Why does Moon praise Kim?
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
In the final year of their term, most presidents seek to define their legacy in ways that historians might find compelling. By that time, democratically elected leaders are lame ducks and often face a series of disappointments and unfulfilled promises. With diminished political capital and increasing awareness of their own mortality, they choose to work on those tasks that are achievable if not transformational.
Which is why it is so curious that President Moon Jae-in is using his final year in office to emphasize the winning character of Kim Jong-un. In an exclusive interview with Time magazine last week, Moon described Kim as “very honest … very enthusiastic [and] one with strong determination,” and concluded that Kim “wants to pass down a better future for his children, and that he did not want them to carry the burden of nuclear weapons.” Moon predicted that with a softer policy towards Pyongyang, there would be a continuous “cycle of denuclearization and sanctions relief” until nuclear weapons were eliminated in the North.
For the majority of North Korea watchers in Washington, and many in Seoul as well, Moon’s words represent a breathtakingly optimistic interpretation of Kim’s intentions. True, Moon has spent more time with the North Korean leader than any of his critics. But the objective facts all point to a much darker reading of Kim’s plans: in June 2020 Kim ordered the demolition of the joint liaison office; he continues expanding ballistic missiles and nuclear capabilities; and he presides over the same repressive regime that the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry accused of crimes against humanity.
Even Kim’s words to Moon carry little credibility for those who know the history of the regime. The North Korean leader’s proclaimed desire to spare future generations the need for nuclear weapons is little different from what his grandfather Kim Il Sung said as he initiated the North’s nuclear weapons program in the first place. The professed commitment to “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” is what his father Kim Jong Il said while beginning a clandestine uranium enrichment program, and what Kim Jong-un repeated after the enshrinement of permanent nuclear weapons status in the North Korean Constitution. It is well understood that what the North means by this phrase is that it will denuclearize after the United States does the same to Pyongyang’s satisfaction — a permanent alibi to avoid giving up nuclear weapons.
So what is behind Moon’s PR campaign for Kim Jong-un? Four possibilities come to mind. These are not mutually exclusive and there are constituencies in the Blue House that would adhere to each.
1) A Pragmatic Move for Peace: Moon has noted that in 2018 the Korean peninsula faced “the abyss of war.” His clever invitation to North Korea to send a delegation to the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang allowed him to broker dialogue between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un and to move the unpredictable American president away from talk of “fire and fury” and preparations for war. While North Korea is no less dangerous today in terms of capabilities, there has been no ICBM or nuclear test since and the risk of conflagration on the Korean peninsula has been reduced. Flattering Kim and keeping alive the prospects of dialogue with Biden might sustain that fragile status quo a bit longer, since a return to testing by Kim would reopen the cycle of danger on the peninsula. However, there is one problem with this explanation: Biden is not Trump and the days of “fire and fury” are behind us. So why the effusive praise for Kim?
2) A Political Move for the Election: A more cynical interpretation is that Moon is trying to maintain political credibility with his base. With an approval rating of only 35% after a series of scandals and a poor performance on Covid-19 vaccine distribution, Moon’s progressive camp is clinging to their core supporters. To prevail in the presidential election, the Democratic Party will have to rebuild support outward from the most ardent progressives, who admire the fact that Moon has spent so much time with Kim. Centrists may also believe that Moon’s role in averting war in 2018 is a reason to trust progressives more. This explanation also has a hole, though, since clinging to the kindness of dictators is an extremely risky political strategy. One can imagine the huge damage the Democratic Party would face if Kim resumes missile or nuclear testing before the election. Of course, this may also explain why the Blue House is doing whatever it can to charm Pyongyang into not ruining their party’s credibility before the election.
3) A Delusional Bid for Legacy: Not a few observers believe that Moon is simply delusional about Kim — that there is something in the DNA of the progressives that makes them inclined to trust Stalinist dictators who use sugary words to flatter them. Did a young Moon Jae-in once dream while under arrest that he might someday be the first South Korean president to give a speech to a stadium of 150,000 cheering North Koreans, as Moon did in September 2018? Is it possible that the trauma of struggling for democracy and unification rendered Moon and other progressives unable to see that those flag-waving North Koreans were more like automatons than the free-willed citizens he claimed had changed North Korea and were showing they “strongly aspire for peace?” If Kim ordered those same North Koreans to die in a suicidal bid for unification, they would.
4) Moon Is Right about Kim: There is a fourth possibility — that Moon is actually right about Kim … that the North Korean leader conveyed something in private so compelling that the behavior of the regime can be ignored. While this explanation flies in the face of history and all available evidence, it cannot be completely ruled-out — which is why some level of engagement and negotiation with Pyongyang remains important.
Yet given the abysmal human rights picture in North Korea, the North’s continued expansion of missile and other dangerous capabilities, and even the transparently deceptive words Pyongyang uses to describe its intentions — it would be better to find a way to express a pragmatic hope for peace without investing so much hope in the personality of Kim Jong-un.