Trump’s speech in Seoul was the best thing he’s done. In his entire life.

Just over nine months into his presidency, Donald Trump is best known for two qualities: doing terrible things, and doing things terribly. Inevitably, he and his party are starting to pay the political price for that. But this is not a blog about Obamacare, The Wall, Richard Spencer, Twitter fights with the grieving parents of dead heroes, or the Russia investigation. There are other blogs for those subjects. This is a blog about North Korea, which leads to my paradox.

During the 13-year history of this blog, I’ve watched president after president demur on Pyongyang’s growing nuclear menace with soothing palliatives, taking the counsel of tenured geniuses who’ve grown in their influence despite being consistently wrong about Pyongyang’s intentions. I’ve watched in frustration as North Korea became the greatest national security crisis of our time, and never quite became the great moral crisis that it rightfully deserves to be. Yet now, however improbably — though it may have something to do with rejecting the counsel of tenured geniuses — I think I just watched Donald Trump become the first American president to articulate a coherent North Korea policy.

In his speech to the Korean National Assembly last night, Trump struck precisely the right tone: unyielding in the defense of our core interests and allies, forceful as he twisted the economic screws on Kim Jong-un, flexible enough to leave him a peaceful exit, strong without being bellicose, and above all, compassionate toward the North Korean people who share our interest in seeing their homeland become peaceful and humane. If you haven’t seen it yet, or if you have and your thoughts on it haven’t quite congealed, then watch it here.

Of course, many who read the title of this post immediately thought, “You set a low bar.” Of course, Trump didn’t write the speech himself. Of course, it would have been a completely different speech if Steve Bannon had written it. And of course, I still have criticisms, including his gratuitous plug for his golf course, and his description of Pyongyang’s terrorism that never quite found the clarity to call it by its legal name.

Since the so-called armistice, there have been hundreds of North Korean attacks on Americans and South Koreans. These attacks have included the capture and torture of the brave American soldiers of the USS Pueblo, repeated assaults on American helicopters, and the 1969 drowning [downing] of a U.S. surveillance plane that killed 31 American servicemen. The regime has made numerous lethal incursions in South Korea, attempted to assassinate senior leaders, attacked South Korean ships, and tortured Otto Warmbier, ultimately leading to that fine young man’s death.

But the speech did much to close the biggest hole in the President’s policy, by speaking clearly of the suffering of the North Korean people. Careful listeners will have heard the President cite the findings of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, the research of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, and the gulag memoir of Kang Chol-hwan.

Workers in North Korea labor grueling hours in unbearable conditions for almost no pay. Recently, the entire working population was ordered to work for 70 days straight, or else pay for a day of rest.

Families live in homes without plumbing, and fewer than half have electricity. Parents bribe teachers in hopes of saving their sons and daughters from forced labor. More than a million North Koreans died of famine in the 1990s, and more continue to die of hunger today.

Among children under the age of five, nearly 30 percent of afflicted — and are afflicted by stunted growth due to malnutrition. And yet, in 2012 and 2013, the regime spent an estimated $200 million — or almost half the money that it allocated to improve living standards for its people — to instead build even more monuments, towers, and statues to glorify its dictators.

What remains of the meager harvest of the North Korean economy is distributed according to perceived loyalty to a twisted regime. Far from valuing its people as equal citizens, this cruel dictatorship measures them, scores them, and ranks them based on the most arbitrary indications of their allegiance to the state. Those who score the highest in loyalty may live in the capital city. Those who score the lowest starve. A small infraction by one citizen, such as accidently staining a picture of the tyrant printed in a discarded newspaper, can wreck the social credit rank of his entire family for many decades.

An estimated 100,000 North Koreans suffer in gulags, toiling in forced labor, and enduring torture, starvation, rape, and murder on a constant basis.

In one known instance, a 9-year-old boy was imprisoned for 10 years because his grandfather was accused of treason. In another, a student was beaten in school for forgetting a single detail about the life of Kim Jong-un.

Soldiers have kidnapped foreigners and forced them to work as language tutors for North Korean spies.

This language will have made many of those in the audience — especially those in President Moon’s party — deeply uneasy, because of the power of the words that were its greatest virtue. As I listened, I wondered how North Koreans might react to these words. Try to strip away your own biases about Trump, although I wonder how many of you can. Try to imagine yourself as a student in Pyongyang or a trader in Hoeryong. Some, of course, will think back to Trump’s recent war threats and cling to the narrative that a wolf cannot become a sheep. But in my experience, we underestimate the intelligence and critical thinking skills of North Koreans. To at least some of the North Koreans who hear these words — if they ever do hear them — the compassion of those words could begin to confuse the narrative of America as their enemy.

Other passages might undermine the regime’s narrative that the world is in awe of their emperor, and thus, they must hold him in awe, too. Trump challenged that narrative when he addressed Kim Jong-un directly and declined to reward the perverse incentive of allowing nuclear weapons — which Kim Jong-un would use to threaten our own core interests and liberties, and thus, our own political system — to become a means to secure his own misrule.

I also have come here to this peninsula to deliver a message directly to the leader of the North Korean dictatorship: The weapons you are acquiring are not making you safer. They are putting your regime in grave danger. Every step you take down this dark path increases the peril you face.

North Korea is not the paradise your grandfather envisioned. It is a hell that no person deserves. Yet, despite every crime you have committed against God and man, you are ready to offer, and we will do that — we will offer a path to a much better future. It begins with an end to the aggression of your regime, a stop to your development of ballistic missiles, and complete, verifiable, and total denuclearization. (Applause.)

A sky-top view of this peninsula shows a nation of dazzling light in the South and a mass of impenetrable darkness in the North. We seek a future of light, prosperity, and peace. But we are only prepared to discuss this brighter path for North Korea if its leaders cease their threats and dismantle their nuclear program.

The sinister regime of North Korea is right about only one thing: The Korean people do have a glorious destiny, but they could not be more wrong about what that destiny looks like. The destiny of the Korean people is not to suffer in the bondage of oppression, but to thrive in the glory of freedom. (Applause.)

I don’t doubt that many in the tenured genius class will be aghast. That may be why this was the speech that Trump’s predecessors ought to have given five, ten, or twenty years ago and didn’t. The challenge with such a polarizing President is to hold onto one’s objectivity and transcend partisanship in the name of patriotism. My view now is just what it was one year ago — that the patriot’s duty is to criticize unjust policies and help the President make and execute good ones. The people can only choose one president at a time. In the case of North Korea, too much is at stake, and there is too little time, to wait to help the next president do it better.

Trump’s most inflexible supporters view all criticism of him as betrayal, while his most inflexible critics view all commendation of him as buying a first-class ticket on the express train to Vichy. Maybe my work helps me to separate my political views from my views on specific policies. I’ve voted against every American president of my adult life at least once, but gone on to serve them all loyally as a civil servant or an Army officer. In both capacities, my oath was to the Constitution alone. Of course, the Constitution gives the President great power, and our job is to help the President carry out his constitutional prerogatives, whether we agree with his policies or not. We do that, and then we go home and log into Facebook or WordPress to represent and express our own views as private citizens, just like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Bret Harte all did in the last century.

Now, if only he can execute the policy he has articulated. As I write, his meeting with Xi Jinping is testing his commitment to that execution. If he fails, the alternatives are too horrible to contemplate.

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The Moonshine Policy failed because Kim Jong-un demands surrender, not engagement

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 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.

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 milieu. 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 isn’t just that his nuclear and missile tests have denied Moon political space to appease him. 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.

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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.

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Moon Jae-in, Putin & Kaesong 2.0: Why the state of the U.S.-Korea alliance is not strong

Of the many reasons why the U.S. and South Korea failed to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, one of the most important is that, despite their nominal alliance, Washington and Seoul have been fundamentally misaligned on North Korea policy since Bill Clinton and Kim Young-Sam led their respective nations. The most important of these differences was their mutually canceling economic policies toward Pyongyang. As the U.S. moved (however slowly and haltingly) toward isolating Pyongyang economically to slow and reverse its nuclear weapons development, Seoul opted to catapult billions of dollars over the DMZ, no strings attached. The most financially significant subsidy came through the Kaesong Industrial Complex, where Seoul subsidized South Korean companies that paid “wages” to North Korean workers (wages that Pyongyang mostly confiscated). Seoul’s policy, in tandem with Beijing’s trade and aid, filled Pyongyang’s coffers with billions of dollars in regime-sustaining hard currency — currency that, as far as anyone can tell, went directly to the development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

Together, the policies of Seoul and Washington amounted to the incoherent approach of sanctioning and subsidizing the same target at the same time. The clearest illustration of that incoherence is U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718, drafted and passed under John Bolton’s leadership in 2006, which required member states to “ensure” that their money wasn’t paying for Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.

(d)   all Member States shall, in accordance with their respective legal processes, freeze immediately the funds, other financial assets and economic resources which are on their territories at the date of the adoption of this resolution or at any time thereafter, that are owned or controlled, directly or indirectly, by the persons or entities designated by the Committee or by the Security Council as being engaged in or providing support for, including through other illicit means, DPRK’s nuclear-related, other weapons of mass destruction-related and ballistic missile-related programmes, or by persons or entities acting on their behalf or at their direction, and ensure that any funds, financial assets or economic resources are prevented from being made available by their nationals or by any persons or entities within their territories, to or for the benefit of such persons or entities; [UNSCR 1718]

In reality, Pyongyang has the most opaque finances of any government in the world, and Seoul hadn’t the slightest idea where its $100 million-a-year Kaesong subsidy went. Instead, it has willfully misread the resolution and reversed its burden of proof, denying that it has evidence that Pyongyang is providing this cash to, say, its General Bureau of Atomic Energy. If pressed, senior U.S. officials would admit that they were “concerned” about this.

“Precisely what North Koreans do with earnings from Kaesong, I think, is something that we are concerned about,” said Cohen. “All of the hard currency earnings of North Korea are something I would say that we should be concerned about. There are a number of thousands of workers at Kaesong who get paid for their services, so I think it is a complicated situation.” [VOA]

Whatever former President Park Geun-Hye’s other sins, in her last year in office, she managed to achieve an alignment of U.S. and South Korean policies that the two nominal allies had lacked for a quarter of a century. The legacy of that year was the termination of South Korea’s subsidies to the North through the Kaesong Industrial Complex, significant diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang’s trading partners, and U.N. Security Council resolutions that now present a high bar to resuming operations there.

“32.  Decides that all Member States shall prohibit public and private financial support from within their territories or by persons or entities subject to their jurisdiction for trade with the DPRK (including the granting of export credits, guarantees or insurance to their nationals or entities involved in such trade), except as approved in advance by the Committee on a case-by-case basis; [UNSCR 2321]

That is to say, any government’s support for trade with North Korea requires the approval of a U.N. committee that operates by consensus, and where the U.S. holds an effective veto. That puts Moon Jae-in’s campaign promises of reviving the Sunshine Policy on a direct collision course with the U.S., which now sees itself as under an increasingly direct North Korean threat for having been Seoul’s security guarantor.

Before Donald Trump was inaugurated or Moon Jae-In was elected, I predicted that behind the diplomatic pleasantries and joint press releases, the two presidents would (like their predecessors) be fundamentally misaligned on North Korea policy, and that each capital and cabinet would deeply distrust the leader of the other. More than two years before the election of Donald Trump, empirical evidence showed that the American news media leaned much further to the left than the voting public. One may safely say that the news media dislike this president with an intensity that goes far beyond their antipathy toward “ordinary” Republican presidents, even if one harbors sympathy for some of that criticism. Critics who pounced on Trump’s election-eve demand that Seoul pay for THAAD, and his more recent threats to terminate the U.S.-Korea free-trade agreement — even as Seoul resists China’s unilateral sanctions over THAAD — were right to view those statements as erratic and harmful to the relationship, although the South Korean public’s support for the U.S. and Korea’s alliance with it has proven remarkably resilient.*

I don’t live in Seoul or mix within the policy circles favored by Moon Jae-in’s administration, so I can only imagine how deeply Seoul distrusts Washington and Trump. I do live in Washington, however, and it’s apparent to me from my conversations with well-placed people here that Washington’s distrust of Moon runs very deep. In contrast to the media’s tendency to amplify every misstep by Trump on Korea, they have largely embargoed the very real reasons for Washington’s distrust of Moon. These include a career spent inside the brain trusts of South Korea’s most anti-American and anti-anti-North Korean movements and his appointment of (sometimes violent) pro-North Korean and anti-American characters into key positions in his administration. It should give Americans pause, for example, that President Roh’s Chief of Staff once spent years in prison for organizing Lim Soo-kyung’s propaganda tour of Pyongyang, and once led a student group that tried to firebomb the U.S. embassy. A man who, if he were to immigrate here, couldn’t pass a U.S. government background check to deliver your mail now has access to some of our most secret operational plans. If that doesn’t concern you, it should.

When Moon Jae-in came to visit Trump at the White House three months ago, there was reason to fear that the meeting would be a fiasco. Presidential advisor Moon Chung-in’s pre-summit tour of the Washington think tank circuit mostly horrified conservatives who are in power in Washington today and was an especially inauspicious sign. Thankfully, the two presidents did not feud publicly, but it was almost immediately apparent that their visit bridged none of the allies’ fundamental differences. Trump is now revealing that privately, the two leaders disagreed on the most contentious of them — how to deal with Kim Jong-un.

As if to affirm the accuracy of Trump’s assessment, Moon has just returned from a cozy summit with Vladimir Putin, where the two leaders agreed to build what sounds a lot like Kaesong 2.0 near North Korea’s border with Russia.

South Korea’s unification ministry said Friday it plans to seek trilateral economic cooperation involving the two Koreas and Russia after taking into account international sanctions and public sentiment.

President Moon Jae-in has unveiled the so-called new Northern Policy designed to expand economic cooperation with northern states including North Korea.

