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.
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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:
Alarmed to see this happening again….Chungin’s bombast honed in academia is ill suited to diplomacy. https://t.co/vgLzPNCNuQ
— L. Gordon Flake (@lgflake) June 17, 2017
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.