After Donald Trump’s election, many South Koreans experienced shock and abandonment issues about their alliance with America. It would not be necessary for our man in Seoul — whose face was recently slashed by an anti-American fanatic — to reassure Koreans about the strength of the alliance if most people felt certain about its strength. Trump’s post-election call with President Park seems to have calmed Koreans’ fears, after which they returned their energy to finding the most anarchic formula possible for holding a head of state to account. But if Korea’s fears of abandonment have calmed, it is this anarchic aspect of Korea’s political culture, combined with the nationalist streak that has arisen in our own country, that causes me to suspect that any sense of security is a false one. And now, it is Americans who may soon doubt the fidelity of their trans-Pacific ally.
In South Korea, protests have just about ousted President Park Geun-hye, a sometimes-competent and possibly (but not extraordinarily) corrupt president, for taking her counsel from a cult leader. But if the principle thus vindicated is that presidents of the Republic may not seek counsel from cults, the crowds still have some unfinished business. They should now turn their attention to the next aspiring president who takes his counsel from a cult — a far more controlling and dangerous one. I refer, of course, to Moon Jae-in taking his counsel from North Korea.
Oh, what’s that you say? You forgot already?
Just before the Park Geun-hye scandal buried every other news story in Korea, Song Min-soon, who was Foreign Minister for the late left-wing ex-President Roh Moo-Hyun, revealed in his memoirs that in 2007, before a U.N. General Assembly vote condemning North Korea’s atrocities against its own people, Roh’s then-Chief of Staff, Moon Jae-in, agreed to ask the perpetrators of the greatest crimes against the Korean people in their long history how Seoul’s U.N. Ambassador should cast his vote.
The U.N. vote came about 40 days after Roh met with then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in 2007 in the second summit between leaders of the rival Koreas. In November, Song and other top officials were at odds over whether South Korea should vote in favor or against the U.N. resolution, which called for, among other things, improvement of the North’s human rights conditions.
Amid the dispute, then-intelligence chief Kim Man-bok floated the idea of asking North Korea’s opinion and Moon accepted it, according to the memoir. North Korea later told the South that it would closely keep an eye on Seoul’s vote, as it warned of dangerous situations, Song said in his memoir, citing his conversation with Baek Jong-chun, then-chief secretary on foreign and security policy for Roh.
Roh — a liberal president who sought reconciliation with North Korea — eventually decided to abstain from the 2007 U.N. vote on North Korea’s human rights record, Song said. Many liberal South Koreans have shied away from the issue of North Korea’s human rights out of fear that it could strain inter-Korean relations. [Yonhap]
When Song’s memoir first hit the shelves and the headlines, Moon claimed that he couldn’t remember all the details of his meetings with the North Koreans. A few days later, however, his memory had recovered well enough for him to sue his political opponents for spreading what he called a false rumor (although he didn’t sue Song, the frenemy who started it all). Kim Man-bok, the former National Intelligence Service head and co-conspirator, even suggested that Song should be prosecuted for leaking confidential information. For his part, Song stands by the allegation and wonders what the big deal is.
Moon’s scandal soon became a major news story that threatened his presidential ambitions — that is, until the unexplained discovery of Choi Soon-sil’s tablet knocked it out of the headlines. Since then, Moon has risen to the top of a weak field for next year’s presidential election. Before that, the lagubrious former U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon polled highest (at 27 percent), compared to Moon (18 percent) and Ahn Cheol-soo (9 percent). Ban has not declared his candidacy, but friends say he has decided to run. A subsequent poll has Moon in the lead, at just under 21 percent. (Ordinarily, I’d have called Ban “center-left;” after all, he served Roh as his Foreign Minister before Song did, but today, the press thinks he might actually seek the conservative Saenuri Party’s nomination.) Of course, the polls will remain volatile for some time, and South Korea today has shifted back to the center since the Roh years, but it’s difficult to trust the persistence of that shift.
But if Korea has already forgotten about Moon Jae-in’s scandal, America shouldn’t. It should remind us that the Roh administration Moon served caused the deepest and most lasting damage to relations between the American and Korean peoples in the alliance’s 70-year history. Roh and his supporters denied it, of course, but they often trafficked in and exploited anti-American and pro-North Korean rhetoric. Americans who watched Korea from near and far in those years wondered if South Korea knew which side it was on. Since then, a generation of Americans who lived through that time has risen to prominence in making and implementing the policies that underpin the alliance. This is to say nothing of the tens of thousands of former privates, specialists, and staff sergeants to whom Donald Trump’s denigration of the alliance with South Korea consequently rang true. For them, those years were about “force protection” advisories, violent protests, being warned against going downtown alone, or hearing that their friends had been assaulted and spat on by the people they were supposed to be defending.
Before he served in Roh’s cabinet, Moon was a member of the left-wing lawyers’ group Minbyun, which calls itself a human rights group. When last seen on OFK, Minbyun was litigating a legally frivolous petition that would have forced 12 young North Korean women who defected from a regime restaurant in Ningpo, China, to say before the eyes of the world — and the minders who held their loved ones hostage in Pyongyang — whether they defected of their own free will or were (as only Pyongyang and its sycophants claim) abducted by South Korean spies. The petition flew in the face of internationally recognized refugee confidentiality rules, could have endangered the lives of the women or their families in North Korea, and may have deterred other North Korean officials from defecting to South Korea. It was itself a human rights violation and an ethical outrage. Very recently, Moon’s Minjoo Party was mostly preoccupied with stalling the implementation of South Korea’s new human rights law.
These are uncertain times on both sides of the Pacific. We still don’t know what Trump’s Korea policy will be. Maybe cooler heads will prevail here and the panic about his campaign rhetoric will prove to be overblown. But if the North Korea nuclear crisis soon escalates — and it will — Americans won’t have much patience with South Koreans who either seem unwilling to pick a side, or who seem willing to pick the other one. If Moon Jae-in campaigns on an anti-American or neutralist platform, or tries to break U.N. sanctions to subsidize a North Korea that will soon pose a direct threat to America, I can easily see Trump and his advisors deciding that Moon can’t be trusted with their most sensitive contingency plans, or even that the alliance itself does more to restrain us than protect us. Outwardly, George W. Bush put up with Roh Moo-hyun’s antics, but it’s a sure bet that Donald Trump would not put up with Moon Jae-in’s.
That goes double for Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon,* a principal founder of a far-left group called People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, and also a potential presidential candidate. The PSPD opposed North Korea human rights legislation out of a desire to appease its rulers, and alternatively questioned and justified North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean warship and killing 46 of its sailors in 2010. The PSPD raised controversy a few months after the tragedy, when it advanced its “truther” conspiracy theories in a letter to the U.N. Security Council, despite the findings of an international investigation that North Korea sank the ship.
This leads me to conclude that Donald Trump is not the greatest threat to the U.S.-Korea alliance. Not even Moon Jae-in is the greatest threat to the U.S.-Korea alliance. The greatest threats to the alliance are the uniquely volatile combination of Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in, and the even more volatile combination of Donald Trump and Park Won-soon.
America, for better or worse, has made its decision. Now, it’s Korea’s turn. The few people in Washington who know who Moon Jae-in is have as little confidence in him as Koreans have in Trump. As North Korea approaches nuclear breakout, South Koreans should not count on Washington having Moon Jae-in’s back. We will have to live with our choices; Korea will have to live with its own.
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* A previous version of this post called Park Won-soon the former Mayor of Seoul (he is still mayor).