31 days laterIt is May 15, 2017, six days after the South Korean presidential election. The markets are in a rout. The Kospi stock price index sank below the 1,000 threshold, and the won hovers above 2,000 to the U.S. dollar. A month ago, the Kospi was above 2,100 and the dollar was at 1,141.5 won. People have stocked up on bottled water, ramen and canned food. Panic is everywhere. Chaos reigns. There is a rumor that the United States will make a military strike on North Korea today.
President Moon Jae-in, barely at his presidential desk after winning the snap May 9 election, calls in National Security Office head Kim Kwan-jin. Moon had no time to replace Kim or anyone else from the administration of his predecessor. It will take two to three months for him to form his own administration. He is overseeing affairs from the presidential office, because his room in the government building, which he pledged to work in, has not been refurbished.
“Washington will let us know when it hits North Korea, won’t it?,” President Moon asks. “We’ve heard for the past month that Trump would strike North Korea, but how he would inform Seoul depended on who wins,” Kim replies. “He would not notify anyone if Moon Jae-in wins. He would notify Seoul and then strike if Ahn Cheol-soo wins. And he would discuss the plan with Hong Joon-pyo if he wins, and then strike.”
The new president understood. When Trump ordered the airstrike on Syria for alleged use of chemical weapons, Washington had given Seoul a heads up. Kim had a phone conversation with his U.S. counterpart H.R. McMaster for 20 minutes.
But this time, Washington may not be as considerate — even over a strike on Korean soil.
“Are you saying this is all because of me? Because I’m a left-wing president?” Moon asks. He was elected with only 38 percent of the vote. If 20 percent of the votes had not gone to outright rightist Hong at the last minute amid jitters about a U.S. strike, his liberal rival Ahn Cheol-soo would have won. Actually, Trump was the secret force behind Moon’s victory. But he has not gotten a congratulatory call from South Korea’s closest ally in the week since the election.
In his inauguration speech, Moon vowed to resume inter-Korean dialogue, visit North Korea for a summit, and resume operation of the inter-Korean industrial park in Kaesong, as he had done during the campaign. “I thought of leaving those promises out given the sensitivity of current times, but my aides were insistent,” he says sighing.
Moon calls an emergency National Security Council meeting. North Korea would fire artillery across the border after the U.S. air strikes. What should South Korea do? Kim gives a straightforward answer. “We must immediately counter-fire and strike at the command. This is the military guideline since the North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.”
Moon opposes. “We must refrain from a counterattack,” he says.
Kim offers to resign on the spot. “The military is an organization ready for any contingency,” he says forcefully. “Its existential purpose becomes meaningless if it is ordered to stay still when the nation comes under attack.”
Defense Minister Han Min-koo and other senior military officials side with Kim. Moon hits the ceiling but has no one around to vent his fury at.
This is fiction. Moon leads the polls with less than a month before the election. The Korean Peninsula is in a panic over rumors about war in April. Moon knows the urgency. He has backtracked from his liberal agenda and tilted more to the right. But that is not enough. Ahn is equally overly relaxed. Park Jie-won, chairman of the People’s Party that is fielding Ahn as a candidate, is a champion of the Sunshine Policy of former President Kim Dae-jung. South Koreans are faced with their worst security threat and must make their choices between two liberals — Moon and Ahn — as commander in chief.
How realistic they become on security will determine the fate of this nation. The two must debate hard to expose their true vision and philosophy on security issues. The people will decide. Voters must know what the state of the country will be in a month before casting their ballots. The future of this country hinges on every vote.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 13, Page 34
*The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.