The Ministry of Unification said that the initiative involving the two Koreas and Russia will help implement Moon’s another vision to build a new economic belt with North Korea. [Yonhap]

See also. So far, details of this scheme are scarce, but if it involves the use of North Korean labor outside North Korea, it faces an additional obstacle from the UN’s newest resolution.

11. Expresses concern that DPRK nationals frequently work in other States for the purpose of generating foreign export earnings that the DPRK uses to support its prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile programs, decides that all Member States shall not exceed on any date after the date of adoption of this resolution the total number of work authorizations for DPRK nationals provided in their jurisdictions at the time of the adoption of this resolution unless the Committee approves on a case-by-case basis in advance that employment of additional DPRK nationals beyond the number of work authorizations provided in a member state’s jurisdiction at the time of the adoption of this resolution is required for the delivery of humanitarian assistance, denuclearization or any other purpose consistent with the objectives of resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), 2094 (2013), 2270 (2016), 2321 (2016), 2356 (2017), or this resolution; [UNSCR 2371]

To amplify the absurdity of this, the Joongang Ilbo reports that Moon “failed to sway” Putin on enforcing sanctions against Pyongyang. But that report and the Moon administration’s new proposal can’t both be true. Reread the resolutions I quoted above and tell me how, even arguably, one can interpret such a proposal as (a) consistent with the resolutions, or (b) doing anything other than undermining the economic pressure Washington is trying to exert on Pyongyang right now. The most generous interpretations of Moon’s misreading of U.N. sanctions would attribute it ignorance, illiteracy, or incompetence. But coming less than a week after North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, while rumors of a long-range missile test swirled through Twitter, this latest proposal seems too spectacularly ill-timed to be inadvertent. Moon is showing Kim and Putin his outreached hand, even as he shows America his middle finger.

Give Trump credit where it’s due. His policy instincts about Moon and the South Korean left hew closer to reality than those of the last several American presidents. A good president doesn’t always need a mastery of fine detail; he simply needs to have good enough policy instincts to select advisors who do (and then, stay off Twitter and let them do their jobs).

Now the question that confronts Washington is how to mitigate the damage that Moon is willing to do to core U.S. national security interests. Moon knows the weakness of his position — his people like him personally, and wanted a change after ten years of conservative rule, but are deeply uneasy with his North Korea policies. No doubt, the signs of decoupling of the U.S.-South Korea alliance are cause for celebration in Pyongyang and Beijing. But if Moon means to finlandize South Korea and undermine sanctions yet again, why should Washington let him do so on his own terms? A strong demonstration that this will cause a breach in the alliance will undermine Moon’s political support, and may discourage him from undermining sanctions that Seoul’s representatives have supported at the U.N. Perhaps having a president with a Twitter account and a reputation for spontaneity isn’t all bad.

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* Analysts tend to underestimate the appeal of a confident, “strong”-looking leader to voters. This appeal transcends culture.

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Why Moon Jae-In can’t make the sun shine again

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.

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The Moon-Trump Summit: Catastrophe averted, for now

Korea-watchers are relieved that the uniquely volatile combination of Moon Jae-In and Donald Trump did not cause a catastrophe at last week’s summit. If avoiding catastrophe was the objective, then mission accomplished, for now. But if the objective was to build trust between the two governments or resolve the thorniest issues between them, the two governments achieved little. They tabled the issue of THAAD and already have an emerging split on free-trade renegotiations. Difficult USFK cost-sharing talks lie ahead.

On North Korea policy, they agreed on “a phased and comprehensive approach using sanctions and dialogue,” which just about every pundit calls for, with significant variations in sequencing. They only agreed on Moon’s plans to “engage” North Korea in the vaguest possible terms:

The two leaders expressed deep concern about the well-being of the DPRK’s people, particularly in light of the egregious human rights violations and abuses committed against them by the government, and noted their intention to ensure sanctions have minimal impact on the DPRK’s vulnerable populations. President Trump expressed support for President Moon’s aspiration to restart inter-Korean dialogue on issues, including humanitarian affairs. The two leaders reaffirmed the importance of cooperating with the international community to hold the DPRK accountable for substantial progress on the deplorable human rights situation in that country. [Joint Statement of the U.S. and S. Korean governments, via the White House]

Interestingly enough, Yonhap’s version of this text contained some small-but-significant variations from the White House’s version:

The two leaders expressed deep concern about the well-being of the North Korean people, including the egregious human rights violations and abuses committed by the government, and noted their intention to ensure sanctions have minimal impact on North Korea’s vulnerable populations. President Trump supported President Moon’s aspiration to restart inter-Korean dialogue on issues including humanitarian affairs. The two leaders reaffirmed the importance of cooperating with the international community to ensure accountability and achieve substantial progress in North Korea’s deplorable human right situation. [Joint Statement of the U.S. and S. Korean governments, via Yonhap]

The phrase “issues including humanitarian affairs” is so vague as to be meaningless. It could mean anything from the exchange of baton-twirling teams to donating food aid to reopening Kaesong. Did the U.S. side agree to any such project that would violate U.N. sanctions, subsidize Pyongyang, and undercut the “maximum pressure” that Trump has just begun to apply in earnest? Almost certainly not, but Seoul may not understand it the same way.

The agreement has helped ease concerns about a possible mismatch in the allies’ approach toward the nuclear-armed North. It’s apparently one of the biggest accomplishments for Moon, a liberal president who took office in early May, in his first talks with Trump.

“With regard to our government’s resolve to resume South-North talks, it’s true that there was some burden from worries that it may undermine (international) sanctions on North Korea,” a government official said on the condition of anonymity. The summit deal, however, has dispelled such a view and laid the groundwork for the Moon government to push for its North Korea policy “with more confidence,” he added. [Yonhap]

Left-of-center South Korean pundits are still speaking of negotiating concessions for a freeze agreement, which the Trump administration has never expressed support for. It’s as if these pundits remain uninformed of the overwhelmingly negative U.S. reaction to Moon Chung-In’s trial balloons. 

Nor did the visit resolve U.S. concerns over Moon’s shifting positions on security issues. One very influential person in government said to me on the last day of Moon’s visit, “I’m very worried about this South Korean president.” This letter from 18 senators of both parties, asking President Trump to push for a quick deployment of THAAD, barely masks Congress’s concerns that Moon’s delay of the deployment pending an environmental review was pretextual.  Most amusing was Ambassador Nikki Haley’s episode of a politician accidentally telling the truth:

President Moon Jae-in has made “good strides” towards the United States and away from North Korea, and the communist nation is pushing the South Korean leader further away from it with a series of missile tests, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said.

Haley made the remark during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing as she talked about the deployment of the U.S. THAAD missile defense system in South Korea, which Moon has suspended pending an environmental assessment.

“He has actually made good strides towards us and away from North Korea on many levels and, you know, those missiles that continue to be tested continue to push him the other way. I do think he was trying to slow-walk THAAD to see where it was going to be,” Haley said. [Yonhap]

Unfortunately for President Moon, there is another necessary party to that dialogue, and that party isn’t pleased with the outcome of the summit at all.

North Korea on Sunday condemned the South for what it called Seoul’s “submission to the U.S.,” as leaders of the two countries joined their voices last week in urging Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambition.

The Rodong Sinmun, the North’s main newspaper, published a commentary that assessed Seoul’s senior officials as having “revealed their miserable appearance seized with sycophancy and submission to the U.S. occasioned by the chief executive’s first junket to the U.S.,” referring to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s recent first trip to Washington.

The newspaper argued that albeit talks of alliance between the two sides, the U.S. “regards them (South Korea) as a mere puppet and colonial servant.”

The Rodong Sinmun further lashed out at the new Seoul administration, saying that its senior leadership would end up “into the rubbish heap of history” if the South “yields to the U.S” while antagonizing the North. [Yonhap]

Even mentioning the well-being of the North Korean people and their “deplorable human rights situation” was sure to quake Pyongyang into a volcanic rage. Pyongyang also unleashed this angry screed at Moon’s Foreign Minister, Kang Kyong-Hwa, calling her a “dolt.” 

More fundamentally, there is an unbridgeable gap between the forms of engagement that Washington and Pyongyang would both accept. Washington’s consent is not only necessary because it is Seoul’s main security guarantor, but because it holds a vote in the U.N. Security Council and the U.N. committee that must agree to any “public or private support for trade” with North Korea, such as at Kaesong. And while Trump’s smart move would be to support Moon’s pursuit of forms of engagement that do not undercut sanctions — such as revenue-neutral athletic and cultural exchanges, and the donation of food and medicine in-kind to relieve the suffering of the North Korean people — Pyongyang has made it clear that it does not want those things; it wants cash and sanctions relief.

Worse, as tomorrow’s post will detail, Pyongyang has begun behaving like a nuclear hegemon with a right to make decisions about matters of governance inside South Korea itself. 

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Moon Chung-In’s visit was a fiasco. Moon Jae-In’s summit with Trump might be the next one.

Next week, South Korean President Moon Jae-In will arrive in Washington for his first meeting with President Trump. North Korea policy is certain to be at the top of their agenda. Months ago, I predicted that the combination of Moon Jae-In and Donald Trump would be a uniquely volatile one, and all the indications so far are bearing this prediction out. Volumes of august and cerebral analysis may soon be nullified by 140 characters.

This is partially (but only partially) due to differences of policy and ideology. As I’ve noted more than once, Moon has spent his entire political career in the brain trust of South Korea’s hard left, among those who’ve shown more solidarity with North Korea than with America. Moon started with the left-wing lawyers’ guild Minbyun (which once resisted right-wing dictators in the courts, and which has since become Pyongyang’s instrument for waging lawfare against North Korean refugees). He was legal advisor to the Korea Teachers’ and Educational Workers’ Union, whose members were often exposed for propagating pro-North Korean views to their pupils. He managed Roh Moon-Hyun’s presidential campaign, which rode to power on a wave of sometimes-violent anti-Americanism, and served at the highest levels in the Roh administration, where Moon made the decision to solicit Pyongyang’s views before Seoul abstained from a U.N. vote to condemn the North’s crimes against humanity (and later lied about it).

Thus, President Moon entered office with a collection of ideas and advisors whose moment came in 2002 and went in 2008, when South Korea’s electorate regressed back to the mean. As Moon entered office, he knew very well that he had no mandate for a return to a policy of appeasing North Korea called Sunshine, a policy that was a demonstrable failure, that had undermined international sanctions, and that probably helped Pyongyang pay for its nuclear arsenal

That Trump and Moon are also temperamental opposites may be just as great a problem. Whatever one thinks of Moon Jae-In’s ideology, he is an extraordinarily smooth, personally likeable politician. Throughout his career, Moon had climbed the shoulders of men who expressed extreme views that he was careful not to express himself. Trump, by contrast, is an impulsive man without ideological convictions or caution, who expresses every extreme idea that enters his head, whether it be direct talks with Kim Jong-Un or urging China to assassinate him. 

Since I was a soldier in Korea years ago, I’ve felt that the interests of the allies were diverging. For years, rather than confront and try to check this divergence, the leaders of both countries concealed it with quiet diplomacy that left South Korean politicians free to engage in nationalist demagoguery, even at the sacrifice of the alliance’s popular support. But in this regard, the United States has just unexpectedly overmatched South Korea. That is why, unlike most Korea-watchers, I suspect that the U.S.-Korea alliance is one tweet away from a crisis that will harm the interests of both countries. Recent events bear out my pessimism:

U.S. President Donald Trump expressed fury over South Korea’s decision to delay the full deployment of the U.S. THAAD missile defense system pending an environmental assessment, a senior official said Sunday. Trump showed the reaction when he discussed the matter with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the White House on June 8, the official told Yonhap News Agency on condition of anonymity.

The revelations, if true, raise concern that the issue could affect the first summit meetings between President Moon Jae-in and Trump set for June 29-30 at the White House, though it is not clear if it would be on the agenda.

Earlier this month, South Korea suspended the deployment of an additional four THAAD launchers pending an environmental assessment, spurring doubts in the U.S. that the halt might be a precursor to the South ultimately rejecting the THAAD deployment altogether. But Seoul has promised the environmental study won’t lead to a reversal on the deployment itself. [Yonhap]

Moon’s position on THAAD shifted so much during his presidential campaign that it became all but impossible to pin it down in a debate. That’s certainly a function of public sentiment that still favors the deployment of THAAD, even (incredibly enough) after Trump’s ill-advised, pre-election demand that Seoul pay for it. And while I have little sympathy for Moon’s ideology, I have plenty of sympathy for his position. He now finds himself bullied by both China’s unilateral sanctions and Donald Trump’s extortionate demands that Seoul pay for THAAD, notwithstanding a prior agreement that the U.S. would pay, at least up front. That Moon finds himself in that position, however, owes much to his flawed reflex for trying to please everyone (which seldom pleases anyone). In doing so, Moon has created the perception in Beijing that he’s weak, soft, and an easy mark, and the perception in Washington that he’s a faithless ally. I can see the reason for both perceptions. (To make matters worse for Moon, even the North Koreans are unhappy with him, have refused Seoul’s offers of humanitarian aid, and want to sideline him in any talks with the U.S.)

By the time Moon took office, two THAAD launchers were in place and four others were set to be deployed. All of this had been agreed between the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defense, yet in what looked like an effort to manufacture a controversy to manipulate public opinion — a preparation for a capitulation to Beijing — Moon denied knowing this. Any such miscommunication looks to have been wholly intra-Korean, between the Blue House and the Defense Ministry. This gambit having backfired, the Moon administration began an “environmental review” of the deployment that looked suspiciously pretextual. His administration later added that the review might take as long as a year. All of these missteps cost Moon friends in the White House.

“One official at the National Security Council told me that there is a general distrust toward the Korean government in the United States, that the new administration may be lying,” said a diplomatic insider in Washington D.C. under condition of anonymity, especially after Moon complained that Washington had deployed four missile launchers for the Thaad battery without informing his government. “The U.S. government has confirmed that the South Korean government was aware of the arrival of the four additional Thaad launchers all this time.”

