Just before Air Force One took off for Tokyo, the New York Times printed a story by Choe Sang-hun, mourning for Moon Jae-in’s failure to revive the Sunshine Policy, wallowing in self-pitying nationalism, and pinning the most of the blame for this on Donald Trump — not Moon, for failing to read the U.N. Security Council resolutions before promising initiatives that would violate them, not Korean voters who don’t trust Pyongyang and don’t want a revival of the Sunshine Policy. Choe assigned only a small share of the blame to the person most responsible for the failure of Moon’s outreach: Kim Jong-un.
Personal relationships seem to matter more to Donald Trump than to ordinary world leaders, and Trump and Moon don’t appear to have much use for one another. It’s true, of course, that Trump has made some wince-inducing gaffes on KORUS, and on making South Korea pay for THAAD (even if South Korea should pay for it). I’m on record as saying that his war threats scare our friends more than they scare our enemies. His boast today that Seoul will soon be buying armloads of American weapons plays perfectly to the Korean left’s conspiracy theories about the American presence and its deeper mercantilist motives. It also feeds the Korean left’s worldview — of which Choe’s mislabeled opinion piece is an exemplar — that all foreign entanglements are inherently exploitative, while all intra-national (as in, inter-Korean) interactions are inherently beneficent and pure. That view, of course, is much older than Donald Trump’s presidency, and it has sometimes put Korea on a path to some grave logical errors.
I could cite many examples of one side of this logical error — the determined refusal to believe in Pyongyang’s maleficence. There is the decision to host the Olympics in the middle of a nuclear crisis and invite North Korea to join. I don’t expect that to end well.
— Joshua Stanton (@freekorea_us) November 1, 2017
Before that, there was the long national embarrassment of the Sunshine Policy. Because this blog operates at all levels, you can read our argument about why its failure was predictable in Foreign Affairs, or you can watch the perfect six-minute metaphor.
But even as we assign Trump his fair share of the blame for his differences with Moon, let’s do what the foreign press has failed to do and assign Moon his fair share, too. Moon’s history, associations, and appointments suggest that his private thoughts were shaped in an anti-American, anti-anti-North Korean millieu. It speaks poorly of foreign journalists in Korea, for example, that hardly any of them wrote a word about the pro-North Korean, anti-American history of his Chief of Staff, Im Jong-seok, leaving it to bloggers to reveal that to our small audiences.
The man who is most responsible for blocking Moon’s “engagement” of Kim Jong-un is … Kim Jong-un. It’s just that his nuclear and missile tests have denied Moon political space to appease Kim. Kim has repeatedly rejected Moon’s overtures toward conditional or co-equal engagement and instead demanded what would be tantamount to South Korea’s surrender. I’m a compulsive linker because I believe that linking to sources disciplines one’s arguments. I’ve collected so many links documenting Pyongyang’s responses to Moon’s overtures that all I have time to do is dump them here:
- 5/19: N. Korea criticizes Moon’s dual-track policy toward it
- 6/1: Moon says will handle N.K. issues without role of foreign countries
- 6/5: N.K. rejects S. Korean aid provider’s inter-Korean exchanges, citing sanctions
- 6/12: N. Korea urges S. Korea to implement summit agreement
- 6/15: Why Pyongyang turned down humanitarian aid from the South
- 6/19: S. Korea rejects N.K. claim Seoul not stakeholder to nuke issue
- 6/19: N. Korea demands S. Korea implement hands-off policy over its nuclear ambitions
- 6/21: Pro-N.K. paper in Japan condemns Moon’s offer for talks
- 6/24: S. Korea urged to have proper approach to inter-Korean relations (Pyongyang Times)
6/25: CCNR Issues Open Questionnaire to S. Korean Authorities. This article, printed in Uriminzokkiri, and attributed to the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country of the DPRK — and yes, that includes South Korea — is probably the best summation of Pyongyang’s demands to Seoul. Note the historical significance of the date of its publication. I’ve appended the full text to the bottom of this post and urge you to read it. Click the link at the lower right-hand corner of this post that says, “Continue Reading.”
- 7/11: No expectation from N.K.’s acceptance of Moon’s peace proposal: pro-N.K. paper
- 7/20: N.K. dismisses S. Korea’s wish for better ties as ‘nonsense’ amid sanctions
- 7/29: N.K.’s new ICBM test to dampen Moon’s rapprochement approach
- 7/31: S. Korea urges NK to end provocations, accept dialogue offer
- 8/2: Pro-Pyongyang paper accuses Moon of misjudging changing status of N. Korea
- 8/2: N. Korea rejects joint civilian event to mark Korea’s Liberation Day
- 11/7: S. Korea says no meaningful inter-Korean contacts so far under Moon gov’t
Not once in his article does Choe so much as allude to this chronology. Also, just for laughs, here are some links via Moon Jae-in cheerleader Nathan Park, who expected this to all work out just brilliantly, in recklessly blithe disregard of all the evidence that it wasn’t:
- 5/19: Moon’s Secret Weapon Is Sunshine
- 7/18: South Korea’s President May Be Just the Man to Solve the North Korea Crisis
One could argue that Moon’s early ambitions and failures aren’t so different from those of his predecessors. As I said five years ago, Park Geun-hye, Lee Myung-bak, and Barack Obama all had grand plans to “engage” North Korea, but North Korea had other plans. Park, in particular, clung to what I called “Sunshine Lite” for years until the January 2016 nuclear test, when she finally said, “Enough!” Maybe Lee and Park believed in forms of engagement with North Korea that were more conditional and balanced than Moon’s vision. Maybe this failed experiment means more to Moon than it did to his predecessors, who eventually yielded to reason. What reason tells us now is that Kim Jong-un hasn’t the slightest interest in conditional engagement. Now that he thinks his nuclear hegemony has been secured, he demands nothing less than supplication.
Kim Jong-un expects Moon to unilaterally break U.N. sanctions, disarm unilaterally by halting training exercises and shutting down missile defense, unlawfully repatriate North Korean refugees to die in his gulag, and censor and “liquidate” his critics in the South. South Korean voters would not concur, and Moon knows it. He’s smart enough to see that his election was not a mandate for that. He might never have been elected but for his personal likeability, and for the fractiousness, incompetence, and unpalatability of his opponents. To shift his North Korea policy in a more permissive direction, he needs public and political support he does not have. South Korean voters feel worried about North Korea, bullied by China, anxious that the U.S. might start a war or abandon them, and uneasy about Moon’s capacity to manage it all.
Moon’s visit to Trump in Washington might have been a fiasco, but we saw little outward evidence of this at the time (their disagreement came out later — characteristically, in a tweet). Maybe Moon’s luck will hold again this week, but it won’t hold forever if he won’t pick a side. Moon Jae-in can’t please everyone, especially when “everyone” includes not only Kim Jong-un, but Xi Jinping, Donald Trump, and his own voters.