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Bad Moon falling: South Korean leader falters in summit with Biden

The most anti-American president in South Korea’s history visited Washington on Friday. It does not appear that President Moon Jae-in got what he really wanted. He smiled through a long day of diplomacy but undoubtedly left disappointed and upset.

In fact, it appears Moon lost ground on the one issue that matters most to him, the political union of the two Koreas. Moreover, Moon ended up with a strengthened U.S.-South Korea alliance, something he clearly abhors. 

Moon had hoped President Biden would endorse his “peace agenda,” essentially unconditional engagement of the North’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The South Korean leader has staked his legacy on achieving either a formal union of the two Koreas or, failing that, an “irreversible peace.” He arrived hoping the Biden administration would commit itself to his brand of North Korea diplomacy, which contemplates unilateral concessions to Pyongyang and immediate relief for the North from U.N. and U.S. sanctions. 

Instead, Moon got Biden’s commitment to a “calibrated and practical approach” — language from the U.S.-Republic of Korea Leaders’ Joint Statement. In effect, that means little progress in the immediate future. 

The crucial news from Friday’s summit is not about Biden’s correctly tepid approach to Pyongyang but about the U.S.-South Korea military treaty, signed in 1953 after the fighting of the Korean War. The “alliance forged in blood,” as both parties call it, had appeared to be in jeopardy in recent years. Now it looks far stronger.

Since taking office, Moon has worked tirelessly to end the military pact, something evident from his foreign ministry joining with China in October 2017 in issuing, without consulting Washington, the “Three Nos.” This declaration severely limited America’s ability to discharge treaty obligations to defend the South against missile attacks.

Moon back home has had few inhibitions in showing his dislike for the U.S. When President Trump visited Seoul in June 2019, for instance, he was photographed next to 

Moon and Kim Jung-sook, the South Korean first lady. Kim was prominently wearing a large blue butterfly broach, the symbol of anti-Americanism in the South.

Moon, thanks to Trump’s subtle but firm diplomacy, kept the alliance in place, and Biden on Friday shut the door to the South Korean’s behind-the-scenes subversion. 

“This was quite a historic day for the alliance,” David Maxwell of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said at the conclusion of the Biden-Moon press conference on Friday. “They put the alliance on the right track,” he said, referring to the two leaders’ joint statement and accompanying fact sheet, the United States-Republic of Korea Partnership. “They provide,” he noted, “an excellent blueprint for the future of the alliance.”

Maxwell, who served five tours of duty in Korea with the U.S. Army, is correct. In addition to boilerplate, the documents outline new areas of technical cooperation. Of special importance was Biden’s pledge, announced at the press conference, to vaccinate 550,000 South Korean soldiers, sailors and airmen. The fact sheet contains specifics of other vaccine cooperation.

“I am cautiously optimistic that there is so much substance in these agreements that it will propel the alliance in a positive direction for years to come,” Maxwell, a retired colonel, said.

The alliance, although put on a firmer footing on Friday, might not outlast another “progressive” president of Moon’s stripe. There is a pattern in South Korea of electing in succession two presidents of the same orientation and, if the pattern holds, Moon will be followed by one more virulently anti-American leader. 

Moon has less than a year left to his single five-year term and, fortunately for the U.S., he’s in political hot water. His approval rating, even in polls that tend to inflate his standing, this month dropped to 29 percent, under the psychological 30 percent barrier. Worse for him, last month voters in Seoul and Busan, the South’s two largest cities, handed crushing defeats to Moon’s Democratic Party of Korea in mayoralty contests. Rejection of ruling party candidates was mostly due to Moon’s misguided economic policies, such as those resulting in unaffordable housing, but his unpopularity effectively limits his ability to do things for which there is no consensus, including continuing his pronounced shift to Beijing and Pyongyang. 

And this brings us back to Moon’s outreach to Pyongyang. Most signs now point to a return to a “conservative” South Korean president; Moon’s only chance for another leader from his party, therefore, is a breakthrough in relations with Pyongyang.

South Korean politics are notoriously volatile, and an historic agreement with Pyongyang could result in another win for Minjoo, as Moon’s party is known. Biden, by closing the door to a deal with North Korean supremo Kim Jong Un, is also closing the door to another progressive president in the South.

Given the unbalanced nature of the U.S.-South Korea relationship, Washington cannot be seen as interfering in next March’s presidential contest. Nonetheless, Biden can influence the outcome by just doing nothing. 

Doing nothing, therefore, works for America — and, ultimately, for the people of South Korea.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of “Losing South Korea.” Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.

Tags Biden Diplomatic Relations Donald Trump foreign relations Foreign relations of North Korea Foreign relations of South Korea Joe Biden Kim Jong Un Kim Jong-un Korea Korea–United States relations Moon Jae-in North Korea North Korea–South Korea relations South Korea–United States relations

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