Given the background of Moon Jae-In and some of his closest confidants, the question that has nagged at me is whether Moon is (1) a closet hard-left ideologue who has managed to let everyone around him say and do the extreme things he avoids saying and doing himself; (2) just another oleaginous opportunist who paddled his canoe to the swifter currents on the left side of the stream; or (3) a hopelessly naive squish who thinks he can simultaneously charm, tame, and please his hard-left base, moderate voters, Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-Un, and who is consequently fated to end as tragically as (if less horribly or bravely than) Andres Nin.
Whatever theory comes closest to the truth, it’s apparent that Moon is no fool and has enough political sense to know his limitations. Evidence of those limitations comes in the form of new polling data from the Asan Institute. Generally, South Koreans —
– dislike the United States much less than they dislike their neighbors (I’m suspicious of Asan’s use of an approval index instead of a straight percentage of favorables). They dislike North Korea the most intensely. The biggest shift is that they now dislike China as much as they dislike Japan. That’s a fairly stunning shift, and it has been persistent since China began sanctioning the wrong Korea.
– favor the U.S. over China as their “preferred partner” by an overwhelming margin of 67 to 22, a gap that has widened by 18 percentage points in the last year after having steadily narrowed between 2014 and 2016. We can guess that China’s sanctions against South Korea, and perhaps its failure to reign in North Korea, have caused immense damage to its favorability on the Korean street. (I’ve long felt that a nationalist message with distinctly anti-China overtones has potentially high appeal in both Koreas, and elsewhere in Asia. These numbers may support that supposition.)
– oddly, hold the most favorable views of Xi Jinping of any neighboring leader. Given the other findings in the survey, it sounds like South Koreans respect Xi more than they like him. Their views of Trump recovered considerably after his reassuring phone call to Park Geun-Hye last November, although favorable views of Trump remain far lower than their favorable views of the United States. They hold Kim Jong-Un in the lowest esteem, by far.
– favor the deployment of THAAD by 55 percent, compared to just 37 percent who disapprove. This, despite Trump’s ham-handed stumbles, demanding that South Korea pay for it despite an agreement to the contrary, just before South Korea’s election. Most South Koreans, however, believe the National Assembly should ratify the THAAD deployment, which almost certainly means gridlock and indefinite delay.
– disfavor reopening Kaesong by a margin of 50 to 46, and disfavor resuming humanitarian aid by an overwhelming 72 to 26, absent a change in North Korea’s behavior (personally, I’d be much more receptive to resuming humanitarian aid that reaches the poor than resuming Kaesong, which is a wage-theft scam to fund Bureau 39).
The other interesting finding is that South Koreans in their 20s are much more conservative on national security issues than those in their 30s and 40s. That tells us that if these young voters’ views have been shaped by recent experiences, and if they continue to hew conservative as they age, the U.S.-Korea alliance may have a stronger demographic future than I’d feared.
Overall, the numbers suggest, first, that as I suspected, Moon Jae-In has no mandate to revive the Sunshine Policy; second, that they expect Moon to maintain a strong alliance with the United States; and third, that they hold extremely dim views of North Korea and His Porcine Majesty. That explains why Moon was so eager to avoid a fight with Trump during his visit to Washington. He knows very well that security issues are a vulnerability, and that by appearing to put distance between himself and Washington, he stands to lose much of his currently stratospheric approval rating, which is certain to decline as his honeymoon wears off and the media stop covering him like KCNA covers Kim Jong-Un. That is to say, if Moon Jae-In was on his best behavior, it may be because, like any good politician, he knows how to read a poll.
For the last week, I’ve been picking away at a still-unfinished post, commute by commute, about Pyongyang’s rejection of Moon’s offers of “engagement,” and demands for supplication instead. Whatever the true feelings of Moon and his inner circle about North Korea, then, a return to Sunshine faces three obstacles that seem insurmountable for now: first, of course, Pyongyang itself; second, U.S. opposition to any engagement that would undermine “maximum pressure;” and third, the South Korean people themselves. That is to say, Moon is starting his term (as did Lee Myung-Bak and Park Geun-Hye) by offering Pyongyang conditional engagement, only to find that Pyongyang isn’t interested in anything conditional.
If Moon is an intelligent politician — and I suppose he is that, if nothing else — he’ll decide to emphasize other parts of his agenda instead: breaking up the chaebol, cracking down on public corruption, putting limits on working hours and making other improvements to the rights of workers and consumers, and giving Korea a better-functioning welfare state. If Moon makes progress on these initiatives and supports our North Korea policy until such time Pyongyang denuclearizes (unlikely) or overthrows its king (more likely), we should support him. If he actively undermines our North Korea policy, a few well-timed and carefully written tweets (that don’t look carefully written) could damage his party in the next round of National Assembly elections.
If Moon really wants to really make me cheer, he’ll reform the Korean legal system to give defendants a right to counsel that’s more than just pro-forma, the right to a trial by jury, the right to confront one’s accusers, robust discovery rights, a hearsay rule, and other procedural protections to ensure that people can get fair trials. Also, truth should be a defense in libel suits. But by now, I’m asking too much.