Moon had ordered last month an investigation into how four extra Thaad launchers had been brought into the country without his knowledge. The Blue House said earlier this month that the Ministry of National Defense intentionally omitted the delivery of the launchers in its report to the National Security Office. [Joongang Ilbo]

Now, instead of being able to blame any fissures in the alliance on a mercurial American president, Moon has irritated Ed Royce (possibly the best friend South Korea ever had in Congress), provoked a public spat with Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, and alienated key senators and representatives from both parties:

Meetings between President Moon and members of the U.S. Congress also fell through recently. Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, had requested a meeting with Moon sometime between May 27 and 28, but the meeting was not scheduled after days of attempts.

“The date that McCain asked for did not work with Moon’s schedule initially, so we got back to him in a few days about holding a meeting on May 28, as he requested, but McCain in the end decided not to stop by Korea in his trip to Asia for the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue.” “The correct protocol would have been confirming first that Moon will meet with McCain before scheduling a date,” said a Foreign Ministry insider.

Rep. Mac Thornberry from Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Cory Gardner from Colorado, chairman of the Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy, also requested meetings with Moon in late May but they did not take place. [Joongang Ilbo]

“But don’t worry,” President Moon must have said to his cabinet at one point. “Moon Chung-In can explain everything.” It’s too bad we don’t have surveillance video of the cabinet meetings that must have followed in Seoul since then. It would make for an epic “Downfall” parody.

~   ~   ~

I can’t say who picked Moon Chung-In, a left-wing South Korean academic and President Moon’s Special Advisor for Diplomacy and Security Affairs, to be the one to explain President Moon’s putative North Korea policy to American audiences at such a determinative moment. If President Moon’s objective for Professor Moon’s visit was to gain some room to maneuver by reassuring Washington that he is not as extreme as some of us think he is, that he will be a reliable ally, and that he won’t act like a spoiler of “maximum pressure,” then his badly received speech at the Wilson Center in Washington last week was an unmitigated fiasco. The sample of opinions that follows will give you a sense of just how universally Professor Moon’s visit has been panned from left, right, and center. Let’s start with the center-left Korea Herald:

Such worries intensified after Moon’s special adviser Moon Chung-in said on his trip to Washington on Saturday that South Korea would consult with the US on whether to scale back the scope of annual joint military drills and US deployment of strategic assets in exchange for “suspension” of the North’s nuclear and missile activities. The Trump administration has maintained that the North’s “complete removal” of its nuclear arsenal is a prerequisite to any dialogue.

The envoy’s remarks sparked criticism that it would undermine the allies’ efforts to present a united front against the North, which has been facing international condemnation over its relentless ballistic missile tests and brutal treatment of a US prisoner.

“With the summit around the corner, the Moon Jae-in administration is pouring out a series of diplomatic remarks that could endanger the Korea-US alliance. If we begin talks unilaterally, what would happen to the international coalition (against the North?),” said Rep. Kim Young-woo of the opposition Bareun Party, who serves as chairman of the parliamentary defense committee.

“Talking about reduced combined exercise and the US deployment of strategic assets is nothing but succumbing to the North Korean pressure when the North has continued its provocations with nuclear and missile development.”

Washington also expressed skepticism about the envoy’s proposal. US State Department spokeswoman Alicia Edwards said that they view Moon Chung-in’s proposal as a personal view, not the official stance of the South Korean government, according to a report from VOA on Saturday. [Korea Herald]

The subhed to the center-right Joongang Ilbo’s coverage conceded that Professor Moon’s proposal went down “badly” in Washington. Even the far-left Hankroyeh, which frequently publishes Professor Moon’s views and expressed support for Professor Moon’s proposals, allowed that his speech “does not seem very cautious for such sensitive information to be coming from a special advisor just ten days before a South Korea-US summit.” There are already calls from the opposition for Professor Moon to resign. The speech was also widely panned by Americans, starting with the centrist Korea-watcher Gordon Flake:

 

On the right, where sentiment matters most right now in the U.S., Bruce Klingner told Yonhap that Moon’s comments would “exacerbate U.S. concerns about President Moon Jae-in’s potential policies on North Korea and the U.S. alliance,” and about a return to Roh Moo-Hyun-era appeasement policies. Klingner, one of the few academics the Trump administration listens to, called the speech “counterproductive” to President Moon’s objective of reassuring Washington on the eve of his summit with President Trump. Robert Manning of the Atlantic Council observed, “Some of the ideas floated by President Moon and his top advisers seem to be dusting off old ‘sunshine’ ideas that failed.”

The Blue House itself backpedaled furiously, distanced itself from Professor Moon, and seemed to fling him under every passing bus on the Jongro:

An official from South Korea’s presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul insisted the professor was voicing his own personal views, saying they had not been coordinated with the presidential office, let alone the president. The Cheong Wa Dae official, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity, noted the special adviser had met with a ranking official from the presidential National Security Office prior to his U.S. trip, but said the two had merely exchanged greetings.

Another Cheong Wa Dae official said the presidential office has since contacted the special adviser and sternly warned him of the danger of making such comments even if they were his personal views. “We sternly spoke of the fact that this may not be helpful to Korea-U.S. relations in the future,” the official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. [Yonhap]

Moon Chung-In now finds himself blamed for the disastrous visit by his friends and foes alike, but that isn’t quite fair. The idea that Professor Moon was speaking only for himself strains credibility. Are we to believe that the Blue House did not vet his remarks? Or that it failed to consult the South Korean Embassy in Washington to solicit its views on how badly this proposal would go down here? Or that it had no role at all in selecting Professor Moon as spokesman for the views of his president at such a critical moment? If any of these things is true, this was extraordinarily incompetent.

Perhaps as an academic, Professor Moon is miscast as a diplomat. But who would have been a better choice? President Moon’s Chief of Staff, who served three years in prison for organizing Lim Soo-Kyung’s propaganda tour of Pyongyang, and who formerly led a radical, pro-North Korean student group that (shortly after his departure) tried to firebomb the U.S. Embassy in Seoul? Or his just-confirmed Foreign Minister, a self-professed human rights specialist who served in South Korea’s U.N. Mission and at the U.N. as Seoul abstained, year after year, on resolutions condemning North Korea’s crimes against humanity? What about the man who recently withdrew as nominee to be Justice Minister under an ethical cloud, and who led the National Human Rights Commission during the Roh Moo-Hyun era as it resisted (with only partial success) withering criticism for its refusal to criticize Pyongyang’s crimes against its own people? Or President Moon’s new Unification Minister, who was indicted for destroying a transcript of a meeting in which Roh allegedly promised to cede South Korea’s maritime border with the North? It’s not apparent who could have represented the new president’s views better without becoming a lightning rod.

And of course, both the Blue House and American Korea-watchers were certainly aware of Professor Moon’s long history of anti-anti-North Korean sentiment and thinly veiled anti-American nationalism. See, for example, this recent op-ed Professor Moon recently published in the Joongang Ilbo, in which he called for immediate and unconditional negotiations with Pyongyang and hinted at reopening Kaesong. The op-ed proposed “the adjustment or temporary halt of the Korea-U.S. joint military exercises” as a precondition to a nuclear and missile test freeze, and “[p]arallel pursuit of denuclearization and establishment of a peace system … because again, it is important to show a flexible attitude.” Endlessly flexible. These, of course, are the same views that went over so badly in Washington last week. Let no one say that Professor Moon’s views were spontaneous or thoughtless utterances. This was the trial balloon for the trial balloon.

Maybe the Blue House should have toned Professor Moon’s remarks, except that my guess is that these were the toned-down remarks. Keep reading Professor Moon’s Joongang Ilbo op-ed and decide for yourself whether he was at least arguably calling the alliance with the U.S. a “colonial occupation,” making a thinly veiled appeal to nationalism, and threatening to call for anti-American protests (which have historically turned violent).

The 25 years of the North Korean nuclear threat has taught us the painful lesson of how important imagination and determination are. Until now, Korea has been easily decided by foreign powers. Last century’s colonial occupation, war and division were tragic products of foreign powers’ political contests. Considering the weight of the Korea-U.S. alliance and the geopolitical structure of Northeast Asia, it may be reckless to block the influence of our neighbors. However, it won’t be easy to give priority to inter-Korean relations over Korea-U.S. or Korea-China relations, either.

The time has come for us to turn the power of the people and the miracle of the candlelight demonstrations into a driving force for peace on the Korean Peninsula. The nuclear issue is a complicated challenge, but we can overcome it when we become one. Korea needs to stand at the center of the Korean Peninsula and East Asian diplomacy. In order not to be limited as a dependent variable of foreign powers, and to not repeat the fate of the Balkans, Korea needs to take initiative in resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis. This is how Moon will succeed — or fail. [Joongang Ilbo]

As an American and a former USFK soldier myself, whenever I hear my country called a colonial occupier, my first reaction is to test that assertion by offering to withdraw our forces. Indeed, if South Koreans want us to leave, it would be our obligation to respect their will. For now, that isn’t the will of South Koreans, even if they see U.S. forces as a necessary evil. Yet Moon Chung-In carried this offensive and extreme viewpoint to Washington just as the mood toward North Korea was as furious as it has been at any time since North Korea’s last nuclear test, as Otto Warmbier returned from Pyongyang in a coma (and subsequently passed away). How much of this is really Moon Chung-In’s fault? The real blame for the catastrophe that followed lies with Moon Jae-In’s own failure to perceive that Moon Chung-In’s tone, and the substance of his proposals, were sure to alarm most members of Congress, the administration, and academia.

Of course, not all Americans were alarmed. There is a fringe of left-of-center American opinion that Moon Chung-In is close to, and it’s more than a fringe in academic circles. What Moon said in his Wilson Center speech isn’t far removed from what you can read in an unceasing stream of op-eds by American academics calling for freeze deals that neither the U.S. Congress nor North Korea seems particularly interested in. I don’t know how much exposure Professor Moon has to centrist or right-of-center views in America, but if he believed that his proposals were within our mainstream, it may be because he cocooned himself with too many simpaticos. Perhaps the approval of this group gave Professor Moon a false sense of affirmation. Either way, Moon Jae-In can’t blame anyone but himself for this disastrous tone-deafness.

Maybe next week, the two presidents will cobble together a show of unity, like two divorcing parents at their daughter’s wedding. Maybe Trump will end the summit by tweeting that Manchuria was historically part of Korea. Maybe Trump will behave so boorishly that Moon will be able to pin the consequences of his own extreme world view and ineptitude on Trump, and play the nationalist card that the deck hasn’t dealt him yet. Or, maybe both leaders will conclude the summit with a spat that will harm both of their own political reputations, and the long-term interests of both nations.

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We should be very worried about Moon Jae-in (updated)

Is South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, forming a cabinet or a politburo? As I’ve written here, there has long been good reason to be worried. Moon has a long association with Minbyun, the hard-left lawyers’ group that is acting as Pyongyang’s law firm in South Korea by using the courts to wage lawfare against refugees, in violation of their human rights. He was chairman of the campaign of Roh Moo-hyun, the “anti-American” and “a little crazy” president who rode to power on the shoulders of a violent mob that attacked, spat on, and threw firebombs at American soldiers. As Roh’s Chief of Staff, Moon decided to seek Pyongyang’s input before abstaining from a U.N. resolution denouncing severe human rights abuses against its people, and then lied about it.

The most alarming development of all may be Moon’s choice of Im Jeong-seok as his Chief of Staff. Im was jailed for three-and-a-half years for accompanying organizing the illegal 1989 visit to Pyongyang that made Lim Soo-kyung a North Korean propaganda star. (Lim is now a lawmaker in Moon’s party. I previously discussed her drunken 2012 tirade against North Korean defectors and human rights activists. A previous version of this post, since corrected, said that Im had gone to Pyongyang with Lim.)

Via Benjamin Young, we also learn that Im was “involved with a Juche Study Group during the 1980s.” After I retweeted this, Oranckay, who was a student in South Korea at the time and thus almost necessarily a close observer of left-wing political groups, responded that Im had also headed a radical student group called Chondaehyop. Researching this group further, Chondaehyop turns out to have adhered to the pro-North Korean “national liberation” ideology, and had a violent history:

[link]

Chondaehyop was involved in a series of arson and vandalism attacks against Hyundai showrooms in 1989 during a strike by Hyundai shipyard workers. On June 12, 1990, 300 members of Chondaehyop staged a firebombing attack on the Kwangju American Cultural Center, which damaged a police station and injured four officers. Then, on October 18th, eleven members of Chondaehyop were arrested for attempting to firebomb the U.S. Embassy in Seoul and planting IEDs on the roof of the Consular Annex (all of the IEDs failed to explode).

After Chondaehyop was banned, it reemerged under the name Hanchongryon, under which name it was active in leading violent anti-American demonstrations during my tour in Korea. Even during the democratically elected Kim Young-sam administration, the prosecution accused Hanchongryon of being under the control of North Korea’s United Front Department, the agency responsible for overseeing the manipulation of public opinion in South Korea.

To be fair, Oranckay did not observe Chondaehyop engaging in violence at the time Im led it, but not much time could have separated Im’s leadership from its occurrence.

Then, there is the worrisome fact that Moon Jae-in gave one of his first post-inauguration interviews to Tim Shorrock, a pro-North Korean hack (he calls himself a “journalist”) with a long career of denialism of Pyongyang’s crimes going back to the 1983 Rangoon bombing, and its crimes against humanity.

More recently, Mr. Shorrock has been spreading unsubstantiated anti-American agitprop, which I can’t ask him to substantiate because he blocked me on Twitter months ago.

Shorrock is also really, really angry at Bernie Sanders for being too critical of North Korea.

