South Koreans like Moon Jae-in personally, but are uneasy with his North Korea policies

If Moon Jae-in and his inner circle are, in the pits of their souls, as extreme as I think they are, why hasn’t Moon moved forward with his plans to reopen Kaesong, or Kaesongograd? Probably because he can read a poll, such as this one from the center-left Korea Herald:

A recent poll by Gallup Korea, conducted from Sept. 5, after the Sept. 3 nuclear weapons test by the North, shows a clear sign of hardening attitudes among South Koreans.

Of 1,004 respondents, 76 percent considered the sixth atomic detonation as a threat to security. But when asked if they thought the North would initiate a war, only 37 percent answered it was possible, while 58 percent responded that that was little to no chance of such an outcome.

However, 60 percent approved of South Korea rearming with nuclear weapons to respond to the North Korean threat, while 35 percent opposed the idea.

US tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn from South Korea in 1991, when the two Koreas signed an agreement on denuclearization, non-aggression and reconciliation. While the South has clung to the principle of a neclear-free (sic) Korean Peninsula, the North has abandoned it, conducting six nuclear tests so far.

While nuclear rearmanent (sic) is mainly pushed by conservatives that pursue tougher policies against the North, more liberal voters also appeared to be in support of the idea, the data showed. Of the 353 respondents who viewed themselves as liberals, 47 percent approved of stationing nuclear weapons here, while 48 percent of the group opposed the idea.

What is more surprising perhaps is that more Koreans even said that humanitarian aid should be cut if the North does not give up its nuclear program.

In 2013, a Gallup poll showed that 47 percent of South Koreans said that humanitarian aid should continue even if North Korea continues its nuclear program.

In the latest poll, the figure dropped to 32 percent, while the proportion of South Koreans opposed to the idea rose to 65 percent.

Left-leaning respondents were also skeptical of offering any kind of humanitarian aid, with 52 percent of them calling for a halt. [Korea Herald]

The Asan Institute’s latest update also cites a Gallup Korea poll indicating that 60 percent of Koreans want nukes, with just 35 percent opposed. Oh, and Moon’s approval rating has fallen into the low 70s (!). According to Asan, this modest decline “appears to be driven by his failure to address the North Korean nuclear problem.”

I’ve never questioned that Moon is an extraordinarily talented politician. He’s clearly no fool. He carefully avoided the extreme rhetoric espoused by just about everyone around him throughout his career while casting himself as a nice, sensible person. Nice goes a long way in politics, but after every honeymoon comes laundry day.

When a politician takes office, the mainstream wants to believe the best about him. For its own sake, it wants him to govern well and succeed. The base wants to believe that he will do the extreme things he promised (or implied) when no one from the Chosun Ilbo was listening. For a while, that means that both the base and the mainstream will align. Both will favor the politician, and there will be a window of irrational exuberance. Then, the politician takes a few polls and realizes that if he goes where the base wants him to go, the mainstream will repossess his parliamentary majority. The politician hesitates and the base feels betrayed (and in Korea, that tends to mean roadblocks, Molotov cocktails, tear gas, and billy clubs — and a lot of nasty, misogynistic invective from Pyongyang).*

Moon can’t please everyone. And increasingly, his positions on security will cost him political support. Late word is that Moon has ruled out the acquisition of South Korean nukes; his people, who justifiably question the wisdom of entrusting their freedom to a mercurial and intermittently isolationist guarantor half a world away, want them. Moon wants to reopen Kaesong or open Kaesongograd; the majority does not. Moon wants to give the North humanitarian aid; the majority does not. And the crazy old uncle in Moon Jae-in’s attic just keeps coming downstairs to talk about the freeze proposal that the rest of Moon’s cabinet was so recently forced to disavow.

What’s unfortunate is that Moon could be remembered as one of Korea’s most popular and effective presidents if he’d focus his attention on needed social, economic, and legal reforms — breaking up the chaebol, increasing competition and free trade to lower consumer prices, shortening the work week and letting workers spend Saturdays with their families, reforming libel laws, increasing welfare programs for the disabled, limiting the powers of police and prosecutors, introducing the right to trial by jury, and improving worker protections like overtime pay. I’m not sure you can call 41 percent a mandate, but a 72 percent approval rating certainly translates to political power of some kind. Moon is at the height of his popularity and power. A decision to squander that power on quixotic and unpopular policies to appease an unappeasable Kim Jong-un beggars a rational explanation. It even suggests not-so-rational ones.

Ever since it became inevitable that Moon Jae-in would become South Korea’s next president, it was clear that our next POTUS would need a Moon Jae-in mitigation plan. The best possible mitigation plan is to defer to a voting public that hasn’t completely taken leave of its senses. The public’s moderation is all the more impressive in light of the fact that Moon has no credible political opposition to speak of. These polls are also a useful check against overinterpreting the policy views of the millions of Koreans who took to the streets so recently to oust Park Geun-hye from office.

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* Now here’s an interesting study in media bias for you. The Daily Beast and Xinhua cover the same protests. The Daily Beast says “violent protests,” and Xinhua says “violently dispersed.” Let me take this occasion to thank Xi “Winnie the Pooh” Jinping for all he has done to provoke this moderate backlash by South Koreans. We truly couldn’t have achieved this impressive result without him.

7 Comments

  1. Prof. Myers’s view is that the appeasement will start once Moon’s party wins a parliamentary majority and that this phase of moderation is only temporary.

    He’s right you know.




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  2. Moon’s CNN interview he has drawn the line that South Korea will not develop nuckear weapons, and will not allow the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons. Moon’s administration also announced a $8 million economic aid to North Korea. Furthermore, Moon’s administration announced the policy that dispells the rumors that South Korea will take China to the WTO for Chinese government of economic boycott of South Korea because they say that South Korea needs China’s cooperation on North Korea.

    In the end, South Korea themselves are throwing away all their few cards they held. I wonder being the good guy will give them the results they’re seeking.




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  3. Hi Joshua,

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