The source of Moon’s pride
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
You become patriotic when you go to a foreign country. President Moon Jae-in was no different. The comments he posted on Facebook shortly after the Korea-U.S. summit in Washington and the G7 Summit in Britain signifies his love for his country. In the United States, he felt he was “treated very warmly,” and in England, he was “very proud of my motherland” while mentioning the Miracle on the Han. I was puzzled at Moon’s dramatic about-turn from his earlier definition of Korea as a “country ailing from past evils” to a “country to take pride in.” Yet I was thankful for the impressive shift.
Moon’s trips to the New and Old World gave me some food for thought on national prestige and befitting treatment. What defined Moon’s summit with U.S. President Joe Biden was warm hospitality. “It was the best trip and summit ever,” Moon said in excitement. Given the special treatment Moon received from Biden, Vice President Kamila Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the United States, he surely can say so. Moon might have bitter memories of his state visit to China in 2017 over his head. The Korean president had to eat food in local restaurants with his wife and aides at a number of occasions due to the host country’s condescending attitude.
In Britain, however, Moon was elated. In Tuesday’s cabinet meeting he presided over after returning from the trip, Moon bragged about a “completely different reception” he and his country received from the host. His excitement is understandable. In a photo session during the Summit, Moon stood in the front row together with the G7 heads of state — the very moment symbolizing Korea’s heightened stature on the diplomatic stage to deal with global issues such as the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, and free and fair trade. Buoyed by the warm welcome he received in Britain, Moon pronounced, “Korea has become a country which can determine its own fate.”
The comments are not hyperbole at all. According to data from the Bank of Korea, Korea’s per capita gross national income (GNI) soared to $31,880 in 2020 from a meager $66 in 1953 when the Korean War ended. Korea’s GNI is expected to exceed Italy’s this year among the Group of 7 countries. Korea’ purchasing power parity (PPP) reflecting exchange rates and prices have already surpassed Japan’s PPP in OECD’s survey.
Korea can dream of becoming a member of G8 countries thanks to all the blood, sweat and tears shed by the people for its rags-to-riches transition over the past six decades. In a speech on the 70th anniversary last year of the 1950-53 Korean War, Moon delineated the Korean War as “the war that has made us what we are today.” Whether intended or not, his comprehension of the political character of the war was appropriate.
China labels the Korean War a “war aimed at defending against American aggression and helping North Korea,” while North Korea calls it a “war to liberate our motherland” from foreign forces. South Korea ambiguously refers to it as a “war that has not ended yet.” Biden’s characterization of the Korean War was unequivocal. His awarding of a Medal of Honor in a carefully-choreographed event at the White House to a 94-year-old Korean War hero who fought back the infamous human wave attack by the Chinese Army in a bloody battle near the Chongchon River across the border was a stark metaphor for the blood-tied alliance sustained for decades and a strong reminder of the historical fact that China was our common enemy. In the awarding ceremony, Biden delivered the message that today’s Korea was possible thanks to the allies joining in the war to block China from communizing South Korea.
In the medal-awarding ceremony, Moon joined the chorus and said that South Korea was able to rise from the ruins thanks to the help from American soldiers. His comment could reflect his belated realization that all the pride and warm hospitality he felt in the United States originated with the war that ended up safeguarding free democracy seven decades ago. In a nutshell, South Korea could achieve this much growth and prosperity as it took the right sides.
There is no free lunch in international relations: Good treatment is accompanied by a bill. The Korea-U.S. Summit in Washington and the G7 Summit in Cornwall were both designed to put pressure on China. The two summits were the tense spots where Biden’s “America is back” collided with Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream and where America’ B3W (Build Back Better World) clashed with China’s One Belt, One Road. Washington and Beijing are growling at one another to browbeat Seoul into taking their sides. While the United States demands Korea join in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and the multilateral key supplies networks, including on semiconductors, China warns Korea not to play with fire before a new Cold War begins. If the two powers fall into the Thucydides Trap, a serious notice will soon arrive in Korea to ask which sides it wants to take.
After his summits with Biden and G7 leaders, Moon said, “We must learn from them as they attach great significance to diplomacy even though they are larger and stronger than us.” If his remarks are genuine, he must scrap his signature strategy of dividing the public into friends and foes domestically over history based on ideology. Externally, he must stop his quixotic crusade to fight with Japan after being perennially stuck to his narrow-minded black-and-white logic. If Moon continues to display submissive diplomacy toward China as seen in his infamous description of China as the “highest peak” in front of Xi Jinping in Beijing four years ago, he can never correct China’s brazen distortion of history as manifested by Xi’s explanation to Donald Trump in Mar-a-Lago that Korea “used to be part of China.”
The Korea-U.S. summit and the G7 Summit offered a precious opportunity for localized President Moon to learn what kind of diplomacy is really needed to maintain robust national integrity and receive warm hospitality from other countries. Above all, a head of state must take sides wisely at times of crisis as our memories of the Korean War illustrate.