Moon’s likely message to Biden: ‘You can trust Kim Jong Un, trust me’

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South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s main message to President Biden at their first summit meeting this Friday promises to be disquietingly quixotic. Moon, who has met Kim Jong Un four times, is likely to repeat to Biden — who has yet to meet a North Korean leader — what he stated in a January news conference: Kim “has a clear will for peace, dialogue and denuclearization” in return for a U.S. pledge of “regime security guarantee and normalization of relations.” If this is indeed Moon’s message, the meeting probably will not end well. 

The last time a South Korean president who had met the North Korean dictator tried to teach the new United States president the proper path to peace with Pyongyang was 20 years ago. On March 7, 2001, Kim Dae-jung, riding high from winning the Nobel Peace Prize three months before for his pecuniary pilgrimage to Pyongyang, exhorted his host, George W. Bush — not quite 50 days into his presidency and very much disinclined to continue his predecessor’s North Korea placation policy — that the North’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Il ( Jong Un’s dad), was to be trusted. That meeting did not end well.  

Kim Dae-jung, a proponent of democracy and human rights in South Korea, spoke of his “vision for peace on the Korean peninsula” by working in tandem with the tyrant in Pyongyang who, to date, had not shown an iota of impulse for democracy or human rights in North Korea. The South Korean delegation insisted that “timing is critical” and that the pleasant Mr. Kim in Pyongyang might turn dour if he felt rebuffed by the new U.S. administration. The southern Mr. Kim spoke piously of peace with Pyongyang soon to be sealed in a “peace declaration” when Kim Jong Il visits Seoul in springtime. 

That Kim Jong Il chose never to visit South Korea despite his promises to Kim Dae-jung would sting — later. But, for now, what stung President Kim the most was that President Bush raised objections to his missionary message that all we need is love.   

Bush questioned Kim Jong Il’s intentions and called for “complete verification” of the secretive state. Bush went so far as to say he retained “some skepticism” about the North Korean tyrant. In the straightforward world of everyday life, such common sense would be an assuring sign of sanity. But in the affected world of high-stakes diplomacy, Bush’s skepticism fell somewhere between the biting insult, “You’re a naïf,” and self-assured solipsism, “No wonder I think they’re evil.” 

The circumstances today impel Moon to be even more preachy with peace than was his predecessor in 2001. At the time, Kim Dae-jung had nearly two years left in his single five-year term. Moon barely has a year left to salvage his North Korea policy, which, prematurely hailed a triumph in 2018, has gone pear-shaped since. Kim Dae-jung had given Kim Jong Il a major bribe to the tune of $500 million on the eve of the summit with a pledge of billions of dollars in aid and investment to follow. Moon presumably made similar bold pledges during the gatherings north and south of the Demilitarized Zone a mere three years ago. However, Moon’s pledge drive has not borne fruit because of United Nations Security Council and United States sanctions that prohibit joint ventures or transactions of blocked property with North Korea.   

These strict measures emerged in 2016 and 2017 in response to Pyongyang’s relentless weapons of mass destruction tests and bluster barrage. Whether in 2018 Moon naively believed that neither international law nor U.S. laws applied to inter-Korean relations or that he could circumvent them is unclear. What is clear is that Kim Jong Un — whom Moon defended as “candid,” “polite,” “respectful” and, notably, “sincere” about denuclearization — has remained rather displeased with Moon. In particular, Kim Yo Jong, the First Sister of North Korea, has expressed her ire at Moon repeatedly in a rather candid, impolite, disrespectful but sincere manner. Ms. Kim over the past year has called Moon variously a “frightened dog,” “wretched,” “insane,” “servile,” “disgusting,” an “idiot,” a “parrot raised by America” and much more.  

A South Korean leader of a firmer backbone might stand up to the Kim siblings, but with each insult Moon has firmed up his capitulatory stance. While vigorously suing and imprisoning fellow South Korean citizens for defamation and libel, Moon has dutifully obeyed Kim Yo Jong’s June 4, 2020 command to pass a law that criminalizes sending leaflets across the border into the North. In fact, Moon has gone much further than her diktat and banned the transfer across the border of all items that have any “means of property gains,” that is, exchange value. 

In his attempt to persuade Biden to court Kim Jong Un, Moon likely will insist that Pyongyang’s denuclearization is more a matter of attitude; that is, it all depends on America’s concessionary attitude. After years of fanning the flames of anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea, including invoking curious slogans such as “We will never again lose to Japan,” Moon likely will tell Biden that he actually values the U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral partnership and seeks better relations with Tokyo, including bilateral cooperation on supplying the U.S. auto industry with the much-needed chips for cars.  

With less than 5 percent of South Korea’s population of 52 million vaccinated against COVID-19, Moon will argue that American largesse on vaccine supply will ensure South Korea’s steady provision of semiconductors into American supply chains. Formal membership in the so-called Quad, a rather informal security dialogue among the U.S., Japan, Australia and India vis-à-vis China, for now, will be premature, Moon likely will protest. But, perhaps later, and only on less politically sensitive issues such as climate change, Moon will equivocate.  

After the diplomatic debacle that was his first meeting with President Bush, President Kim Dae-jung, reeling from his failure to sell the feel-good “Kim Jong Il is trustworthy” narrative, spoke of his “frank and honest exchange of views” on Korea with Bush. In diplospeak, the bland expression means something rather fiery and testy. On his flight back home, Kim had the chief coordinator for his U.S. trip, Vice Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon, fired.  

If either Biden or Moon speaks of a “frank and honest exchange of views” on North Korea and the “ironclad” alliance between the U.S. and South Korea in the same sentence or even the same paragraph, it’s more likely than not that Moon’s missionary sales pitch has rendered the alliance in a more malleable light as clad in silver rather than iron, much to the delight of the impious Kim siblings in Pyongyang. 

Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and faculty associate at the U.S.-Japan Program at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. Follow him on Twitter @SungYoonLee1.

Tags Denuclearization of Korean Peninsula Joe Biden Kim dynasty Kim Jong Un moon jae-in North Korea–South Korea relations US-South Korea relations

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