Commentary: The man who took the biggest bet on North Korea leader Kim Jong Un

BUSAN: South Korean President Moon Jae-in is changing South Korean foreign policy.

He has allowed Seouls relationship with the United States and Japan to deteriorate while betting heavily that North Korea would embrace his détente effort.



This risks isolating South Korea, and the conservative pushback here in Seoul against Moons left-dovish foreign policy initiatives has been vociferous.


Moons leftist coalition has long sought improved relations with North Korea. Unlike the South Korean right, which adheres to a tough, traditionalist anti-communism regarding the North, the left here is more nationalistic.

It reads North Korea as a brother Korean state which has lost its way, radicalised by the horrific American bombing campaign during the war, US and UN sanctions, extreme isolation, and so on.



READ: Commentary: Why Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un are unlikely to share a truly deep or warm relationship

The core argument of Moons détente effort – like that of his liberal predecessors from 1998 to 2008 – is that North Korea will temper its behaviour, or even become a partner to South Korea, if we bring it in from the cold.

So the traditional approaches of sanctions and containment favoured by the US, Japan, and the South Korean right are actually making the problem worse. A U-turn is necessary, and Moon has pursued this vigorously.

No South Korean president has ever been this dovish and solicitous of North Korea before. The South Korean right is filled with conspiracy theories that Moon is a pro-Pyongyang Marxist.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has long championed engagement with North Korea. (File photo: AFP/KCNA VIA KNS)


The flip side of this rapprochement with Pyongyang is drawing greater distance from the Americans and, especially, the Japanese.

The contrast with the South Korean right is again quite sharp: The right here is quite pro-American and is willing to work with Japan while still debating thorny historical issues stemming from Japanese imperialism last century.

On the left though, these are core issues. The American relationship is hotly debated, as the US is often blamed for supporting some leaders in pre-democratic South Korea.

And there is sneaking suspicion that the US military presence here manipulates South Korean foreign policy, a neo-colonial critique one frequently sees in South Korean movies.


Regarding Japan, the left here is downright ideological. Rather than grudgingly cooperate over shared North Korean concerns, Moons coalition wants a confrontation with Japan over historical issues.

Ideally détente with North Korea would improve the Souths position too.

Both Koreas cooperating would more effectively pressure Tokyo over the war, and South Korea would not need Japanese assistance on intelligence gathering or anything else if intra-Korean peace were at hand.

READ: Commentary: Whose idea was it to mix North Korea diplomacy and football?

South Korea's President Moon Jae-in. (REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)

For most of South Koreas history, the left has been unable to pursue these goals. First, the rule of onen man until 1987 obviously constrained these preferences.

Since then, the popularity of the US alliance, combined with US hostility to this foreign policy programme, has constrained Seoul.

Moon is the first South Korean president to really push this re-orientation. He is South Koreas third liberal president, but his two predecessors from 1998 to 2008 never went as far as Moon has.


As an experiment, it has been fascinating to watch. Moon has pushed for a North Korean breakthrough far harder than any previous South Korean president.

He has met the North Korean leader more than all other South Korean presidents combined.

He has spoken so favourably of Kim Jong Un, North Koreas supreme leader, that Moon has been criticised for grovelling and acting as North Koreas foreign minister.

Moon has also gambled on this détente effort to draw a much tougher line on Japan than his predecessors.

He unilaterally withdrew South Korea from a pact it signed with Japan to resolve the “comfort women” issue, deeply alienating Tokyo and Washington and provoking debates about South Korean credibility.

When Japan hit back with trade restrictions, Moon doubled down on ideology in language, which shocked almost everyone outside of the leftist milieu in South Korea.

South Korea's President Moon Jae-in in happier times with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. (File photo: AFP/Kazuhiro NOGI)

Moon then withdrew South Korea from an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan – the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). GSOMIA allows South Korea and Japan to directly share information on North Korea, rather than trading through the US as a third party.

The US has long wanted South Korea to do this. But Japan finds the pact valuable.

READ: Commentary: The uncomfortable North Korea wedge between Japan and South Korea

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Curiously, Moons own government even admitted that value by using GSOMIA sharing several times in the months after Moon declared South Koreas intention to leave.

At the same time, Moon openly resisted US President Donald Trumps demand for a much higher South Korean contribution to joint defence through the “Special Measures Agreement” (SMA), which governs ROK–US burden-sharing.

US President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in visit an observation post in the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea on Jun 30, 2019. (Photo: AFP / Brendan Smialowski)

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