Now, when you call someone a Marxist, you’re apt to be called a McCarthyist, so instead, I’ll just link to, say, this post where Mr. Shorrock wrote, “I’m a Marxist.” Or, I’ll announce that I have in my hand a list of Mr. Shorrock’s tweets, to give you a better idea of his political views. Draw your own conclusions. (Sorry for the image quality. As mentioned, Mr. Shorrock blocked me several months ago, but a couple of readers sent me screenshots from his feed. I didn’t know then they’d come in handy later.)

And here’s Shorrock defending Roh Kil-nam (who I discussed here).

I believe the specific reason why Mr. Shorrock blocked me, incidentally, was that I repeatedly tried to get him to state whether he still demanded that the South Korean government release Lee Seok-ki, a hard-left ex-lawmaker who was recorded plotting violent attacks against critical infrastructure in South Korea in support of a North Korean invasion, even after Mr. Lee was convicted of treason and sent to prison and his conviction was affirmed by an appeals court.

In conclusion, a bigger dirigible bag of combustible gas has not been seen in America since May 6, 1937, over Lakehurst, New Jersey. And like Mr. Shorrock, this predecessor was a propaganda banner for a fascist state that sent children to die in concentration camps — only Shorrock is either too blind or too stupid to distinguish between Marxism and hereditary rule by an organized crime family that has created a society of permanent classes, propagates vile racism, enforces racial purity with infanticide, anointed its ruling family as gods, and created arguably the world’s greatest gap between rich and poor. That President Moon granted an interview to Mr. Shorrock should alarm us for the same reason it alarmed us when Donald Trump gave an interview to Alex Jones.

As they say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Personnel is policy. You judge a man by the company he keeps. Pick your own expression. The clear message Mr. Moon is sending to Pyongyang is, “I’ve chosen sides, but for now, there are some understandable political constraints.” You might choose to assume that Moon and Im have moderated with age. You might cite any number of Moon’s statements during the campaign to take comfort from the moderate views he expresses now. Most politicians, after all, are highly sensitive to what views they can express without losing votes.

But this collection of circumstantial evidence of Moon’s origins and associations suggests the more alarming — and equally plausible — explanation that Moon and those closest to him cannot be trusted with the most sensitive U.S. intelligence about our contingency plans, and that their unreconstructed views are merely latent for the time being. It’s time to be very worried about Moon Jae-in.

~   ~   ~

Update: Veteran journalist Bradley K. Martin’s detailed Asia Times story about Im Jeong-seok is an absolute must-read:

There seems to be little surprise in Seoul about the appointment of Im, who’s now 51. After all, Moon is a former militant anti-government activist. Later, he was a close supporter of two earlier presidents’ decade-long pursuit of the “Sunshine” policy of making nice to the North in the hope the two could negotiate their differences.

Moon has since his election sought to downplay his differences with US policy toward North Korea. So the suggestion that Im’s appointment sounds like an appalling development is left to just a few observers.

Read the rest on your own. Those zany right-wing conspiracy theories about a quiet coup in South Korea suddenly aren’t sounding all that zany at all. “Appalling” is right.

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North Korea policy in the South Korean election: what (little) the data tell us

What exit polling data I do have come to us from the Asan Institute. And while Asan’s analysis contains much interesting information that political types would call “internals,” it doesn’t tell us all that much about voters’ attitudes about North Korea policy. The first thing it tells us is that North Korea didn’t really weigh much on the minds of voters at all, compared to economic issues.

I wonder whether you’d see more concern among Americans about the North Korean threat if you took a poll here. South Koreans have become practiced and skilled at ignoring the North Korea problem over the years.

Our only “rare glimpse” of voter opinion on security issues comes in this surprising finding that almost by 60-40, the voters still want THAAD. That’s a surprising result given Donald Trump’s ham-handed demands that South Korea pay for it on the eve of the election. Frankly, I’d have expected something closer to the opposite result. That suggests that any plans Moon has to pass legislation in the National Assembly reversing the deployment of the system (which is now operational) could run into trouble.

Another glimpse comes from recent data, which I discussed here, showing that Xi Jinping’s unilateral sanctions against South Korea have caused a rise in anti-China sentiment, while pro-U.S. sentiment is high, and pro-North Korea sentiment isn’t. The political environment in South Korea is nothing like 2002, although I suppose that most South Koreans would probably favor some form of engagement and oppose confrontational policies in the abstract. I’m sure the administration’s war talk makes them nervous (me too).

To delve deeper into South Koreans’ views, I had to go back to 2015, because the 2016 version of this poll wouldn’t download. That poll was taken after Park’s handling the 2015 land mine incident, but before Park closed Kaesong (at least permanently). At first glance, this graph suggests that the softer line wins plurality support. But if one assumes that voters perceived Park’s policy as hard-line, and if you combine the status quo and pro-hard-line figures, you see that at that time, a majority of South Koreans who had an opinion wanted a North Korea policy that was as tough or tougher than Park’s.

Indeed, as I’ve noted before, Park’s North Korea policy was about the only thing voters liked about her. I’d say that goes for me, too (always has) although unlike most South Koreans, I don’t have to work Saturdays, stay out late drinking with my boss, or watch him promote his incompetent college classmates ahead of me. Not surprisingly, then, I differ from most South Koreans on which issue that concerns me.

The data mostly support what I said yesterday: despite voters’ fatigue with the political right, and their desire to punish it for Park Geun-hye’s sins, they are uneasy about the security situation and wary of a lowering their guard. Moon hedged carefully on THAAD, and he’s begun to hedge on Kaesong, too. He’s a smart enough politician to continue to hedge if he senses that he can’t push harder for policies he really prefers without losing political support. What Moon and those around him probably do prefer is where things take an alarming turn, but I’ll have to leave that topic for another day.

If any readers have newer or better polling data to add to this mix, kindly drop a link in the comments. (Note: Comments are moderated, so it might take a few hours until I have a chance to approve them. Please be patient. Comments here have been of very good quality lately; thanks for submitting them.)

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No, Moon Jae-In’s election probably doesn’t mean Sunshine 2.0

I’ll have to keep this post short because of time constraints, but my interest in South Korea’s election is mostly related to how Seoul’s policies toward North Korea will shift. I’ll refer you to this post and this one on why it’s likely to change less than John Delury might like, this piece in NK News where I offer some thoughts, and this excellent post by Marcus Noland and Kent Boydston. Much will depend on how hard President Trump pushes back. Maybe Moon will completely win Trump over in their first call, but I’m more inclined to believe that it will turn into a difficult cost-sharing negotiation (which Moon can use to his political advantage).

If Trump is skillful in his handling of Moon, however, he can exploit Moon’s political and legal weaknesses to prevent him from catapulting money over the DMZ. For one thing, Trump has U.N. sanctions on his side. For another, North Korea policy wasn’t the main reason people voted for Moon, and compared to past South Korean presidents, Moon’s win was hardly commanding. If you eliminate candidates who received less than 1 percent of the vote, in 1997, Kim Dae-Jung won 40.3 percent in a three-way race; in 2002, Roh Moo Hyun, won 48.9 percent in a three-way race; in 2007, Lee Myung Bak won 48.7 percent in a five-way race; in 2012, Park Geun-hye won 51.5 percent in a two-way race; and this year, Moon won 41.1 percent in a five-way race.

It’s worth asking why Moon actually performed worse in terms of percentage of the vote this year despite his name recognition, the advantage of an anti-Park backlash, and a fractious (and frankly, pathetic) field of opponents on the right. Because it was a five-way race, of course! But why was this a five-way race at all? The right had as weak a field as Moon himself could have conjured, and Moon has run against Ahn Cheol-soo before and made quick work of him. In 2012, Ahn’s support collapsed and his supporters coalesced behind Moon. This time, Moon couldn’t close that deal. Surely Moon would have preferred that outcome, and surely he still does, given that he only controls 120 (not 119) seats in the National Assembly now. He will need 151 votes to legislate his policies on THAAD, Kaesong, other elements of his agenda. Give him the Justice Party’s 6 votes. He still needs most of the People’s Party votes to pass legislation, and even then, don’t forget that Moon’s own party was able to delay passage of a North Korea human rights law for more than a decade. Can he get those votes? Probably so on less controversial issues, and hopefully so on needed reforms to make South Korea a fairer, safer society with a better quality of life, and a better work-life balance.

On the specific issue of resuming Sunshine, however, I see little evidence of a mandate. Of course, past vote totals are hardly predictive of the impact of past presidents on South Korea’s policies toward North Korea — one could argue that there is almost an inverse relationship. What does seem to be predictive of South Korea’s policy is the mood of the times, and the best data I have suggests that that mood has shifted strongly toward the center since 2002. Each nuke or missile test will weaken Moon’s hand in capitalizing Pyongyang. How Trump deals with Moon, what Kim Jong-un does next, and the results of South Korea’s next by-elections will give us a better sense of whether the voters want Moon to have a mandate or checks on his power. (Who knows when those will be?)

The immediate impact of Moon’s election is that the herculean efforts of Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se to secure other nations’ compliance with U.N. sanctions on North Korea will end. Over to you, Secretary Tillerson. The question that weighs on me more is whether Moon will listen to the counsel of his most extreme advisors, who might endanger the rights of North Korean refugees in South Korea.

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How Moon Jae-in rode a wave of violent anti-Americanism from obscurity to power

Like Roh Moo-hyun, the President he served, Moon Jae-in’s ideological origins are found within the leftist lawyers’ group Minbyun (which has since become Pyongyang’s instrument for intimidating North Korean refugees in the South). As lawyers defending left-wing radicals and pro-democracy activists alike against the right-wing dictatorship, Moon and Roh became close friends and law partners in Pusan. Moon went on to become the legal advisor to the Pusan branch of the Korea Teachers’ and Educational Workers’ Union, a radicalized union that would draw controversy for the politicized, anti-American, and often pro-North Korean bias of its members’ instruction. In one case, it was caught using textbooks that borrowed heavily from North Korean texts.

[As political photo ops go, this combines all the appeal of Dukakis-in-a-tank and a Village People USO show.]

But the story of the rise of Moon Jae-in, the man who might be South Korea’s next President, really began with the election of 2002, when Moon managed Roh’s campaign. In many ways, the rise was a remarkable one. Neither man had any national political experience, and what experience they had was hardly predictive of success. (Roh’s only previous run for elected office had ended in defeat.) Roh initially ran on a platform of improving relations with North Korea and cleaning up corruption — an ironic position for a man who would later leap to his death as a bribery scandal closed in on him.

But it was not Roh’s promises of clean government that energized his base; instead, Roh and Moon found victory in tragedy. In June of 2002, the U.S. Army held an exercise near the town of Yangju. It should never have been held in such a heavily populated area. The drivers of the armored vehicles that participated contended with narrow roads, poor visibility, and faulty communications equipment. A series of poor-in-retrospect judgments by young soldiers, none of them criminal, ended horribly, with two 14-year-old girls, Shin Hyo-sun and Shim Mi-seon, crushed under the tracks of a bridge-laying vehicle.

As anyone living in South Korea could see by then — I was nearing the end of my twice-extended, four-year tour with the Army there — anti-Americanism was already rising, and the presence of so many phalanxes of riot police in downtown Seoul made me wonder if this was what Berlin felt like in the late ‘20s. In that politically charged context, false rumors quickly outran the truth. Some newspapers reported that the soldiers had run over the girls intentionally. Former U.S. diplomat and fluent Korean speaker David Straub recalled some Korean media reported that the soldiers stood and laughed over the girls’ crushed bodies. In reality, the soldiers were devastated and traumatized. (I’ve met and spoken with several of the soldiers who were at the scene. One is a close friend and reader.)

It’s difficult to know how many Koreans really believed such spurious rumors, but there was no serious question that this tragedy was an accident. Most Americans viewed that as mitigating, but I’ve since come to realize that this exacerbated the controversy because of the very different ways in which Americans and Koreans respond to accidents — Americans’ first impulses are to regulate and sue; Koreans, whose legal system does not distinguish between torts and crimes, seek to blame and punish. That goes far to explain why everything the Americans said and did only seemed to make matters worse.

“Almost every Korean I speak to says that the verdict should reflect the feelings of the people. We go to great lengths to separate feelings from the law. It is a different concept,” the official said. He also complained that many apologies had been offered, from senior military brass to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who spoke to South Korean Foreign Minister Choi Sung Hong. “In this case, the Koreans just haven’t been listening,” the official said. [L.A. Times, Barbara Demick]

Amid the rising outrage, Korean prosecutors asked the Army to waive the provision of the Status of Forces agreement that gave it jurisdiction over on-duty incidents and the Army. The Army, no doubt fearing that the proceeding would be unfair, declined. That part of the decision was the correct one. As a South Korean law professor told a reporter, the two soldiers “almost certainly would have been convicted in a South Korean court.”

Instead, because it must have seemed like a good idea at the time, the Army charged the soldiers with negligent homicide at a court-martial. In effect, the Army had heard Koreans’ calls for punishment and mistranslated them as calls for justice. Had I stayed in Korea for another year, it might have fallen to me to defend one of the soldiers in court. Instead, that job fell to others. Of course, any competent Judge Advocate could have predicted that no panel would convict, and any competent diplomat should have predicted how certain elements of Korean society would react to the inevitable acquittal. To compound the error, the case went to trial a month before Korea’s presidential election.

~   ~   ~

For Roh and Moon Jae-in, these events were a political godsend. Even the accounts of journalists sympathetic to Roh’s North Korea policy leave little doubt that Roh’s campaign “orchestrated [and] politically cashed in on an anti-establishment movement” that included “bold anti-American rhetoric.” Mike Chinoy wrote that “Roh’s final campaign rallies were marked by renewed pledges to maintain the Sunshine Policy and increasingly sharp anti-American rhetoric, including warnings that a Roh administration would not necessarily side with the United States in the event the crisis led to armed conflict.” Demonstrators chanted Roh’s name and sang that America was “a vulgar country.” 

