The United States helps Moon
The author is an international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
In a surprising turn, the Moon Jae-in administration and the ruling Democratic Party (DP) praised themselves for reaping great results from the Korea-U.S. summit in Washington last month. Gone are the days when the liberal administration did not hide its disagreements with the United States on key issues. Following an ambassador’s provocative comment that Korea is a country that can choose between America and China, a senior DP lawmaker publicly wondered if a U.S. ambassador to Seoul is really a governor of Korea. But this time, the ruling front extolled a Korea-U.S. joint statement on the safety of the Taiwan Strait, which can provoke China immediately. “Our government made great achievements on both the security and economy fronts,” stressed a spokesperson of the government.
The joint statement released shortly after the summit between President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House made official efforts by the countries to put their estranged relations back on track. The statement helped identify South Korea’s position in the U.S.-China contest, though not explicitly, and smoothen the bilateral ties by promising massive investment in the U.S. as demanded by the Biden administration. On Moon’s part, the summit helped ease deepening concerns about his administration’s pro-China stance in diplomacy in the final year of his term. Moon’s about-turn can also help draw support from not only his power base but also from moderates and opponents.
On the DP’s part, the results of the summit are promising as they gave it a rare chance to expand its base further through the new economic alliance with the U.S. Stability of a nation primarily rests on the economy, but the Moon administration’s poor economic performance — in employment, in particular — fell short of meeting public expectations. Instead of settling with its relatively successful quarantine campaign, the government should have secured enough Covid-19 vaccines in the initial stages, revitalized the economy, and helped the troubled self-employed businesses and small merchants return to normal fast. But the government was laidback after picking economic data advantageous to itself.
The biggest challenge for the Moon administration was how to unite the nation after taking power four years ago thanks to the massive candlelight vigils against the conservative Park Geun-hye administration. Politics is about rallying support and expanding power base, but the liberal government was bent on consolidating its own base. As a result, it resorted to finding a scapegoat to their anger. If the DP fails to find it, its approval rating would fall, and otherwise, its rating would rise, which shows a flexible and erratic leadership.
The first key to regaining power through the next presidential election is a successful battle against the pandemic. Domestically, the DP should be able to present a campaign slogan — “You can vote without wearing a face mask!” — before the March 9, 2022 election. Externally, the key is being held by the United States. The Biden administration’s shipments of Janssen vaccines, which are more than enough to cover all our soldiers and reserved forces — is powerful enough to make up for the Moon government’s failure to strike a vaccine swap deal with America. The achievement carries political significance given its positive effect on reluctant supporters and middle-of-the-roaders.
The United States holds another key to the DP’s victory in the next presidential election. As requested by Moon, Biden appointed a special representative on North Korea before appointing a U.S. representative on North Korean human rights. Through the step, the Moon administration could deliver to North Korea the message that South Korea still plays a role in the U.S.-North relations.
Moon desperately wants to replay the dramatic easing of inter-Korean relations in the early stages of his administration. That could be possible if the United States gives North Korea a surprising gift of eased sanctions. A possible visit by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to South Korea depends on eased sanctions, a precondition for Kim’s trip to Seoul.
Therefore, it is natural that the Moon administration is tending to its relations with Washington for its ultimate goal of extending its governance.
After Moon’s successful summit with Biden in the White House, South Korea has paved the way for reinforcing the decades-old alliance and having a bigger say on the Korean Peninsula issues.