Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2021.05.28

Will Moon Jae-in's appeasement policy work this time?

the japan times on May 13, 2021

International Politics/Diplomacy Korean Peninsula

South Korean President Moon Jae-in delivered a speech on May 10 to mark his fourth year in office. Although it was called a “special address,” the president, as usual, almost apologetically focused on the nation’s economic difficulties and the government’s poor handling of COVID-19 pandemic.

On his foreign policy, Mr. Moon discussed North Korea and the United States, climate change and South Korean cultural exports and the growing worldwide popularity of “K-pop, K-beauty, K-food, and K-content.” There was no mention, however, about the troubles plaguing Japan-South Korea relations. This might explain why Japan’s mainstream media outlets hardly focused on Mr. Moon’s speech.

Only The Asahi Shimbun published an editorial on Moon’s address. It said, “We hope President Moon Jae-in will break the deadlock in a responsible manner. He must show his action from a broader perspective. What about a Japan-South Korea summit meeting during the G7 summit to be held in the United Kingdom this June?”

In my judgement, it is rare that an Asahi editorial represents the majority of opinion among Japanese people; but this time, I thought, it really did. President Moon’s special address, because it failed to reference the Asian neighbor’s difficulties, was not very well received by Tokyo and caused much disappointment. The following are some of my personal observations:

A lame-duck president

At the beginning of his speech, President Moon said, “I feel the remaining one year is more important than any part of the past four years.” I first thought he was joking because April’s mayoral election losses in Seoul and Busan reportedly accelerated President Moon’s lame-duck status. However, he had more than enough reasons to express such a sentiment.

Last week, Mr. Moon’s approval rating was 36%, a surprisingly high number. According to The Korea Herald, “Among ex-presidents at their four-year juncture, Kim Dae-jung received the highest of 33%, Lee Myung-bak (24%), Roh Moo-hyun (16%), Kim Young-sam (14%) and Roh Tae-woo (12%).”

Worsening housing prices

Mr. Moon said that “Housing stability constitutes a key to people’s livelihoods,” telling a news conference after the speech that his administration had “failed to achieve the aim of stabilizing property prices” and thus his ruling party was severely punished in the Seoul and Busan elections.

Real estate corruption scandals, however, could also further exacerbate Moon’s lame-duck status. Although he said “real estate speculation by some public officials and employees of state-run organizations has hurt the people immensely,” he admitted the “fundamental, institutional reforms” he promised have not happened.

A will and a way

On inter-Korea dialogue, President Moon said, “If there is a will, there is a way.” Make no mistake, there was a will to engage Kim Jong Un in Singapore and Hanoi in 2018 and 2019 but there was no way forward. Wasn’t that because what Kim heard from Mr. Moon and what Mr. Moon told U.S. President Donald Trump were not the same?

Mr. Moon also said, “I will consider the remaining one year of my term to be the last opportunity to move from an incomplete peace toward one that is irreversible.” What opportunity is President Moon talking about? Efforts toward that end were tried multiple times in 2018 and 2019. If there is no “will” to make a compromise, there will be no “way” to reach one.

Then, Moon continued, “Now, the time for long deliberations is also coming to an end. It is time to take action.” Initially, I thought he was talking about the deteriorating relations with Japan, but of course he was not. Actions had already been taken. What is needed now is for Kim Jong Un to make moves to denuclearize North Korea.

North Korea policy review

Mr. Moon then said, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden “has also completed reviewing its North Korea policy. This is the result of close consultation with us.” He is right. In her briefing on April 30, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirmed that fact, but what she said was not completely in line with his comments.

Ms. Psaki said, “we’ve been in close touch with allies and partners through the process of the review. And obviously, when the president met with Prime Minister Suga, just two weeks ago, they discussed there, and we’ve discussed at every level as we’ve been conducting this review.”

President Moon said, “We welcome the direction of the Biden Administration’s North Korea policy that aims to achieve the primary goal of the Korean Peninsula’s complete denuclearization through diplomacy with a flexible, gradual and practical approach by building upon the foundation of the Singapore Declaration.”

Again, this sounds different from Ms. Psaki’s take. She said, “Our goal remains the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. With a clear understanding that the efforts of the past four administrations have not achieved this objective, our policy will not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience.”

She never referred to the Singapore Declaration, only saying, “Our policy calls for a calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with the DPRK, and to make practical progress that increases the security of the United States, our allies, and deployed forces.” Do you notice the difference in tone?

U.S.-South Korea summit

President Moon said, “The ROK-U.S. alliance will be solidified through the bilateral summit scheduled in late May,” and “if there is an opportunity to restart the clock of peace and advance the peace process on the Korean Peninsula, I will do everything I can.” Well, I sincerely hope so and wish him good luck.

The United States will eventually talk directly to North Korea to explain the results of the policy review. This will come in due time no matter what Mr. Moon says or does. What is not a matter of time, however, is a strategic decision by Kim Jong Un to denuclearize his nation.

President Moon said at the end of his speech, “I will leave all assessments to the people and history.” He is right. Tokyo keeps its fingers crossed. History may eventually show that Mr. Moon’s fanciful but unrealistic appeasement policy vis-a-vis North Korea between 2017 and 2022 failed to work.