Roh seemed to be their man. He had been criticizing Bush’s tough approach to the North Korean nuclear threat, preaching reconciliation and dialogue. He promised a policy more independent of American influence, and changes in the treaty governing the legal status of U.S. troops stationed here. While insisting he wasn’t anti-American, he said he wouldn’t “kowtow” to America. [….]

During the campaign, Roh seemed less accommodating toward Washington, speaking of the need for the Korean president to play a “leading role” in the nuclear crisis rather than “unilaterally obeying U.S. policy without criticism.”

“Exerting pressure on North Korea could be very dangerous,” he said then. “Now it’s time for South Korea to take the lead. We should no longer be a passive player manipulated by others. We and the United States have different interests on this issue. The United States’ goal is to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, but for us, it can be a matter of life or death.” [Choe Sang-Hun, AP]

The Korea-based reporter Bobby McGill recounted how anti-Americanism even became a cultural fad.

The anger was palpable. While reporting on events for the the San Francisco Chronicle, I cited a Gallup poll that showed 75 percent of Koreans in their 20s said they disliked Americans. Sixty-seven percent in their 30s, along with half of those in their 40s, told Gallup they either “did not like” or “hated” the United States.

Few living on the peninsula at that time were immune to the movement. Businesses around the country banned Americans (and by association, Westerners) from entering, US flags were laid on the ground at university campuses allowing students to walk on them en route to class, and graphic banners of Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-sun were erected at rallies, as the American military came under increasingly heated scrutiny for what was ubiquitously viewed as an unfair and unjustified handling of their deaths. [Busan Haps]

The occasion for McGill’s recollection was Americans’ discovery that ten years before his ten minutes of fame, Psy had rapped, “Kill those f****** Yankees who have been torturing Iraqi captives — Kill those f****** Yankees who ordered them to torture, Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law and fathers — Kill them all slowly and painfully.” A popular girl band’s video featured “cowboy-booted Americans being beaten up, fed to dogs, and tossed off buildings.” One protest anthem was called “F**king USA.”

The extent of the anti-American sentiments stirred by the case was evident over the weekend at the entrance to a restaurant in downtown Seoul, which posted signs saying, “Not Welcome. The Americans.” Other establishments near university campuses were reported to be similarly barring Americans.

“I thought about putting up a sign reading, ‘Yankee, Go Home,’ but that seemed too harsh,” said Lee Chang Yong, 41, who had put up the “Not Welcome” sign. Lee said he appreciates the presence of U.S. troops in defending South Korea but believes that they behave arrogantly without respect for Korean culture. [L.A. Times, Barbara Demick]

Even before the accident, there had been acts of anti-American violence. In July 2000, a Korean man had stabbed and killed Major David Berry, a doctor and father of five, on a street I’d walked countless times. In February 2002, protesters ransacked the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Seoul, stole $10,000, and posted video  of the incident on the website of a radical group calling itself “Voice of the People.” A poll later showed that nearly half of South Koreans approved.

Soldiers were warned against wearing our uniforms off-post or traveling alone (as a defense attorney representing clients in remote posts, this was an order I could only disregard). By the time my tour in South Korea ended in July of 2002, and just a month after the fatal accident, I had watched anti-American sentiment build for four years (though my affection for Korea, and for one Korean in particular, was still enough that I extended my tour twice anyway). But it is also true that the rhetoric became more violent in the months after the accident and before the election, held on December 19, 2002, and that actual violence was the inevitable result of this rhetoric.

~   ~   ~

On September 16th came the kidnapping of Private John Murphy in an incident that was clearly premeditated and instigated by So Kyung-won, “a former legislator who was jailed” for ten years “after going to North Korea without permission.” After his release, So became co-chairman of “a committee focusing on the accident involving the girls.” Murphy and two other soldiers were riding on the Seoul subway when a group of protesters accosted them. So tried to hand Murphy a leaflet, which Murphy refused to accept. The soldiers got off at the next stop, but as they tried to leave, they were ”pulled, punched, kicked and spat upon by demonstrators.” So and his comrades held Murphy until he made a videotaped apology and confession. (Like Moon Jae-in, So had been a leader in the KTEU. He would earn repeated praise in Pyongyang for his role in the kidnapping and other anti-American agitprop.)

On September 27th, ten Koreans threw Molotov cocktails into Camp Red Cloud, near Uijongbu. More firebombings would follow after Sergeants Nino and Walker were acquitted on November 20 and 22. Three days later, 20 people calling themselves “Korean Students Seeking Punishment for the Murderous American Soldiers” gathered outside Camp Gray in Seoul and threw ten Molotov cocktails into the post. The next day, 50 protesters broke into Camp Casey, near Dongducheon, north of Seoul. Two days after that, more Molotov cocktails were thrown into Camp Page, near Chuncheon. That same month, a U.S. Army colonel and his wife went to Kyunghee University to talk to a group of students when a group of radicals surrounded and damaged their car, forcing them to flee. Thankfully, no one was injured in these incidents.

Protests, some of them violent, surged on through December. Four protesters cut the wire fence around a post near Incheon. Outside, 500 activists protested and fought with riot police. On the evening of December 15th, three men attacked, tried to stab, and injured Lieutenant Colonel Steven Boylan, the spokesman for U.S. Forces Korea who had been the Army’s voice throughout that difficult year. There can be little question that the attack was premeditated. On the morning of December 20th, a day after the election, a passing motorist shot an American soldier with a pellet gun outside a U.S. Army post in Seoul. Later that morning, two U.S. soldiers at Seoul Station were assaulted, grabbed by their throats, and spat on while four South Korean soldiers stood by.

~   ~   ~

Certainly, nothing Roh or Moon said directly encouraged violence against Americans, but they didn’t discourage it, either. (The historical record from that election season is curiously devoid of any comments by Moon Jae-in, or even any coverage of him or his views.) Still, it seems unlikely that Roh could have won without this energy behind him; even with it, he only eked out a narrow win by just two percentage points.

North Korea “welcome[d] Roh’s victory as a defeat for Washington’s harder line” and said that the result “showed that ‘forces instilling anti-North confrontation … cannot escape a crushing defeat.’” It is fair to say that Roh and Moon were no more responsible for all of this than Donald Trump and Steven Bannon are responsible for the rhetoric of Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos, or for the reaction of their most extreme supporters, but in both cases, the candidates never appealed for an end to the violence or the rhetoric that made it inevitable. Instead, Roh asked, “What’s wrong with being anti-American?”

With the election safely behind him, Roh conceded that it had all gone too far.

“I made various remarks on the campaign trail, but I was just roughly touching upon issues without giving full consideration to the diplomatic and security situations,” he said. “I will consult with people in the government and will make more responsible remarks in the future.” [Choe Sang-Hun, AP]

But this still wasn’t a call for an end to the violence, and the violence was not over. More would follow in the coming years, including violent protests at Camp Humphreys in 2006 that injured 117 policemen and 93 protesters. The violence slowly tapered off as the Sunshine Policy failed to keep its unrealistic promises, as Roh turned out to be another compromised politician, and as North Korea repaid the South’s generosity by sinking one of its warships and shelling a fishing village, killing 50 of its citizens.

Opinions shifted away from the pro-North Korean and anti-American sentiment that dominated in 2002. Today, there is no groundswell to cozy up to Kim Jong-un or kick the Yankees out. Instead, there is the weariness with the industry of politics (see, e.g., America circa 2015) and a combination of anxiety, frustration, and indecision about North Korea (see, e.g., Washington, D.C., circa 2009 to 2015). The spirit of 2002 returned again in 2015, when a pro-North Korean extremist slashed the face of U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert. With delectable irony, Moon warned that “if this incident is politically used … such a move will rather hurt the Seoul-Washington ties.”

~   ~   ~

That is how, in a few short years, Moon Jae-in rose from radical obscurity as a lawyer and ideologue to becoming the closest confidant of a president whom former Defense Secretary Robert Gates later described as “anti-American” and “probably a little crazy.” (In his memoirs, Gates wrote that Roh had called the U.S. and Japan the two greatest threats to security in Asia.) After Moon defended Roh in the latter’s 2004 impeachment, Roh made Moon a job as Senior Presidential Secretary for Political Affairs, putting him in charge of communications with the National Assembly and South Korea’s political parties. He later became Roh’s Chief of Staff, the position he held when he asked Pyongyang for its instructions as to how Seoul’s man in New York should vote on a U.N. General Assembly vote to condemn North Korea’s human rights abuses (and subsequently lied about it).

If Moon Jae-in’s history and recent statements are predictive of his world view, the U.S.-Korea alliance is headed for what we might call “a critical stage.” For example, Moon was widely quoted as promising that if elected, he would visit Pyongyang before he visits Washington, though he now claims that statement was taken out of context. Moon still says he plans to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a move that would violate U.N. sanctions and directly undermine the Trump administration’s emerging policy of economic pressure on Pyongyang. Moon has opposed, and repeatedly waffled on, the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system that protects not only South Korean cities, but U.S. forces and their families. Whereas Moon calls Kim Jong-un a ”partner for dialogue,” he sells himself as the leader of a Korea that can “say no the U.S.” You can get the full flavor of Moon’s putative North Korea policy here.

I’m already on record as predicting that these policies bear a high risk of going down very badly with the current U.S. President, who campaigned on demanding that Korea pay more for the cost of U.S. forces in Korea (a demand I would readily support) and whose recent policy review will emphasize economic pressure on Kim Jong-un. As Professor Lee, Bruce Klingner, and I recently argued in the pages of Foreign Affairs, one cannot make a coherent policy of subsidizing and sanctioning the same target at the same time. If you wire $7 billion to the man pointing the nukes at you, you forfeit the argument that sanctions haven’t worked. And potentially, you forfeit much more than that.

Moon now says that if elected, he would “pursue [the] realization of the dream that President Roh Moo-hyun was unable to see completed.” Mr. Moon may well realize the dream of another Korean leader, whether he knows it or not.

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Moon Jae-in lied, people died

We now revisit the curious case of a leader inside South Korea’s Blue House who sought and followed the counsel of a cult leader with no official position in the South Korean government and (let us hope!) no security clearance, regarding a highly sensitive question of government policy. By which I refer, of course, to Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-il (who else were you thinking of?). To refresh your memory:

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. [Me, four months ago]

At first, Moon said he couldn’t remember what happened. Then, his memory recovered and he denied Song’s allegation. Then, he sued some of the conservative opponents who attacked him for it (but not Song himself). I’d begun to think that South Koreans had forgotten all about this until last week, when Moon and the other candidates for South Korea’s upcoming presidential election debated.

Two conservative candidates set an aggressive tone from the outset, accusing him of kowtowing to North Korea and flip-flopping on missile defense.

Yoo Seong-min of the splinter conservative Bareun Party revisited the allegation that the former presidential chief of staff consulted Pyongyang before the government abstained in a vote on U.N. resolution on North Korea’s human rights violations in 2007, an accusation that Moon denied again.

Hong Joon-pyo of the conservative Liberty Korea Party denounced Moon for lying, citing a former foreign minister’s memoirs that first sparked the controversy. Moon countered that Hong was amplifying an unverified claim. [Yonhap]

Enter Song Min-soon, who calmly rises from his counsel table with a piece of paper in his hand. He approaches the clerk of the court, asks the judge to mark Prosecution Exhibit A for identification, and enters it into the record.

The document included what appears to be the North’s opposition to a move in the South to vote for the U.N. resolution, saying that it cannot be “justified under any circumstances” and runs counter to what the then leaders of the two Koreas agreed after holding a summit.

It went on to say that the South is urged to take a “responsible” stance on the resolution issue if it wants to advance its relations with the North, adding that it will “closely” watch how the South acts. At bottom was a handwritten memo that hinted that the document was delivered from the then spy agency chief to the then national security adviser.

The disclosure is expected to create a political controversy in South Korea ahead of the presidential election as it took issue with Moon who has denied it.

The former foreign minister said in the interview that Moon has made himself a liar by strongly denying what he claimed in the memoir and that he had no choice but to make public the document to prove himself right. [Yonhap]

For a moment, I imagined that I could hear the souls of the disappeared men, women, and children of Camp 22 weeping.

This underlines again how South Korea’s libel laws, under which truth is no defense, are harming South Korea’s public discourse. In this case, a “liberal” politician and former “human rights lawyer” tried to use the courts to censor an allegation by his political opponents that Moon sacrificed the human rights of 23 million Koreans for political expediency. That allegation has immense public interest to the voters and to Korean history itself. And as it turns out, the allegation is true.

Even before Song showed Moon Jae-in to be a liar, Moon had been weakened by his flip-flopping and evasive answers on THAAD deployment, and by his statement that the Defense Ministry’s plans would not describe North Korea as the South’s “main enemy” in its defense plans. It can’t help that Pyongyang has made its support for Moon Jae-in as clear as it could without formally endorsing him.

As the Wall Street Journal‘s Jonathan Cheng informs us, national security has risen to the top of the list of issues that concern South Korean voters, and the attention to that issue hasn’t been good for Moon, whose support can’t break through a ceiling of 40 percent (less than he earned in his narrow loss in the 2012 election). It’s clear from the views of the candidates that the range of South Korea’s mainstream has shifted significantly (and perhaps, dramatically) since the days when Moon Jae-in ran Roh Moo-hyun’s campaign, and was his closest confidant in the Blue House.

How badly this hurts Moon remains to be seen. Even if Moon wins, he will not enter office with a mandate to pursue some of the more extreme policies he has advanced, such as snubbing the U.S. by visiting Pyongyang before he visits Washington,* canceling THAAD, or violating U.N. sanctions to reopen Kaesong. Almost as importantly, it marks the first time in recent South Korean history that human rights in the North has, however incidentally, become a significant issue in an election.

~   ~   ~

* Moon now says this statement was taken out of context.

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China is waging economic war against S. Korea. We must stand by our ally.

