The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
President Moon Jae-in and his government formally entered the final year of the single five-year presidential term on Monday. Their scorecard for the past four years has been dismal as underscored by the crushing defeat of the ruling Democratic Party in the April 7 mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan. Moon had enjoyed a historic approval rating (87 percent in a Gallup Korea poll) shortly after his inauguration, the highest since direct presidential elections were adopted in 1987. But his approval rating skidded after a string of disappointments, which signaled the lame-duck syndrome in his final year.
Historically, economic performance on the home front and the inter-Korean relationship on the external front strongly affect a president’s approval rating. Moon’s case is no different. The economy feels dismal for most people due to a protracted Covid-19 crisis. Inter-Korean ties are deadlocked after a roller-coaster ride over the last four years.
Looking back, military tensions were at their peak in Moon’s first year. The South-North relationship dramatically warmed after North Korea’s participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February 2018. Leaders of the two Koreas met in April of that year followed by the first-ever summit between the United States and North Korea in June, which raised hopes for some kind of breakthrough agreement. But the inter-Korean and North-U.S. relationships suddenly soured after the collapse of the second U.S.-North summit in Hanoi in February 2019. The Joint Declaration on Sept. 19, 2018 between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un after a summit in Pyongyang became meaningless after North Korea repeated military provocations afterwards.
Cool reflection is needed on foreign and security affairs, including the inter-Korean relationship, over the last four years if Moon does not want to waste his final year in office. Fortunately, Moon’s first summit with U.S. President Joe Biden is to be held on May 21.
Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and National Intelligence Service Director Park Jie-won have sent mixed signals on inter-Korean and foreign/security matters. During a debate sponsored by the Kwanhoon Club of senior journalists last month, Chung enthusiastically praised the Moon administration’s policies of the past. In opening remarks, Chung defined his role as “upholding and winding up the foreign policy of the Moon administration to hand down to the next administration.” He did not back down even when panelists asked questions that were inherently critical of the government.
Admittedly, Chung could not accept policy failures since he had been in charge of foreign and security affairs as National Security Advisor to the president for three years since Moon came into office in May 2017. Still, Chung refused to accept the reality of deteriorated geopolitical conditions and accelerated nuclear programs in the North despite Seoul’s all-giving attitude towards Pyongyang.
During a Q&A session, Chung was asked to score the Moon administration’s performance on the inter-Korean relationship and foreign affairs. He did not hesitate to give an “A” compared with the Park Geun-hye administration, which “did it too poorly.” Chung said the Moon administration did even better than the liberal government under President Roh Moo-hyun. The foreign minister went so far as to say, “President Moon’s judgment on foreign and security affairs was quick and accurate.” Further questioning became meaningless.
Park Jie-won, on the other hand, had an entirely different view. He came to head the top spy agency shortly after North Korea blew up the inter-Korean liaison office building last June. Park strived to find a breakthrough in the inter-Korean relationship but faced a dead end every time.
He confided to his close acquaintances the frustration he felt about a “cease in [inter-Korean] dialogue channels” and how the relationship has backtracked to the times before the June 15, 2000 summit in Pyongyang between former President Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father. Park could not be exaggerating as he had been a close aide to the former president, who held the first-ever post-war summit with the North Korean leader at the turn of the century.
It’s bewildering that the Moon administration’s top policymakers in foreign affairs and and security can be such poles apart. An expert well-versed in inter-Korean affairs expressed concerns that South Korea’s national security has become dangerously risky if a hot line between the two Koreas has really ceased to work while North Korea is a de facto nuclear weapons state. The expert also agreed that our security conditions got worse than before 2000.
Even without mentioning the unstable alliance highlighted by the Moon administration’s botched vaccine swap proposal to the Biden administration and a serious conflict between South Korea and Japan, it is amazing that there is a profound gulf between the two top officials in their evaluations of the government’s performance on inter-Korean affairs. One of them must be lying. The people must know the truth.