, credible military deterrence and multifaceted engagement with North Korea. On one hand, he extended an offer to revive the inter-Korean social and economic exchanges, including the fielding of a joint South-North team at the P’yongch’ang Winter Olympic Games in 2018 and hosting of a joint South-North football World Cup in 2030, and proposed to resume the South-North intergovernmental and military-to-military talks. On the other hand, he has also drawn a “red line” for Pyongyang’s provocative behavior, namely, “a completion of the ICBM development and mounting of nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles,” and reiterated his determination to do his utmost to prevent North Korea from becoming a full-fledged nuclear weapons state. At once, his critics accused him of the “lack of realism” and “diplomatic naivet,” and blasted him for “not thinking through his ideas” and even for “recklessness.”
But his words are neither wishful thinking nor an indication of inexperience. They actually express his genuine belief that pressure alone won’t work in Pyongyang, and there is no politically acceptable military solution to the North Korean nuclear issue; it can only be resolved through a negotiated settlement. His words signal the contours of President Moon’s emerging new approach how to get there: through diplomatic negotiations on two parallel tracks — South-North and U.S.-North Korean, with the ROK diplomacy taking the lead in shaping the final negotiated outcome and the U.S. ally playing a supporting role in making it happen, without outsourcing to China the difficult work of convincing the Kim Jong-un regime to change its mind and accept the nuclear deal. Some skeptics already say “we’ve seen it before,” “it was tried and failed in the 1990s,” etc. Obviously, President Moon does not share their pessimism. He believes that “A river cuts through rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence.”
Last July, the Moon Jae-in administration set up a special task force to review how the impeached Park Geun-hye administration made its decisions regarding North Korea, and why it decided to shut down the Gaeseong Industrial Complex and halt civic inter-Korean exchanges and humanitarian aid in 2016. This probe is part of President Moon’s initiative to root out “old evils.” The ROK Ministry of Unification is expected to finish its internal investigation in September. Once the North Korea policy review is complete, President Moon’s new approach to North Korea is likely to firm up, and one can expect a new push to jump-start the stalled inter-Korean dialogue from the Blue House. The Trump administration stands ready to do its part of the heavy lifting to find the peaceful way towards the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization on the Korean peninsula.
• Alexandre Y. Mansourov, Ph.D., is professor of security studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and professor of Asian studies at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.
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