Less than two years ago, I wrote of the coming Korea missile crisis. That crisis has now arrived. As I’ve documented at this site, that crisis is, in large part, a crisis of China’s making. North Korean missiles are made in part from Chinese technology, in large part from components purchased in or smuggled through China, and that are almost always procured by North Korean agents who operate more-or-less openly on Chinese soil. North Korea’s missiles ride on Chinese trucks. North Korea’s nukes and missiles were paid for by dollars laundered through Chinese banks, by commerce (much of it illicit) that passed through Chinese ports. 

Now that those missiles have matured into a grave threat to our allies in South Korea and Japan, and to the Americans (and their family members) stationed on allied soil, the U.S. has deployed defensive missiles to both countries. Now, China has the unmitigated gall to object to South Korea defending itself against a made-in-China threat from North Korea, presumably because missile defense weakens China’s own capacity to bully those allies, Taiwan, and perhaps even the United States.

Since 2006, China has voted for seven U.N. Security Council resolutions (1695, 1718, 1874, 2087, 2094, 2270 and 2321) and proceeded to violate all seven of them almost immediately. Why? Probably because China’s long-term strategic objective was to use North Korea to intimate South Korea, drive a wedge into the U.S.-South Korean alliance, push U.S. forces out of Korea, and then apply the same strategy to Japan. China probably realizes that by backing Kim Jong-un it’s riding a tiger, but it still prefers coddling a Caligula with nukes to allowing one free Korea to arise on its border. China’s grand strategy stands a strong chance of succeeding. Many South Koreans would sacrifice some of their personal freedom and national independence for fear of war or recession. Right now, the people of South Korea are looking to us. They wonder if they can still count on us.

That’s because China, which is opposed to unilateral sanctions except when it isn’t, has just started a trade war with South Korea to disarm the wrong Korea — the one that’s trying to defend itself against the missiles it helped North Korea build. China is closing South Korean stores on administrative pretexts, canceling group tours by Chinese tourists to South Korea, imposing pretexual inspections on South Korean agricultural products, and disrupting other South Korean investments in China. Militarily, we are standing by our ally. THAAD, though by no means a defense against all of North Korea’s threats to Seoul, can stop the largest missiles that carry the most dangerous (read: nuclear) warheads. Diplomatically, we’re saying we stand behind South Korea, and the Secretary of State has just announced a visit to Seoul. Those are good first steps toward showing U.S. resolve in standing by its ally. But if the U.S. isn’t just as prepared to stand by its ally economically as it is militarily and diplomatically, South Korea may well be finlandized as a Chinese satellite under a future President Moon Jae-in, who is no friend of America

To prevent this, the U.S. must send Beijing a strong message of economic deterrence. A trade war with China would be bad for both countries, but worse for China, with its heavy reliance on exports to the U.S. and the dollar economy. Beijing is using its economic power to attack U.S. security interests and those of our allies. We can’t stand for this. As with any other war not of our choice, economic war would come with costs. The question is whether the costs of not fighting back exceed the costs of fighting back. In this case, the cost of not fighting back could include the breakdown of the security system that has freed and enriched billions of people in northeast Asia, the U.S., and (indirectly) around the world. It would include a significant setback in our efforts to prevent North Korea from irreversibly defeating the cause of global nonproliferation. Measures to mitigate the impact on South Korea are only a partial answer. We must also deter a China that is testing a new president’s resolve with a strategy that is at least as dangerous as anything it has done in the South China Sea. That is worth bearing significant economic costs. And there are ways we can, and should, respond.

1. The first and most obvious target should be the Chinese banks that are breaking U.S. law to finance Kim Jong-un’s proliferation. That’s something we should be doing regardless of China’s bullying of South Korea, so arguably, it doesn’t belong on this list at all. Still, China’s bullying might affect the strategy we use and the aggressiveness with which we implement it.

2. U.N. Security Council resolutions require all ports to inspect cargo going to or coming from North Korea. China’s ports clearly aren’t doing that. Under section 205 of the NKSPEA, Customs and Border Protection has the authority to increase inspections of cargo coming from those noncompliant ports. Ports in China’s economically depressed northeast, particularly those that import coal in violation of U.N. sanctions, should be at the top of our target list (but only one or two smaller ports, initially). The effect of such a sanction would be greatly magnified if the South Korea and Japan join it; after all, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan are China’s three largest trading partners. As they might say in New Jersey, it’s time for some traffic problems in Dandong. 

[Hey, it’s Donald. I think I have a job for you after all.]

3. China’s protectionism, censorship, and hacking make its IT companies good targets for sanctions, particularly through a more aggressive posture by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. and the aggressive policing of technology transfers. Yesterday’s actions against ZTE industries, which included the imposition of a $1 billion fine, are an example of the actions the U.S. could take to prevent China from stealing and selling U.S. technology to our enemies. Importantly, those actions suggest that the Trump administration has revoked China’s de facto immunity from the consequences of breaking U.S. law. As with our money laundering laws, we should enforce our export control and intellectually property laws regardless of how China treats North Korea, but China’s behavior against South Korea can influence our prosecutorial discretion in how aggressively we enforce those laws.

4. As mentioned, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan are China’s top three trading partners. Does China really want a trade war against all three of those economies when its banking sector is teetering under mountains of debt, when it’s trying to deflate a real estate bubble, and when it’s struggling to retain control of its currency and its stock market? Again, a trade war would be bad for everyone; the strategy is to deter China and force it to retreat by making sure it knows it would get the worst of one. The three allies share a strong interest in keeping the U.S.-Korea alliance strong to protect them from a common North Korean threat. For Japan, joining that economic alliance would have the advantage of balancing its villainous image in South Korea with the reality that it can also be a strong ally for South Korea’s security. By identifying appropriate targets in China for sectoral sanctions and combining their economic weight, the three allies can force China to back down and behave reasonably. Some of those targets might include products that include North Korean labor or materials, including seafood, textiles, and precious metals. Targets should be chosen to cause the maximum amount of economic and social unrest in China.

South Korea’s response to China has a political component, too. Its political right should play the anti-China nationalist card as shamelessly the political left played the anti-American nationalist card in 2003. It has criticized the left for cozying up to China in the midst of China’s economic bullying, and should intensify that criticism, making any preemptive capitulation to China an election-year liability for the political left. Both sides in Korea have long played the anti-Japan nationalism card, which continues to put distance between two natural allies over events that concluded 72 years ago. Not one comfort woman can still be saved from the predations of imperial Japan, but thousands of (North) Korean women who are sold as sex slaves in China still can be. I wonder if it might finally occur to Beijing that its bullying is backfiring if human rights activists put a statue of one of those trafficked women in front of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul. At the very least, it might make a few South Koreans stop to think about how China treats North Korean women, and whether that treatment is a metaphor for what China thinks of Koreans generally.

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Must read: Brian Myers on what North Korea really wants (hint: it’s South Korea)

Over the years, the soft-liners’ explanations for why Pyongyang sacrificed billions of dollars and millions of lives to build a nuclear program have shifted. First, they said it just wanted the electricity. Then, they said it wanted a bargaining chip to trade away for better relations with us. Now, they say it just wants to protect itself from us. Unlike them, Brian Myers has listened to what Pyongyang has been telling its own subjects — it wants reunification, on its own terms.

North Korea needs the capability to strike the U.S. with nuclear weapons in order to pressure both adversaries into signing peace treaties. This is the only grand bargain it has ever wanted. It has already made clear that a treaty with the South would require ending its ban on pro-North political agitation. The treaty with Washington would require the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula. The next step, as Pyongyang has often explained, would be some form of the North–South confederation it has advocated since 1960. One would have to be very naïve not to know what would happen next. As Kim Il-Sung told his Bulgarian counterpart Todor Zhivkov in 1973, “If they listen to us, and a confederation is established, South Korea will be done with.”

Western soft-liners keep saying the U.S. must finally negotiate a peace treaty with Pyongyang. That’s where their op-eds conveniently end. These people show no awareness of what such a treaty would have to entail. Are they in favor of withdrawing U.S. troops? If so they should come right out and say so, instead of pretending North Korea will content itself with the security guarantees it has rejected for decades. Many observers believe that the stronger the North Koreans get, the more reasonable they will become. Whenever I think I’ve seen the height of American wishful thinking, I find out it can get even sillier. [Slate]

The conventional wisdom is that North Korea, with half of the South’s population and a fraction of its economy, cannot hope to defeat the South. Myers thinks they’re much closer to winning the Korean War than most of us are willing to believe, and I think he’s right about that:

The stars are aligning very nicely for the strategy [Kim Jong-un] inherited from his father. Just as North Korea is perfecting its nuclear weaponry, China has acquired the economic power to punish South Korea for improving its missile defenses. Opinion polls in the South now strongly favor the left-wing presidential candidate Mun Jae-in, who in 2011 expressed hope for the speedy realization of a North–South confederation. If he or anyone else from the nationalist left takes over, years of South Korean accommodation of the North will ensue, complete with massive unconditional aid.

This went on under George W. Bush, and the alliance survived. Donald Trump, however, is much less likely to allow an ostensible ally to subvert UN sanctions while paying tributary visits to Pyongyang. And Kim Jong-un knows this. He knows that whatever security guarantees Trump gave to Seoul were made to the current conservative administration only. So Kim Jong-un has a better chance than his father did of pressuring the alliance to a breaking point. With China’s support he can pull a left-wing South Korean administration in one way while pushing the Americans in another.

Having lived in South Korea for the past 15 years, I don’t share most Americans’ confidence that it will always choose America over a North-supporting China. My own impression—bolstered by the ongoing controversy surrounding the stationing of the THAAD missile defense system—is that a growing number of South Koreans would rather see their state’s security compromised than risk their own prosperity. [Slate]

Read the whole thing.

Lately, I’ve often thought that the two Koreas are racing toward political collapse, and it’s anyone’s guess which one will lose first. In the North, Kim Jong-un’s brutality and incompetence are alienating the elites and pushing more of them to defect. Gradually — but too gradually — its financial lifelines and trade relationships are being cut one by one. Its people, though unorganized for now, are deeply alienated against the state, resentful of its corruption, and envious of the oligarchy’s ill-gotten wealth. Its system has never been more vulnerable to a well-orchestrated political and economic attack. Unfortunately, the only well-orchestrated attack underway today is being waged against the wrong Korea.

In the South, anarchy and mob rule will end as they always do. To an even greater extent than in the United States, the mobs are gullible, naive, and easily manipulated by spurious reporting and conspiracy theories. The people are so disunited and polarized into warring tribes that Diogenes would search in vain for a moderate voter. The political culture views mass protests, which should be the last resort of a free people, as a higher form of democratic expression than an independent judiciary or orderly self-government through the franchise. In the end, the minority will get what the majority deserves. It isn’t hard to see how a Korean “peace process” would proceed between a unilaterally disarmed South Korea and a nuclear-armed North Korea. Seoul, cut adrift by its allies, would make an overt agreement to end “slander” of the North’s system and a tacit agreement to say nothing as the North’s agents and proxies terrorize the last few noisy editors, defectors, and dissidents into silence or flight. Within five years, the incremental surrender of one of the world’s most prosperous nations to one of the world’s most wretched, repressive, and murderous regimes mankind has ever conceived could be irreversible. But at the time, they will call it peace.

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Eight reasons why reopening Kaesong could be a deal-breaker for the U.S.-Korea alliance

More and more, I am hearing that Moon Jae-in, the left-wing front-runner in the South Korean presidential election, is talking about reopening and expanding the Kaesong Industrial Complex. It’s apparent that Mr. Moon and his supporters haven’t thought through the potential legal and diplomatic consequences of that. Perhaps this post will help concentrate some minds by telling Koreans, in frank terms, what most people in Washington really think about that idea.

1. Kaesong violates U.N. sanctions.

I heard somewhere that Moon Jae-in calls himself a lawyer (a human rights lawyer, no less). Perhaps Mr. Moon should devote a moment of his legal acumen to reading the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions resolutions on North Korea. Earlier this year, the South Korean government acknowledged that North Korea probably used Kaesong funds to pay for nukes. How is that anything but a flagrant violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718, paragraph (d), which requires states to ensure that money they pay Pyongyang isn’t used for nukes? Resolution 2321, paragraph 32, bans public and private support for trade with North Korea, “including the granting of export credits, guarantees or insurance to their nationals or entities involved in such trade.” Does Moon really think anyone will invest in Kaesong without those subsidies, which the U.N. has since prohibited? Yes, there is a provision for a U.N. committee to approve that support. Expect the U.S. to block that approval, for the reasons that follow.

2. Kaesong paves the road to war.

How can South Korea ask other countries to follow the U.N. sanctions it would be violating if it reopens Kaesong? Reopening Kaesong would also deprive the U.S. of credibility to demand that China, or African or Middle Eastern states, follow the resolutions when our own ally is also violating them. Abandon sanctions and you’ve abandoned our last hope of disarming Kim Jong-un without war. The choice the U.S. would then face comes down to a preemptive strike, or abandoning Korea to its fate. If North Korea poses a direct threat to the United States, don’t assume President Trump would consider those to be mutually exclusive options.

3. Does Kim Jong-un take payment in ChocoPies?

North Korea is now designated as a Primary Money Laundering Concern, and North Korean banks can’t access the international financial system. Many of its banks are also directly blocked from the financial system, and more will be before this year is over. What is Moon Jae-in planning to pay the North Koreans with — ChocoPies? Because paying in dollars — Kim Jong-un wants dollars — is going to be very difficult. For Moon Jae-in to subsidize the same target we’re sanctioning will put the U.S. and South Korea at cross purposes.

