The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
While it is not well known, President Moon Jae-in has called Chinese president Xi Jinping a “democratic leader.” A day before controversial remarks comparing China to a “high mountain” and Korea to a “small country” during a trip to China for a summit with the Chinese leader in December 2017, Moon said that Xi showed democratic leadership. Moon’s comment came shortly after Xi earned a nickname — Emperor Xi — for strengthening his one-man rule at the 19th congress of the Communist Party of China.
Diplomatic expressions need to be used carefully. Around this time, Korean Ambassador to China Noh Young-min, who was considered to have shared ideas with Moon and who later became his chief of staff, wrote “Manjeolpildong” in a visitor’s book. It is an old expression that ministers from Joseon had used as a pledge of undying loyalty to China.
The joint statement from the Korea-U.S. summit eleven days ago makes me wonder if Moon really made such remarks to Xi at the time. The joint statement is filled with words that China would hate. “Korea and the U.S. oppose all acts undermining or threatening the international order based on the norms,” it said. The target is obvious. People have mixed feelings about such an unexpected about-turn by Moon. Some have promulgated the idea that he was so obsessed with including the Singapore and Panmunjom declarations in the joint statement that he accepted expressions that Washington wanted to put in, possibly against his better judgement. This analysis is shared by several veteran diplomats who were involved in major diplomatic deals.
But government officials seemed to be intent on undercutting this valuable outcome as soon as the summit ended. The accomplishment that the Blue House and the Foreign Ministry are promoting is focused on “restarting the Korean Peninsula peace process.”
Korea needs to be composed. There is no reason for U.S. President Joe Biden to oppose the Singapore Declaration itself, which contains North Korea’s nuclear dismantlement in return for a U.S. promise to guarantee its system and normalization of the North-U.S. relationship. The Panmunjom Declaration is the same. The key to denuclearization is in the methodology of what path to take for the goal. The Moon-Biden summit did not produce any progress on that crucial issue. Washington reaffirmed faithful implementation of sanctions and put a sincere action as a precondition for negotiations. In other words, Washington’s position hasn’t changed much on the North Korea issue. Therefore, packaging it as an accomplishment by the Korean government is overly self-centered.
I want to stress again that the real accomplishment of the summit did not lie in the inclusion of the Panmunjom Declaration in the joint statement. Foreign minister Chung Eui-yong went a step further. He said mentioning stability in the Taiwanese Strait was simply a theoretical expression, just like “peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.” Who would agree? These words that came shortly after the joint statement only undermines Korea’s own trust. I hope the Korea-U.S. joint statement reflected some genuine change of direction by the Moon administration.