Running an emerging global power and vibrant democracy would be hard enough without having one of the world’s most oppressive, erratic, and brutal states next door.
Yet South Korean leader Moon Jae In, less than a year into his presidency, has not only governed his prosperous country fairly well (if his stellar approval ratings are any indication), but he’s pulled off an amazing feat virtually no one though possible (much less any world leader): getting North Korea to tone down its bellicose rhetoric, suspend its nuclear program, and express willingness to participate in an historic summit between his nation and the North’s archenemy the United States — the two nations are even setting up a direct hotline between their leaders, which will not only mitigate the likelihood of an escalating conflict, but is a big symbol of the potential for normal relations (and one would hope, eventually reunification).
As The Atlantic highlights, all this stems from months of careful planning and posturing by a man many domestic and international observers did not take seriously.
There was nothing inevitable about Moon’s centrality to the action. When Moon declared his intention, shortly after his election last year, to put Seoul in the “driver’s seat of the Korean Peninsula,” a derisive chuckle spread across the globe. The idea that South Korea, not the United States or China, intended to handle the alarming problem of a nuclear North Korea seemed absurd. Moon’s domestic political adversaries scoffed; the opposition People’s Party said Moon was “not even in the front passenger seat.” The United States, too, was skeptical, regarding Moon as an anti-American liberal who would try to revive his liberal predecessors’ engagement-oriented policy—one that some U.S. conservative leaders likened to appeasement. Meanwhile, China was waging a low-grade trade war against South Korea, demanding that Seoul remove the American-made missile-defense system partially deployed in the South to protect the U.S. forces stationed there. Moon’s “Berlin Speech,” in which he outlined his basic approach to North Korea, received little international notice.
His first big challenge came in July 2017, when North Korea tested a long-range missile that could theoretically reach the U.S. mainland. Moon, a former special-forces paratrooper, responded by defying his reputation as a dove and staging a “decapitation” missile drill of his own—one designed to demonstrate South Korea could take out Kim himself should armed hostilities break out. Chinese pressure notwithstanding, he also ordered the full deployment of the missile-defense system (known as terminal high-altitude area defense, or THAAD), earning the trust of the Trump administration. That November, Moon convinced Chinese President Xi Jinping to desist from all THAAD-related economic retaliations despite the full deployment. His managing to convince Beijing, Pyongyang’s most important ally, to stay mostly on the sidelines during this period is a truly underrated achievement.
Then in January this year, Kim Jong Un announced North Korea’s intention to attend the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Moon quickly agreed; the two Koreas entered the opening ceremony together and fielded a joint women’s ice hockey team. The gesture came at a political cost to Moon, however. It was unpopular among South Koreans—as a decline in Moon’s approval ratings demonstrated. Meanwhile, a chorus of American observers fretted that North Korea was waging a charm offensive to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. Reports of a gaping fissure between the American and South Korean positions on North Korea surfaced.
However, as dovish and pollyannaish as Moon was made out to be, he proved as shrewd and pragmatic as he did conciliatory, striking a delicate but thus far fruitful balanced approach to the erratic and enigmatic Kim regime:
Yet Moon balanced demonstrating the willingness to hold talks with requiring strict conditions from North Korea. He gave a warm welcome to Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong, who served as an envoy for North Korea, but rebuffed her invitation for an inter-Korean summit, insisting on “guarantees of a certain result.” On the other hand, Moon also managed to nudge the United States—where there were whispers about the possibility of a limited “bloody nose” strike to punish Kim shortly before the Olympics—toward peaceful negotiation by assuring that North Korea would not receive any concession just for showing up to talk. Then, after Vice President Mike Pence met with Moon at the Olympics, he said the United States would begin a dialogue with North Korea without preconditions.
Moon’s deliberate pace of Olympics diplomacy appears to have made North Korea eager; Pyongyang sent yet another envoy to attend the closing ceremony and hold further talks. Then on March 5, South Korea’s envoys visited Pyongyang. Kim Jong Un himself appeared with his wife to meet with Suh Hoon, South Korea’s spy chief, and Chung Eui Yong, its national-security adviser. They dined together for over four hours at the Workers’ Party headquarters, making the envoys the first South Koreans to enter North Korea’s equivalent of the White House.
The envoys then returned to Seoul with an agreement with Kim Jong Un, who had made a stunning array of concessions that touched upon virtually all major topics in inter-Korean relations. Kim Jong Un reportedly agreed in principle to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, to an inter-Korean summit next month, and to the establishment of the first-ever direct hotline between the two Koreas’ leaders. Kim also pledged not to use nuclear or conventional weaponry against South Korea, the first time a North Korean leader made such a promise. Most importantly, he agreed to begin discussions with the United States for denuclearization and suspend nuclear and missile tests during the talks.
There is no telling what other factors were and remain at play in the North’s surprising cooperativeness: did Trump’s bellicosity spook them? What about the recent and mysterious meeting with China, the regime’s main prop and increasingly exasperated ally? Perhaps some internal political intrigue has left Kim insecure and fearful. Maybe it is a combination of all these and more, but either way, Moon (and the resilient South Koreans as a whole) deserve the main credit for walking such a fine line between diplomacy and realpolitik.
But no matter what, in many ways, Moon Jae In has already won. Moon’s approval rating has climbed back over 75 percent, making him once again the most popular leader in the free world. He has flipped the script on North Korea’s traditional strategy of “tongmi bongnam,” (“deal with the U.S. and isolate the South”) by making the South the indispensable intermediary. And the fact that Trump’s State Department is understaffed means Seoul’s diplomats will have to take on a greater role. If the announced schedule holds, the inter-Korean summit will happen on April, followed by the U.S.-North Korea summit in May. This puts the Trump administration in the position of following South Korea’s lead.
Trump and Kim may be the ones making headlines, but it was Moon who drove the entire process. In just eight months, he kept China on the sidelines, rebuffed North Korea’s attempt to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States, pushed North Korea to put denuclearization on the table, and nudged the U.S. to step away from a preventive strike and talk to Pyongyang—to the point that Donald Trump, if he follows through on his pledge, would become the first U.S. president to hold a summit meeting with North Korea. And to the extent that giving Trump all the credit helps Moon steer him, the South Korean leader will be perfectly content to leave the spotlight to others.
South Koreans took a bold and seemingly counterintuitive risk when they opted for an activist and human rights lawyer that ran on a seemingly idealistic approach to the North. But having stood up to South Korea’s former dictatorship, Moon clearly new how to deal with strongmen while remaining true to one’s convictions. For these efforts, he’s been rewarded by his constituents with a 75% approval rating — among the highest of any developed democracy in the world. While time will tell whether any of this will pay off, it is a well needed case for optimism in a world with too many intractable, if not worsening, conflicts. Here’s hoping this nearly seven-decade conflict can come to an end in our lifetimes.