4. Kaesong could lead to a catastrophic breakdown in the U.S.-Korea alliance.

Worse yet, reopening Kaesong would mean that while U.S. taxpayers would be subsidizing South Korea’s defense, South Korea would be subsidizing North Korea and its nukes. How long before that shows up in Donald Trump’s Twitter feed? American taxpayers won’t stand for that, nor should they. Why should we effectively subsidize both sides of this conflict, all while bearing a rising risk that U.S. involvement on South Korea’s behalf is feeding a direct North Korean threat to the U.S. homeland? Americans are willing to bear a certain amount of cost to defend allies, but not neutrals, frenemies, or enemies. If Kaesong reopens, expect to see more calls for U.S. disengagement from Korea. Koreans shouldn’t count on President Trump to be the cooler head who prevails over that sentiment.

Worse, reopening Kaesong would effectively mean that U.S. troops and their families would be hostages to the interests of both Koreas, limiting U.S. options for neutralizing a North Korean threat to the United States. In Washington today, one increasingly hears talk of preemptive strikes to prevent Pyongyang from gaining the ability to nuke Seattle. If President Trump decides to pursue that option (see my previous comment on “cooler heads”) the U.S. would have every incentive to disengage from South Korea first, to limit U.S. casualties in the event of retaliation. That could take the form of a breakdown in cost-sharing talks, unilateral “restructuring” of the alliance, or an unscheduled NEO exercise.

5. Kaesong incentivizes proliferation.

The other day, I tweeted a story about how Israel is asking President Trump to prioritize North Korea’s disarmament, because of the message it would send around the world if North Korea becomes a de facto recognized nuclear state. What Moon Jae-in and his supporters must understand is that North Korea’s nukes are not just a Korean problem or a regional problem — they’re a global problem. North Korea’s suspicious links to Iran, its construction of the Al-Kibar reactor in Syria, and its willingness to sell any weapon to any buyer are far greater threats than its missiles will ever be. Kaesong’s backers promised us, of course, that Kaesong would soothe North Korea and encourage it to disarm. How’d that work out?

Given the belligerence of Pyongyang’s recent behavior, in what sense has Kim Jong-un earned a reward that would help him win back the fraying loyalty of his elites? In what sense can we say that Kaesong would be more successful in improving North Korea’s behavior that it was between 2006 and 2016? What kind of message would it send to Pyongyang (or Tehran) that Kim Jong-un reaps a huge financial windfall by testing nukes and missiles? Pouring cash into Pyongyang through Kaesong doesn’t just undermine the financial pressure of sanctions, and consequently, a central part of our North Korea policy, it undermines the sanctions-based diplomatic strategy that’s been essential to preventing proliferation in Iran and everywhere else. That’s why Koreans shouldn’t expect the U.S. to be the only state to raise concerns about Kaesong.

6. Kaesong is slavery.

Has Seoul ever given us a credible answer to the question of how much of their so-called wages the workers actually receive? Or what rights they have to strike, quit, or demand safer working conditions? In other words, why should we see Kaesong as anything other than the mildest form of slavery North Korea has to offer? Has South Korea even demanded labor reforms or financial transparency in its dealing with the North Koreans? Doesn’t that really tell you everything you need to know about the discredited idea that engagement would lead to reform, disarmament, and peace? Kaesong has been Pyongyang’s tool to influence Seoul, not the other way around. As with all engagement with North Korea, it really raises the same old question: “Who changed who?”

7. Kaesong could kill the Free Trade Agreement.

People in both the U.S. and South Korea have already forgotten how hard it was to get congressional approval for the free trade agreement (FTA) between the two countries, or the fact that Kaesong was one of its most controversial points of contention. Annex 22-C, which covers “outward processing zones,” is widely understood as a reference to Kaesong, and a desire by South Korea to export Kaesong products to the U.S. Not only is that a non-starter, it’s a poison pill that could kill the entire FTA. If Kaesong reopens, expect to hear more questions about Kaesong-made components and parts in products exported to the U.S. through the FTA. Directly or indirectly importing goods or services from North Korea is already a felony under this executive order. On top of that, there’s a section in the Tariff Act that prohibits the import of slave-made goods into the United States.

Donald Trump’s criticism of the FTA last year reminded us that it remains controversial here, and exposed that the FTA has ferocious critics in both parties. When I worked with the Foreign Affairs Committee in 2013, I met with several hundred of the staffers from both parties who tell their bosses how to vote on legislation. That experience gave me a very good idea of how Congress feels about Kaesong, and there’s no other way to say this — Congress absolutely hates Kaesong. That sentiment includes staffers for individual members and powerful committees. I can count several occasions when staffers harangued me about their hatred of Kaesong with as much intensity as . . . as I’m haranguing you right now. As you can probably guess, not one of them ever got an argument back from me. (Update: The staffer I remember best immediately asked me whether H.R. 1771 flat-out banned Kaesong products. When I said it didn’t, her immediate reaction was to tell her boss to withhold his co-sponsorship.)

That sentiment will only rise now that blue-collar, rust-belt voters have emerged as the decisive constituency in elections. Orange Republicans and Green Democrats will both have protectionist incentives to renegotiate or cancel the FTA. Red Republicans will hate the idea of indirectly subsidizing North Korea. Blue Democrats will cave to FTA opponents like Hillary Clinton caved to Trans-Pacific Partnership opponents (because they want to win Michigan, silly). Liberals will be inflamed by the idea that Americans are buying products made (in part) by slaves. I’m generally pro-free trade, and am for the TPP, yet I have some sympathy with all of those arguments. If Kaesong reopens, I’d want to see the FTA renegotiated or canceled entirely. Is reopening Kaesong worth risking the whole FTA?

8. Kaesong didn’t work.

Now, weigh the benefits of Kaesong against those costs. The idea behind Kaesong, of course, was that it was supposed to integrate the two states’ economies and interests, which would lead to reforms, the easing of tensions, the opening of North Korea’s society, and eventually, disarmament. None of those things happenednone. I would argue that Kaesong was actually a source of tension, because of North Korea’s constant arbitrary demands, leading to the 2013 and 2016 closures, costing investors millions in uninsured losses, and guaranteeing that no sane investor would ever go in. In fact, I think I may have found the perfect metaphor for Kaesong:


If you can cite any evidence to the contrary, my comments are open. From where I sit, Kaesong was such an unmitigated failure that I find the support for it inexplicable, and — here is my main point — so do most other Americans. This isn’t to say the U.S. can’t find room for compromise with a Moon administration. I can see an accord emerge in which South Korea pursues harmless forms of engagement, such as visits by athletes and artists, or well-monitored humanitarian aid. But the U.S. position ought to be that no money must change hands, because financial pressure must necessarily play a central role in our efforts to disarm Kim Jong-un, and for years, South Korean subsidies to Pyongyang undermined that strategy. Kaesong could be a deal-breaker in the U.S.-South Korean relationship. Indeed, it may well deserve to be.

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What’s that? You want the Sunshine Policy back? Good luck with that.

If Nate Silver is feeling humble these days, just let him try to predict who wins the next election in South Korea. In the 12 months between now and the time South Korea elects its next president, the ruling Saenuri party will probably break up. God willing, new candidates will emerge to supplant the dismal fare it has served until now. Divisions between the pro- and anti-Park Geun-hye factions may or may not heal. Ban Ki-moon may or may not run. If he runs, he may run with the Saenuri Party, a successor, or something entirely new. The left’s own divisions between Ahn Cheol-soo, Moon Jae-in, and a gaggle of far-left populists may not heal, either. The top candidates currently poll in the 20s.

Having said this, most observers of Korean politics suppose that the political left has the upper hand. Myself, I’m no Nate Silver, and I offer any prediction with low confidence, but I reckon they’re probably right. Over time, voters grow tired of presidents, their parties, and their policies. Memories of the opposition’s own failings fade, and the longer an opposition party is out of power, the more it can escape its record of governance and define itself by its promises — especially by the impractical, disingenuous, or absurd ones. Promises, of course, are almost always more appealing than the dreary realities of governance.

Because this is a blog about North Korea, my interest in South Korean politics mostly relates to the question of what North Korea policies a left-of-center government would actually implement. Wishful foreigners yearn for a return to the Sunshine Policy. And because I (obviously) don’t, I’d like to throw some December pond water on their hopes. Even if the left does win Korea’s presidency, the obstacles to picking up where Roh Moo-hyun left off in 2007, when he tried to turn South Korea’s most vital shipping lane into a neutral North-South “peace zone,” may be insurmountable. 

At the heart of the problem is that North Korea has always been pay-for-play, and in recent years, a consensus has solidified in the U.N., the U.S., and (to a lesser extent) South Korea that paying has made matters worse, not better.

1. Only one man gets rich in North Korea

Without business, the Sunshine Policy would have been nothing but a plan to catapult money over the DMZ. Business was the paisley silk bath robe that clothed naked appeasement in the garb of a transformational philosophy. Business was what allowed Kim Dae-jung to market Sunshine as a plan to leverage greed to form relationships, entangling interests, and the gentle metastasis of soft power. “Good enough for us!,” said the Nobel Committee. One could have pointed out that the little gray men in Pyongyang are already sophisticated enough profiteers and money launderers to finance Kim Jong-il’s priorities. Or that Krupp, I.G. Farben, and Messerschmitt were capitalists, too. But the greatest flaw in Sunshine has always been the North Koreans.

You know who can tell you all about getting rich in North Korea? Naguib Sawaris, the recently deposed CEO of Orascom Telecom, whose stock tanked last year after North Korea confiscated half a billion dollars in profits from a cell phone network joint venture, and when it turned out that a bank Orascom set up in North Korea had ties to a North Korean bank that was sanctioned for proliferation financing.

Ask Nigel Cowie, whose Daedong Credit Bank was blocked by the Treasury Department for proliferation financing, and which was recently back in the news when it showed up in the Panama Papers. Or Hyundai Asan, Volvo, Yang Bin, David Chang and former Senator Robert Torricelli, Chung Mong-Hun, or Roh Jeong-ho, all of whom had tearful partings with their money and their reputations at the departure terminal of Pyongyang Sunan Airport.

Then, there is that last, great hope for North Korea’s slow capitalization — the so-called donju class, a class of traders who have leveraged their political connections to become wealthy (for North Korea) crony capitalists. After a series of high-profile defections, the regime started putting geographical limits on where they could operate, and recalled some of them from China entirely. It may soon a institute a formal taxation system for them, which would likely supplement (rather than replace) the current, informal system of kick-up payments to political patrons. As you might expect, the donju have always been vulnerable to shake-downs by the security forces, whose agents can easily extort them by accusing them of spying or disloyalty. At latest word, top officials have been muscling in on donju businesses, purging them for trumped-up political reasons and installing their own relatives and cronies as the new management. That’s the kind of development I’d expect to see if the effects of sanctions are driving resource competition, but it’s too early to make that connection. 

Or, you could ask most North Korean farmers. Remember those agricultural reforms that amounted to a transition from collectives to sharecropping? The ones that, for most of 2012, were briefly the next great Pyongyang Spring? The reality of that is “not so much.” Some farmers say they aren’t getting the surpluses they were promised and that they’re suffering as much as ever. I know some people take a contrary view and believe that these reforms really are being implemented. Maybe they are in a few places, depending on local conditions and corruption, but the evidence mostly refutes claims of broad-based agricultural reform.

Or, you could ask anyone foolish enough to invest in Kaesong before Park Geun-hye finally shut the whole smarmy boondoggle down in January, after North Korea’s fifth nuclear test. When Kaesong was first set up during the Roh Moo-hyun years, its cheap labor was supposed to attract hordes of international investors and draw North Korea into the global economy. It never quite worked out that way. For years, the investors suffered under North Korea’s politically driven unilateral expulsions, suspensions, arrests, threats of interference, and summary “wage” and tax increases. None of this could have been reassuring to potential investors. It didn’t help matters when, in 2011, President Obama signed an executive order that essentially excluded anything made in Kaesong (or anywhere else in North Korea) from being imported into the United States, the world’s biggest export market.

In 2013, Kim Jong-un unilaterally expelled the South Korean managers and employees from Kaesong. They didn’t return for six months. Park Geun-hye shut it down it again in January, and Kaesong has been closed for almost a year. Given the risks of arbitrary interference, confiscation, and taxation — not to mention obliteration — you have to ask yourself who’d be foolish enough to invest in Kaesong if it reopened tomorrow. It’s like building a resort hotel on top of an active volcano. Of course, Seoul knew all along that Kaesong was a risky investment, so it reassured investors with generous subsidies and risk insurance. Kaesong investors are still fighting with Seoul over their government insurance payouts. For anyone to consider returning to Kaesong now, the insurance and subsidies would have to be extremely generous, which is a perfect segue to our next reason.

2. U.N. and U.S. Sanctions

I’ve long argued that because South Korea never really knew how Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un spent their Kaesong money, those no-questions-asked payments arguably violated the U.N. sanctions that have been in force since October 2006. For years, Seoul insisted that the money was all given to the workers in the form of wages — a very dubious claim — and that taxes were paid to a local North Korean committee that had nothing to do with nukes. For political reasons, the Bush and Obama administrations never pushed the issue, but they weren’t comfortable with Kaesong, either. Even during the Obama administration, how Pyongyang spent its Kaesong income was a problem for the Treasury Department.

Then, in January, after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, Park Geun-hye’s government did something incredible — it said that yes, indeed, North Korea was using Kaesong money for nukes all along. Was this an admission that South Korea was knowingly funding the North Korean nuclear program and violating U.N. sanctions all along? These were logical questions — logical enough that Seoul backed off and said that Kaesong money could be funding nukes as far as it knew. The difference hardly matters, of course, if you read Resolution 1718, which requires member states to “ensure” that their payments are not diverted to WMD programs. Of course, Seoul could never ensure that. When I called them out on that, they sat on their hands, stared at the ceiling, and whistled. But the admission of 2016 means that Seoul can’t just go back to catapulting $100 millon a year into Pyongyang without “ensuring.” This isn’t just a problem for Kaesong; it’s a problem for any engagement program that pays money into Pyongyang’s bank accounts.

Not that it would be hard to avoid that problem, mind you. All they’d have to do would be to get Pyongyang to agree to take its payments in food, or let Seoul pay it by funding the long-underfunded humanitarian work of the World Food Program. Stop laughing.

