What legacy would Moon want?
The author is the content editor of JoongAng Ilbo.
In a recent interview with CNN, Jacob Sullivan, the National Security Advisor designate for U.S. President-elect Joe Biden said, “We’ve reached a point where foreign policy is domestic policy, and domestic policy is foreign policy.” He argued, “The work that we do abroad fundamentally has to connect to making the lives of working people better, safer and fairer.” A closer connection and consistency with domestic and foreign affairs has been the central theme of the U.S. Democratic Party
President Donald Trump won support from 74.4 million voters to become the president with his “America First” slogan. Biden and Democrats think Americanism in Trump’s egoistic ways had damaged the U.S. dignity and national interests.
Korea faces crucial elections ahead — the vote for the mayors of Seoul and Busan in April and a presidential election in March next year. If they can get more votes, candidates may hit on Japan and the United States or North Korea and China.
The poor state of foreign policy has been overlooked amid controversy over delayed vaccine supply and a clash between Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae and Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl.
Hopes for a breakthrough in the stalemated relationship with Japan through the Tokyo Summer Olympics have been dashed after a recent court ruling that demanded the Japanese government individually compensate the Korean victims for their wartime sexual slavery, on top of an earlier court ruling that validated asset seizure for delayed compensations for wartime labor and the government’s nullification of 2015 agreement to settle comfort women issue.
A South Korean oil carrier has been seized in Iran for freezing Iranian asset in Korea in compliance with the U.S. sanctions on Iran after Trump walked away from the Iranian nuclear deal in 2018. A Korean delegation has recently returned home empty-handed from Iran, which demanded Seoul play a role in persuading Washington to lift sanctions.
The government has achieved little — and only done more harm than good on the external front. Decisions the government made to gain political points or indulge loyal voters have caused havoc on the diplomatic and security fronts.
President Moon Jae-in will be deliberating on his legacy in his final year in office. He could draw lessons from President Roh Moo-hyun’s initiative on a free trade with the United States in 2007 and President Lee Myung-bak’s liberalization of U.S. beef imports in 2008.
The decisions by the two former presidents faced hardship and a tumultuous process, costing votes and confidence from their home turf. Roh initiated the FTA talks and Lee reached the settlement with America to broaden South Korea’s trade territory and job opportunities. The FTA was even defended by President Moon in the face of Trump’s threat to retract.
President Lee saw his approval rating plunge to 10 percent six months after inauguration after he saw through the opening to U.S. beef imports that President Roh hesitated to implement.
Lee renegotiated a new deal even as candlelight vigil protests lasted for months and in the end earned confidence from Washington. As a result, Korea was able to sign a currency swap with America after the outbreak of a global financial meltdown in 2008.
The Moon Jae-in administration has been trying to erase every legacy of the past conservative governments. But each government had done its part for the nation and people. The country has gotten a little better and lives improved.
Only a superpower like America would confidently say that domestic policy is same as foreign policy. But a country like South Korea cannot afford to apply the domestic agenda to foreign policy. At times, the government must sacrifice political gains for national interests and persuade its base for the benefit of the country.