Seoul, South Korea — South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been steering his foreign policy through narrow gaps and around tricky obstacles during his first nine months, like a video game race car nearing the end of a level. Having dodged multiple pitfalls, he’s positioned himself to act as a bridge between the United States and North Korea. His envoy has returned from a successful foray to Pyongyang and Moon Jae-in is driving things forward.
True, the United States has contributed to an inflection point through its pressure campaign. And North Korea helped choose the timing by declaring the “completion” of its nuclear force in late November and then by calling for Olympic cooperation in Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s speech. But since then, the Moon government has been the one forging a path toward meaningful talks between the key stakeholders.
Moon sent a delegation to Pyongyang this week to explore further peace initiatives on the Korean Peninsula, building on the Olympic détente. Its job, essentially, was to get the North Koreans to use the word “denuclearization,” and then take that, with whatever qualifiers Pyongyang attached, to sell in Washington. That Pyongyang did use that word surprised many, but both Moon and Kim are savvy enough to know without the word “denuclearization” U.S. President Donald Trump would not respond.
The next challenge lies in persuading the United States this is a real opening. That should be possible, especially given Trump’s first tweet was cautious but not dismissive. Then, of course, the real hard work begins.
Kim Jong Un apparently signaled to the South Korean that he could overlook the already planned-for spring military drills in the South. This is a good start; the North Koreans generally respond to these exercises with shows of force and bitter invective. The United States and South Korea could reciprocate by conducting the drills quietly, without media junkets or high publicity.
Looking past April, North Korea and the United States have a long legacy of mutual mistrust and it will be hard for either to think in the long term. Both denuclearization and adjustment of U.S. forces in the region must be thought of as distant goals, yet both sides feel they have been burned with past attempts at dialogue. Long before such horizons come into view, sealing facilities, international inspections and sanctions relief will all be extremely difficult to sequence. Building trust at a moderate pace will be hard and there will be problems. Hopefully Seoul can continue to bridge the gap when slow, uneven progress breaks down.
There is reason to think that Moon is a skillful enough player that he can continue to act as an honest broker for both sides. After all, he’s been under pressure since the day he was sworn in.
Moon Jae-in came into office under the gun. His country faced informal yet punishing sanctions imposed by Beijing because of Seoul’s deployment of the U.S. THAAD anti-missile system, which China sees as a strategic threat. Moon took care of that with soft promises to China in November, agreeing not to deploy more THAAD batteries, not to join broader U.S. missile defense system and not to formally ally with Japan.
But Moon also didn’t bend to Beijing’s will: He kept the system deployed. Pyongyang tested his resolve with multiple missile tests in the summer and fall. Moon responded with rapid shows of force and tough statements, even while reiterating that someday his campaign-stated preference for talks would be, well, preferable.
He has also been put under pressure from Trump in a variety of ways. Trump tweeted about tearing up the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement the very week after North Korea’s Sept. 2 nuclear test, has demanded South Korea pay more for garrisoning U.S. troops, slapped tariffs on South Korean exports, and engaged in aggressive, militaristic rhetoric that has deeply unnerved South Koreans.
With a U.S. president who can be hard to predict and doesn’t seem to value alliance maintenance, it fell largely to Moon to stay onside with Washington. This he has done assiduously, saying the right things about denuclearization, about the alliance and about sanctions, even while reassuring his domestic constituents that he would not allow the United States to start a conflict without Seoul’s consent. He said in August he’d “ruled war out” following Trump’s “fire and fury” remarks.
But in November he also stated that South Korea would never tolerate North Korea as a nuclear state, nor would Seoul try to develop nuclear weapons. When in January a North Korean official said, “North Korea’s weapons are only aimed at the U.S., not South Korea, Russia or China,” Moon stated that wasn’t the case. He also very publicly thanked Trump, saying his leadership in the pressure campaign led to the Olympic détente.
Beltway pundits fretted when Moon won the election in May that he’d be too soft on Pyongyang, but they now seem generally grateful, if wary, of the opening he has provided. The North Koreans have shifted, too. In 2017, angered at Moon’s support for sanctions, Northern propaganda flyers in Seoul portrayed Moon as licking Trump’s boot. By January the flyers were celebrating unity and cooperation.
There’s certainly a long way to go to reach all that. Indeed, all roads ahead will be winding and fraught with difficulty. But at least for the moment, Moon has earned his position in the driver’s seat. With the passengers he’s dragging with him, how long he can keep the vehicle moving forward is anybody’s guess.