Three U.N. Security Council resolutions later, there has never been less doubt that Kaesong cash is contrary to U.N. sanctions. In March, the Security Council specifically addressed public and private support for trade in North Korea, but left some wriggle room for Seoul to pretend that Kim Jong-un absolutely, positively couldn’t possibly use Kaesong earnings for nukes (as it had insisted, however incredibly, for years). This month, the Security Council approved much more restrictive language:

“32.  Decides that all Member States shall prohibit public and private financial support from within their territories or by persons or entities subject to their jurisdiction for trade with the DPRK (including the granting of export credits, guarantees or insurance to their nationals or entities involved in such trade), except as approved in advance by the Committee on a case-by-case basis; [UNSCR 2321]

You will note that a U.N. Committee could, in theory, agree to authorize export credits, insurance, and other support. Of course, the first thing the 1718 Committee will want to know is who the South Koreans are dealing with, where the money is going, and how the South Koreans know it won’t be used for nukes. The North Koreans will never agree to that kind of transparency, of course. And if they don’t, they may find Ambassador Nikki Haley unwilling to support them in making that case to the 1718 Committee. Would a left-wing South Korean government try to go around the U.S. and get China’s support for a Kaesong waiver? After all, China might want a waiver of its own for Rason. They could try, but only at the risk of doing more damage to their relations with the United States. Which are likely to be strained as it is.

Even then, of course, Kaesong has always been a dollar operation — the North Koreans want dollars — and Executive Order 13722 makes dollar-denominated transactions for labor exports by North Korea sanctionable. Investors would probably run and hide, and even a general license from the Treasury Department is probably only good until the next nuke test. The uncertainty of President Donald J. Trump might be the last straw, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

3. Human Rights

The last time the United States had a Republican president, its Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea was Jay Lefkowitz, who called Kaesong “material support for a rogue government, its nuclear ambitions, and its human rights atrocities.” Strong words, but at the time, one could have dismissed them as a Republican, “neocon” view. Indeed, by 2007, it wasn’t even clear whether Lefkowitz, a decent and well-meaning man who nearly resigned his post in principle, even spoke for his President, who had turned back toward appeasing Kim Jong-il as the Iraq surge consumed all of his diminished foreign policy capital.

To many people around the world, Kaesong looks a lot like slave labor. No one ever knew how much of their own “wages” the workers actually receive. Concern about North Koreans’ labor rights has grown in recent years. It’s now high enough to have merited an expression of “concern” in the latest U.N. Security Council Resolution. Marcus Noland recently made a specific proposal that employers at Kaesong agree to an ethical code of conduct. Employers would come under strong public pressure to agree, but Pyongyang would resist, obviously. Wage theft is their whole game at Kaesong.

Paradoxically — unless you’ve lived there, of course — South Koreans probably care less about human rights in North Korea than people in almost any other civilized country. But South Koreans care intensely about global opinion. If they see that the world is looking down at them for exploiting North Korean workers, that will impact domestic public opinion and public policy to a greater degree than it has in the past (which, admittedly, wasn’t much).

4. The U.S. has turned away from Sunshine.

In 2007, the standard liberal response to criticisms like Lefkowitz’s was that only engagement with the North Korea would really change it for the better. That view persists, but it no longer predominates. I can’t cite a better example than Max Fisher’s 2014 takedown of Kaesong and the Sunshine Policy at Vox:

But it turned out that North Korea was just exploiting the Sunshine Policy as a con. The greatest symbol of this was the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a big production center just on the North Korean side of the border, where South Korean companies and managers contract with North Korean workers. The idea was that this daily contact would ease cultural tension and that the shared commercial interests would give the countries a reason to cooperate. In practice, though, the North Korean government stole most of the workers’ wages, big South Korean corporations exploited the ultra-cheap labor to increase profits, and North Korea didn’t ease its hostility one iota. [Max Fisher, Vox]

I could have written those words myself. Fisher then noted that “[t]he Sunshine Policy ended in 2007, correctly rejected as a failure by South Korean voters.” The fact that South Korea’s sophisticated, powerful, and well-funded lobby was no longer defending Sunshine also cost it much of its American support. In the past, U.S. administrations have been strongly influenced by Seoul’s view, but that pattern may not hold when Donald Trump is President (but more on that in a moment).

Since then, the American consensus on Sunshine Policy projects like Kaesong has shifted immeasurably. Just count the votes for the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. Bernie Sanders would have been one of them had he not been campaigning in New Hampshire at the time.

You can’t attribute that shift to any one event; it was the cumulative effect of Pyongyang reneging on deal after deal, testing nuke after nuke, its attacks on South Korea, and its refusal to take Barack Obama’s outstretched hand. By 2013, it was clear that congressional staff of both parties were interested in ways to exert more pressure. Then came the U.N. Commission of Inquiry Report in 2014, the work of the U.N.’s long-absent liberal conscience. To many conservatives, the report confirmed what they’d long believed, but the report’s impact on liberals who dominate human rights NGOs would be difficult to overstate. After that, some liberal groups added their substantial organizational savvy to lobbying for passage of the NKSPEA. By the time North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test in 2016, both the House and the Senate were ready to pass it.

From the perspective of most Americans, North Korea is deeply unpopular and we shouldn’t be supporting it economically. From the perspective of most Korea watchers of all tribal affiliations, Kaesong was a closed enclave, disconnected from broader North Korean society that delivered no visible dividends of peace, reform, or openness.

5. South Koreans have turned away from Sunshine

Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama was personally popular while his foreign policy was generally unpopular — throughout his second term, it usually polled between 10 and 20 points underwater. Park Geun-hye typically found herself in the opposite situation. Although her overall approval rating was seldom over 50 percent, her North Korea policy was popular until the final weeks of her presidency.

In fact, it’s likely that Park’s tough-minded North Korea policy was the one issue that buoyed her poll numbers at all for the latter years of her presidency. Her hard-nosed handling of the first Kaesong shutdown, which lasted from April to October of 2013, was popular with voters. In August 2015, shortly after Park “resolved” the land mine crisis with what amounted to an agreement to fight another day, her popularity soared 15 points to 49 percent, her highest rating since the 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster. Not until late September, when the scandal that destroyed her presidency first hit the headlines, did popular support for Park’s North Korea policy fall below 50 percent in a Gallup Korea poll. Even then —

As to whether North Korea is a partner with which dialogue and compromise is possible, 30.5 percent made positive replies, up from 28.7 percent last year. The share of respondents who said they felt threatened by North Korea’s nuclear weapons also fell from 84 percent to 79.5 percent. [Korea Times]

That was the first time public approval of Park’s North Korea policy fell below 50 percent since she took office in early 2013. In the same poll, Park’s personal approval rating was 31 percent. Yet support for reopening Kaesong fell to just 47 percent, and support for resuming Mt. Kumgang tours was almost exactly 50 percent. If Park fatigue affected those numbers, the long-term popularity of Sunshine may be even lower. And of course, if either side of the debate were to gain a credible standard-bearer, the numbers could move a few points up or down.

Those numbers are consistent with data showing a long-term trend away from sympathetic, ethno-nationalist views of North Korea, toward a grouchy, introspective don’t-tread-on-me nationalism. In other words, this isn’t 2002 anymore. At best, the political gain to be had from proposing a new Sunshine Policy is a wash. It may become a net negative if North Korea launches a major provocation soon (spoiler: it will). And if the Trump administration makes clear that South Korea has to pick a side — ours — Koreans may not view Sunshine as a good bet in uncertain times.

Of course, South Koreans have mood swings, just like Americans. Some of them just want things to go back to what they’ve been for the last 20 years. To them, North Korea has been a quiet crisis for decades. Why, from their perspective, can’t it just go on as a quiet crisis? Why shake things up instead of letting things go on as they always have? Why not buy their silence for just a little longer? I understand that sentiment, but good luck buying Kim Jong-un’s silence when he’s nuked up and poised to achieve the hegemony that was the lifelong ambition of his father and grandfather. Pyongyang has never allowed things to go on quietly for long, and when North Korea has provoked recently, South Koreans have increasingly demanded military retaliation. And of course, Kim Jong-un will soon pose a direct nuclear threat to the United States, which changes everything.

6. Donald J. Trump

The other day, I predicted that if the left wins Korea’s next presidential election, it would be on a collision course with Donald Trump over North Korea policy. It’s still too early to predict exactly what Trump’s policy will be, but does this look like a soft-line, pro-engagement cabinet to you? Yeah, me neither. As I’ve said before, Trump’s voters want a tough guy, and Trump wants to be admired by his voters. That’s why I’ve always been more worried that Trump would go kinetic than that he’d sell out to the North Koreans. And if North Korea gets to the point of reaching the U.S. with an ICBM or submarine-launched missile, no South Korean president is going to get a veto on his response to that. Past U.S. presidents have been surprisingly deferential to Seoul’s policy preferences. Don’t expect that to continue if Kim Jong-un can range the U.S. with a nuke.

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South Korea does not trust Trump. America would not trust Moon Jae-in.

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.

~   ~   ~

* A previous version of this post called Park Won-soon the former Mayor of Seoul (he is still mayor).

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Why Seoul’s blacklisting of Air Koryo & Dandong Hongxiang matters

South Korea is the first of the Free Three (the U.S., South Korea, and Japan) to announce independent multilateral sanctions on North Korea following the approval of UNSCR 2321. Some of the measures, such as the blacklisting of Choe Ryong-hae and Hwang Pyong-so, will probably mean almost nothing until some future left-wing president tries to give one of them a ticker-tape parade along the Chongro.

An extension of South Korea’s ban on ships that have entered North Korean ports within the last 180 days will do more, by forcing shipping companies to choose between the modest trade with North Korea and the much more significant trade with Japan and South Korea. With North Korea’s own ships already under rising pressure even pre-2321, and now facing a loss of access to insurance, North Korea may soon find itself increasingly isolated from its export markets.

South Korea’s blacklisting of Air Koryo, while not directly significant by itself (Air Koryo doesn’t fly to South Korea) may foreshadow a corresponding action by the U.S. Treasury Department, which would freeze North Korea’s national airline out of the dollar system and seriously crimp its operations. (Update: That turns out to have been a pretty good guess. OFAC just released a new round of designations that includes North Korean banks, slave labor merchants, the Korea National Insurance Corporation, and Air Koryo. I’ll have more to say after work.) It could also clear the way for South Korean diplomats to lobby middle powers like Malaysia, Thailand, Kuwait, and Singapore to deny Air Koryo landing rights. That would be a severe blow to Pyongyang. South Korea’s diplomatic campaign against North Korea’s foreign clients has been highly effective this year.

The most important and courageous move, however, was this one:

In particular, Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development and four of its executives were included on the list, marking the first time that a Chinese firm is facing South Korea’s unilateral sanctions.

The company is under investigation on suspicions that it exported aluminum oxide — a nuclear bomb ingredient — to the North at least twice in recent years. In September, the U.S. blacklisted it along with its owner and other company officials.

With the latest action by Seoul, a total of 79 individuals and 69 entities will be subject to sanctions in connection with the North’s nuclear programs. The government announced a blacklist in March as a follow-up move to the UNSC’s Resolution 2270 adopted in the wake of the North’s fourth nuclear test in January.

Any financial transactions with them will be prohibited, while their assets in South Korea will be frozen. The blacklisted people will also be banned from entering the country, which is seen as a symbolic action given that there are no exchanges between the two Koreas. [Yonhap]

This could be the first sign that the three allies, acting outside the U.N. and beyond the reach of a Chinese or Russian veto, are forming a coalition to combine their economic power behind secondary sanctions against Pyongyang. If Japan joins in this, it will mean that the Chinese trading companies that prop up His Corpulency’s misrule will now face not only the freezing of their dollar assets, but the loss of their trade relationships with the two most important non-Chinese markets in northeast Asia. If those Chinese trading companies think they can mitigate the risk of secondary sanctions by insulating themselves from the dollar, Seoul has just added an additional layer of risk for those that continue to trade with Pyongyang. If the Free Three have coordinated their sanctions well, Tokyo will soon add its heft to that risk. Trading companies’ shareholders, officers, and bankers may find that risk increasingly unacceptable.

Beijing knows that while Dandong Hongxiang is itself a dead letter, this sort of Progressive Diplomacy represents a dangerous precedent for its interests. I expect it to react furiously. Even a year ago, I could not have imagined Park Geun-hye antagonizing South Korea’s greatest trading partner this way. Today, with all the noise about impeachment and the North Korean crisis, the Chinese reaction could be crowded out of the headlines. But with Park having conceded that she cannot hold onto power for long, she has nothing to lose.

Not only does Park have no reason not to burn bridges, she may have her own reasons to punish China. If she’s at least as paranoid as I am, she may suspect China, or its North Korean dependent, of directly or indirectly supporting the media frenzy that led to her downfall. It seems plausible in the age of Wikileaks that foreign governments give clandestine support to media hostile to leaders who oppose their interests. She may even suspect them of having planted the tablet that first broke the scandal. Personally, I see no direct evidence of it, nor do I think it’s more than 20 percent likely, but I’ve yet to see anyone explain (or even inquire into) the remarkable coincidence by which a discarded device just falls into the lap of a hostile press and topples a head of state. It seems easier to pull off than, say, throwing Wisconsin to Trump.

Either way, Park Geun-hye isn’t going quietly, and she’s gambling that the actions she takes on her way out the door will have the support of a future President Trump. No matter how much the Hankyoreh rages, that will make those actions even harder for her successor to undo than for her to do. What we may be seeing here is the first brick in a multinational sanctions coalition in which the members concentrate their collective power against Pyongyang’s enablers. For now, the Free Three are the core of that coalition, but with skillful diplomacy and time, that coalition may soon include other middle powers, other issuers of convertible currencies, and key members of an increasingly fractious European Union.

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