SEOUL — South Korea’s 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 March that 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, ousted from office, jailed and facing sentencing in a wide-ranging corruption scandal, but he’s 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 U.N. 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-American 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 President Donald Trump vows to heap “fire and fury” on the North in retaliation for the North’s threats to fire missiles on U.S. targets, most recently the strategic territory of Guam.
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 five months ago, let it be known that he would like dearly 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 gotten anywhere in suggestions for more rounds of visits by members of rapidly aging families separated by the Korean War or for exchanges on a number of levels as were happening regularly in the era of Sunshine.
In fact, while Moon has waited for answers, Kim Jong-un has ordered two tests of long-range missiles theoretically capable of hitting the United States while boasting of the North’s rapid progress toward miniaturizing 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 U.S. air base on Guam from which B1 bombers flew on sorties over South Korea to show off U.S. strength after the latest missile tests.
Considering the U.S.-South Korean alliance and the speed with which the U.S. 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 defense, implanted by the Americans on a golf course about 200 kilometers 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, however he still is 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 is asking to be free of the agreement with the United States that limits the range of South Korean missiles to just about anywhere in North Korea. Why not be able to develop missiles suitable for firing at much greater distances — as does North Korea?
That’s not a notion that China is going to like considering the Chinese already see THAAD as a threat to their defenses 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 program. 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. South Korea membership in the global nuclear club would elevate the confrontation to a new level with Moon increasingly independent from Washington.
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.