Trump and Moon must unite to send a tough message to North Korea
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South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae In, visited the White House today to seek President Trump’s support for his North Korea policies, following visits from Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in February and China’s President Xi Jinping in April. Which side of Moon Jae In will he display in dealing with the United States? Will it be the sober politician who now seems to recognize the severity of the threat from North Korea? Or will it be the career leftist who appointed some of Korea’s leading anti-American activists and appeasers of the Pyongyang regime to his cabinet?

President Moon’s most widely quoted comments have emphasized solidarity with the United States. During a ceremony commemorating the first summit between the two Koreas, Moon answered Pyongyang’s call for Seoul to honor the North’s interpretation of the summit agreement by noting that Pyongyang says “one thing and [is] doing another, as seen in its continued development of nuclear weapons and missiles.” Moon also stated that “North Korea’s nuclear and missile development has become a serious concern that threatens peace and stability in the region and the international community.”

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A deeper examination of the views of Moon and his close advisors is less reassuring. Moon’s chief of staff spent three and half years in prison for illegally organizing a highly publicized propaganda tour of Pyongyang. A pro-North Korean student group he had once led later tried to firebomb the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. Moon’s new foreign minister worked at South Korea’s U.N. mission when it abstained from resolutions condemning North Korea’s crimes against humanity. His nominee to be unification minister was once indicted for destroying a transcript of an alleged agreement by former President Roh Moo Hyun to cede South Korea’s maritime border with the North.

 

Moon himself was the closest confidant and campaign manager of former President Roh, whom former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates called “anti-American” and “a little crazy.” Roh rode to power on a wave of anti-American sentiment that inspired a rash of fire bombings of U.S. military and consular facilities and assaults against U.S. soldiers. Moon and Roh did not encourage this violence, but they did not discourage it, either. As Roh asked at the time, “What’s wrong with being anti-American?”

Moon recently called for reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea, a Roh-era scheme that traded North Korean forced labor for South Korean cash. Moon’s predecessor closed Kaesong after Pyongyang’s January 2016 nuclear test, claiming that Pyongyang used Kaesong revenue to fund its nuclear program. Reopening Kaesong under its pre-2016 terms would violate U.N. sanctions absent approval by a U.N. committee — approval that the U.S. can and should block. Moon now insists that he will find some way to reopen Kaesong without breaking U.N. sanctions, but even so, returning South Korean managers to Kaesong risks a hostage crisis that could draw U.S. forces into a conflict.

To reassure both Washington and his anxious voters at home, President Moon sent Professor Moon Chung In, a close advisor who advocates immediate and unconditional negotiations with Pyongyang, to explain the new government’s views to American audiences. The visit backfired. Professor Moon called for delaying the deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) missile system, which the Pentagon sees as necessary to protect both South Korean cities and U.S. forces from North Korean nuclear weapons, for “a full seasonal cycle” pending an environmental review, adding that “American forces can’t be above South Korean law.

Professor Moon Chung In suggested suspending annual exercises that maintain the readiness of U.S and South Korean forces. Instead of reassuring Washington, Professor Moon’s comments smacked of unilateral disarmament and exacerbated concerns that the interests of Washington and Seoul are diverging.

Kim Jong Un will also get a vote on how events will proceed. Kim ordered missile launches during the Abe and Xi summits to exploit policy differences between these leaders. Despite Trump’s questionable suggestion that he would meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, his administration has since opted for a policy of maximum pressure and engagement. Moon may push Trump to moderate pressure on Pyongyang while expanding engagement, and may even seek to revive Seoul’s Sunshine Policy, which gave Pyongyang 20 years and billions of dollars to build nuclear weapons, but which produced no beneficial change in North Korea.

Although Trump’s reaction to Moon’s push is difficult to predict, Congress will be skeptical. Last year, tough North Korea sanctions legislation passed the House by a vote of 418 to 2 and the Senate by a vote of 96 to 0. Even Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSchumer: Franken should resign Franken resignation could upend Minnesota races Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign MORE (I-Vt.) issued a statement from the campaign trail in New Hampshire to express support for the legislation. A follow-on sanctions bill sponsored by Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), called the Korean Interdiction and Modernization of Sanctions Act, recently passed the House by 419 to 1. The death of Otto Warmbier will only harden Congress’s attitude.

Moon’s most contentious differences with Trump will likely be his ambivalent views on the enforcement of U.N. sanctions and the THAAD missile defense system. Beijing fiercely opposes THAAD to defend South Korean cities and U.S. forces against North Korean missiles made in part with Chinese technology, with parts procured from or smuggled through China, and that ride on carriers made by Chinese state-owned enterprises.

Despite its opposition to “unilateral” sanctions against Pyongyang, Beijing answered the deployment of THAAD with unilateral and punitive trade restrictions against South Korean businesses. Beijing is trying to bully Seoul into reversing the deployment of THAAD, even as it tries to repair its relations with Pyongyang. This is an opportunity for Washington to show its value to Seoul as an ally.

What should President Trump tell President Moon? First, that the U.S. will support South Korea at the World Trade Organization in the face of China’s economic bullying, will assist South Korean firms impacted by China’s unilateral sanctions, and if necessary, will recruit a coalition of China’s trading partners, including Japan, to target Chinese industries with retaliatory sanctions. Second, that Trump will compromise with Moon by supporting harmless forms of engagement with North Korea, such as athletic and cultural exchanges or carefully monitored in-kind humanitarian aid, provided no cash changes hands.

Third, that Moon must stop fanning public controversy about THAAD and quickly conclude the environmental review that has halted its deployment. Fourth, that South Korea must enforce U.N. sanctions strictly, including on Kaesong, until Pyongyang disarms completely. Finally, as North Korea poses a growing threat to the United States, President Trump should reserve the right to restructure U.S. forces in South Korea if Moon willfully undermines U.S. policy.

Neither Kim Jong Un’s threats nor ill-advised support for his regime should be allowed to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea. The summit between President Trump and President Moon is an opportunity to chart a prudent course that holds Pyongyang responsible for its actions and strengthens the alliance.

Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He was the nonproliferation advisor to the U.S. delegation to the 2005 rounds of the Six Party Talks and spent more than 17 years in the U.S. government.

Joshua Stanton is an attorney in Washington, D.C. and a writer at One Free Korea. He was a fellow with the House Foreign Affairs Committee and has assisted the committee with the drafting of North Korea-related legislation since 2013. The views expressed are his own and are not the views of the committee.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.