SEOUL —South Korea’s outspoken radicals and leftists can hardly hide their dismay.
To the consternation of organizers of the candlelight crusade that brought down the regime of the conservative Park Geun-hye, ousted and jailed on a wide range of offenses, their one-time hero, Moon Jae-in, elected president as Park’s successor, is defending the U.S. alliance, U.N. sanctions, and a defense establishment primed to take on North Korea.
“He is betraying all the reasons we voted for him,” said a member of one of the labor unions at the forefront of the protests. Why did we fight so hard for him?”
Since his election in May, Park has gotten along so well with the Washington power elite that his one-time advocates are calling him “America’s poodle.” Hard-core leftists take their cue from North Korea, which has denounced him for “pro-American toadyism … pulled along by the chain of subordination to the United States.”
Moon also has to contend with the conservative Liberty Korea Party, now the opposition in the National Assembly. Rightists criticize Moon’s oft-stated desire for reconciliation and dialogue with the North while calling for South Korea to develop its own nuclear weapons or get them from the United States for “defense” against North Korea’s nukes.
“Peace will come when we achieve a balance of power, not when we are begging for it,” said Hong Joon Pyo, Liberty Party leader, blasting Moon for spurning demands for the South to go nuclear.
Whatever extremists at both ends of the spectrum may want, however, Moon continues to enjoy popularity ratings of approximately 70 percent for his strong stand against North Korea — and also for opposing a pre-emptive strike by the United States against the North. Incredibly, a substantial majority even applauded his approval of deployment by U.S. forces of the counter-missile battery known as THAAD (for Terminal High Altitude Defense) despite violent protests by leftist groups and his own criticism of THAAD during his election campaign.
President Trump’s unpredictable tweets and rants enhance Moon’s popularity as a rational foil to the irrational Trump, whose popularity rating here hovers at 17 percent, the lowest ever for any American president.
Koreans “worry Trump is kind of nuts,” said David Straub, a retired senior diplomat in the U.S. Embassy in Seoul and the State Department in Washington. “South Koreans say we can’t rely on this man even though they are somewhat closer to the U.S. than before.”
Moon’s support of U.S. policy on North Korea has risen partly as a result of the North’s refusal to suspend testing of nukes and missiles, some of which should eventually be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to the United States. North Korea’s sixth nuclear test on September 3 convinced him “now is not the time for negotiations” though he approved $8 million in humanitarian aid to the North as a goodwill gesture.
Moon remains adamant, however, against the United States attacking North Korean facilities in anticipation of a missile launch or nuclear test despite North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho’s “declaration of war,” saying North Korea could attack U.S. planes and ships outside North Korean territorial waters considering Trump’s U.N. threat to “totally destroy North Korea.”
Moon brushed off the rhetoric, avoiding criticism of Trump’s strong words on the strength of assurances from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the United States will not stage a strike against North Korea without his consent.
“He’s in the middle,” said Chang Un-ho, an office worker. “He knows, if he behaves like Trump, that’ll make things more difficult. He doesn’t stick to one particular strategy. He has his own voice whereas Park blindly followed U.S. policy.”