A stubborn president

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A stubborn president

Nam Jeong-ho
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
 President Moon Jae-in is known to be stubborn. Yang Jung-chul — former head of the ruling Democratic Party’s Institute for Democracy and a closest friend of Moon — said, “President Moon is far more stubborn than [the late] President Roh [Moo-hyun].” He added, “Moon appears delicate and sensitive on the surface, but inside he is much stronger and firm.”

As with his policy to phase out nuclear power in Korea, Moon’s stubbornness shows in his foreign and security policy. With just three months left in his presidency, his character was revealed recently in a joint interview with eight news agencies from around the world. In this interview, Moon stressed the importance of an end-of-war declaration and its feasibility.

“The declaration of ending the 1950-53 Korean War is useful to end hostile relations, improve mutual trust and systemize denuclearization and peace,” Moon said.

He seems to believe that the United States truly wants the end-of-war declaration. “As of now, South Korea and the United States have agreed to a draft of the declaration to be presented to North Korea,” the president said. “I want to ripen the atmosphere for the declaration and hand it over to the next government,” he added.

Is this really true? Experts knowledgeable about affairs in Washington have made it clear that the Biden administration cannot afford to pay any attention to the North Korea issue, particularly a declaration to end the war. They said Washington is too busy using its diplomatic capabilities to resolve the Ukraine crisis, a conflict with China and nuclear negotiations with Iran. They said the Biden administration may have agreed to create a draft of the declaration as the Moon administration is pushing the issue steadfastly but that the U.S. government has no intention to sign it formally unless North Korea’s attitude changes. There is no way the declaration will be announced under this circumstance.

And yet, Moon seems to believe that it can be realized. His aides’ wonky advice might have played a part in the misconception. In fact, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong held a press conference at the end of December and said, “Korea and the United States feel the same way about the importance of an end-of-war declaration. We practically agreed [to the draft].” If you listen to such statement, you can believe America is eager to realize the initiative. 
President Moon Jae-in talks with U.S. President Joe Biden over lunch at the White House on May 21, 2021.

At the beginning of Moon’s presidency, I met with a top presidential aide and asked a question I have long harbored. “Who is deciding foreign policy?” I asked. That’s because the foreign minister at the time, Kang Kyung-wha, was not familiar with inter-Korean and security issues and the Blue House had no experts on those matters. At the time, a rumor spread that some former student activists who had joined the Blue House were holding an internal meeting to decide foreign policy.

The official, however, gave a surprise answer. “Moon himself is in control of foreign policy,” he said. “Because Moon was the presidential chief of staff in the Roh Blue House, he knows all foreign affairs and North Korea issues in every details, so he is better than any aides.”

Back then, I thought it was a brag to make Moon look great. But after nearly five years of his presidency, I started to feel confident that what I heard was actually the truth. If Moon had listened to the advice of foreign policy experts inside and outside the government, he could have not continued with such stubborn diplomacy until now.

The remaining three months in office can be fruitful. What can he do? U.S. media once paid great attention to Moon’s remarks. That was when Korea formed a global vaccine partnership with the U.S. on Moon’s trip to Washington for a summit with Biden last May. The U.S. media paid special attention to Korea and the United States agreeing to form a partnership to work together to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

If Seoul gives confidence to Washington that it is a reliable partner that can help resolving global challenges beyond the North Korean nuclear issue, Korea-U.S. relations will advance to the next level. It is about upgrading the security alliance between the two countries to an alliance that promotes values.

There are many other issues on which the two countries can work in addition to the Covid-19 pandemic. Korea has emerged as one of the most popular countries around the globe. There are many fields in which it can work with friendly nations starting with climate change, poverty and human rights. That is the direction Moon’s foreign policy must move during the remaining three months of his term.
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