MOON JAE-IN’S ANTI-AMERICAN, PRO-NORTH KOREAN STANCE
The two Koreas are being boxed into a corner by the US. Especially astute is the pressure it is putting on President Moon Jae-in of South Korea.
On April 11, Moon was supposed to celebrate with big fanfare the centennial of the March One (independence) Movement under Japanese rule (1910-1945) and the establishment of the provisional Korean government in Shanghai (April 13, 1991). But he had to miss it in order to fly to Washington for “consultations” with President Donald Trump at the White House the following day. But, his summit with Trump ended in an unprecedented humiliation.
Moon, who left Seoul on April 10 and arrived in the US capital in the evening of the same day, found that no meetings had been set up with US officials for that day. The following morning he had separate meetings with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton, and Vice President Mike Pence. The trio are believed to have criticized Moon for his overly pro-Pyongyang posture.
It would be logical to assume that the trio also reminded Moon that no sanctions relief was possible without the North’s commitment to completely denuclearize, stressing that Washington would intensify punitive measures instead.
Moon later met Trump for a summit, each of them accompanied by his spouse. Ordinarily, summits do not include the wives of heads of state. Obviously, Trump did not see the need to discuss critical matters alone with the South Korean leader.
In point of fact, asked by the press in the Oval Office who he thought would win this year’s Masters Tournament, Trump engaged in a long chat with members of the press, keeping his South Korean guest sitting silent next to him for 27 minutes. Trump then turned to Moon for a two-minute conversation—through an interpreter no less. Afterwards, the two heads were joined for lunch by other key members of the Trump administration.
On April 1, Tokyo-based journalist Hong Hyung, who once served as minister of the South Korean embassy here, was a guest of my regular “Genron” Internet TV news show. Hong stated:
“After the second Trump-Kim summit broke down in Hanoi in late February, Moon sent Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa and Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo to Washington on a mission to urge the US to prepare for a third summit and ease sanctions against North Korea.
“Moon’s message, carried to Washington by Kang and Jeong, was that South Korea will not impose undue burdens on the US while pushing its plans to aid the North economically, and that it wants the US to approve a reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Park and the Kumgan-san resort development project with the South bearing all costs. But the US side flatly rejected Moon’s requests, warning that there would be no summit if Kaesong and Kumgan-san were all that Moon wanted to discuss with Trump.”
Another guest of my show was Professor Tsutomu Nishioka, a Korean Peninsula specialist who serves as a senior fellow at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, a privately-financed Tokyo think tank that I head. Nishioka had this to say:
“In Korean, they call eating meals alone ‘honbup.’ This word has become quite popular in South Korea over the years because more and more lonely youngsters tend to find themselves eating their meals by themselves. So when it came to eating with American officials, Moon was ‘honbup’ in the evening of April 10 after his arrival in Washington, and was again ‘honbup’ for breakfast on the morning of April 11—until finally he was taken to an American-hosted lunch. Obviously, nobody on the US side really wanted to keep him company.”
Hong declared that this cold treatment Moon received reflected Washington’s stern posture reacting to what it viewed as an act of bad faith on Moon’s part: the US believes that Moon, in his zeal to materialize a second Trump-Kim summit, had wittingly provided the US side misinformation about Kim’s resolve to denuclearize. In point of fact, Kim is ready for a denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, not North Korea itself. His objective is to remove the nuclear weapons that now defend South Korea, and then see the US-South Korea alliance scrapped. This is far different from a commitment to unilaterally abandon all of his nuclear arsenal and related facilities.
The Trump administration, which initially entertained the hope of denuclearizing the North, has gradually begun to realize that Kim has no intention to give up his nuclear program and that Moon was lying about the North’s intentions.
Last September, the US Treasury telephoned seven South Korean banks in New York to strongly warn them that the North Korea was under stringent international economic sanctions. Nishioka commented:
“Since then, Korean banks are said to have suspended overseas remittances. If funds related to the North are found in their overseas remittances, the banks in question will most likely be subject to secondary sanctions, which will make it impossible for them to settle their accounts in US dollars. When that happens, the banks will surely go out of business.”
To the inter-Korea summits in Panmunjom last April 27 and Pyongyang on September 18, Moon took a large entourage of representatives of South Korean business firms, including the head of the association of the member firms of Kaesong Industrial Park. While climbing up Mt. Paektu with Kim, Moon had the head of the association make a direct appeal to the chairman: “Honorable Chairman, please, please reopen the Kaesong Industrial Park.”
In his new year’s address in January, Kim pledged to “reopen the Kaesong Industrial Park in order to respond to the earnest wishes of the people of South Korea.” In response, Moon publicly vowed to persuade Washington. As mentioned earlier, Washington unequivocally rejected Moon’s request, because reopening Kaesong would only benefit the North.
Moon’s Declining Approval Ratings
Meanwhile, a specialist at the US embassy in Seoul kept calling representatives of the business concerns who accompanied Moon to his summit with Kim, freshly reminding them that the US government has imposed stern economic sanctions on North Korea. Hong stressed:
“America has learned many valuable lessons in the seven decades it has dealt with the Korean Peninsula. And now it is trying to separate the Moon administration and Korean corporations. Washington’s thinking is that, if Moon refuses to heed America’s advice, it might as well work directly on Korean corporations and the people. In short, America is giving these corporations the alternative of continuing to remit funds to a North that refuses to give up its nuclear program or seek closer trade ties with America and other members of the free world.”
The South Korean people must by now feel a sense of apprehension about the leadership of their left-leaning president. Actually, his approval ratings have steadily been slipping. The economy is stagnant, the unemployment rate is soaring. And yet, Moon has raised the minimum wage by approximately 30% over the past two years. He has also limited overtime work and drastically shortened working hours. As a result, personnel costs have skyrocketed, bankruptcies have increased rapidly, and the unemployment rate has jumped—a vicious cycle that sees no end. Nishioka introduced a reality of the South Korean economy so sad it is almost funny:
“Because the government does not want the unemployed to increase statistically, Moon has seen to it that unemployed senior citizens over 60 report to universities once a week for menial work such as turning lights off or picking up trash. The government pays them. The authorities are making the unemployment statistics look better with tax moneys.”
Discernible in the personnel decisions Moon has made is a strong anti-American resolve to forge ahead with a pro-Pyongyang policy despite declining approval ratings and the warnings from America. One example is the appointment of Kim Yeong-chul as Unification Minister. Kim is a pro-engagement, anti-American former professor who is bitterly opposed to the deployment in South Korea of the THAAD missiles requested by the US. He also advocates an early reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Park.
Moon did not change his mind about Kim’s appointment despite strong opposition from the National Assembly. He thus effectively demonstrated his anti-American posture publicly and, I suspect, will try to forge ahead with a campaign to aid the North through such projects as a reopening of Kaesong, resorting to a variety of deceptive tricks.
While America attempts to reign in Moon, a counter-balancing force is gradually gaining strength in the South itself. On February 27, Hwan Kyo-ahn was elected president of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party. A former prosecutor who served as prime minister and justice minister in the Park Geun-hye administration, Hwan criticizes the Moon administration’s security and economic policies as “ruinous to our nation.”
While the South’s opposition forces are still weak at this juncture, Moon’s power base is far from solid. It is worth bearing in mind that, in light of the tense situation the South is faced with, anything can happen at any time in this part of the world. (The End)
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 849 in the April 25, 2019 issue of The Weekly Shincho)