40 days into his presidency, Moon Jae-in appointed the nation’s first female foreign minister. However, fine-tuning for policy coherence and clarity on some key foreign policy items among his advisors has yet to happen. The main discord is not about national interests, but more ideological and philosophical, regarding South Korea’s position in the ROK-US alliance matrix and also the question of how to relate to North Korea, both an existential “adversary” and an estranged “brother.” The issue became pronounced when a key advisor, Moon Chung-in, explained Moon’s policy to an international audience in Washington DC, triggering confusion. After two day’s silence, the Blue House brushed aside his remarks, characterizing them as a “personal view.” As Moon Jae-in prepares for his first summit with President Trump, the debate may intensify within his team of advisors, perhaps more under the table. This “in-house” task is not an insignificant challenge compared to other pending issues South Korea faces. Overall, Moon’s presidency may produce friction with the ROK’s traditional ally over an array of items, including divergent strategies on dealing with Pyongyang, the FTA, and cost-sharing in hosting the American military in South Korea, including the THAAD installation.
Emerging features of Moon’s foreign policy
Moon Jae-in’s election marks the transfer of power to South Korea’s progressives after nearly a decade of conservative rule. Moon continues to enjoy high approval ratings, 83% at the latest; his political turf, the Democratic Party, also has a high 50 % in a pool of five parties.1 In addition, the Korea Composite Stock Price Index (KOSPI) has risen 16.5% compared to last year’s end—the second-best performance among the world’s major economies, trailing behind India’s 16.7%. The Hyundai Economic Research Institute positively recalibrated its forecast for economic growth this year to 2.5% from last year’s estimate of 2.3%, heralding new hope for economic recovery.2 South Korea’s new finance minister Kim Dong-yeon also said that the nation’s economy could even exceed the government’s 2.6% projection.3 Given that Moon won the presidency with only 41% of the votes, his post-election “honeymoon” with the Korean public gives him the necessary political ammunition to carry out a raft of reforms he has in mind so that he can create a “strong and peaceful Korea.”
Moon is set to make use of his high domestic approval to make significant headway on what he personally wants to accomplish in foreign policy: a breakthrough on the North Korean nuclear issue. He said in his inaugural address: “I will go anywhere for the peace of the Korean Peninsula. If necessary, I will fly straight to Washington. I will go to Beijing and Tokyo and, under the right circumstances, go to Pyongyang as well.”4 On North Korea, Moon’s publicly stated recipe is a mix of carrots and sticks—adding pressure on the nuclear issue, while resuming economic projects and dialogue under the right circumstances. “I make it clear that if North Korea stops making additional nuclear and missile provocations, we can come to dialogue with North Korea without conditions," he said, at an annual ceremony marking the first-ever inter-Korean summit in 2000.5
The United States is interested in knowing how closely the Moon government is inheriting the “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with North Korea from his progressive predecessors—Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Moon’s relationship with Roh was special. They were personal friends and colleagues. Moon also served as Roh’s chief of staff at the presidential office.
This backdrop is relevant for understanding how Moon and strategists close to him see the ROK-US alliance and the North Korean problem. Moon believes the North Korean issue is basically an inter-Korean issue and wants to take the lead in shaping relevant international discussions. His advisors hold the view that improvement in inter-Korean relations at an early stage of the new administration is a key driver that will strengthen South Korea’s diplomatic standing in the multilateral negotiations, which consider international approaches regarding Pyongyang. To that aim, in the mere span of 40 days since his inauguration, Moon unleashed a slew of conciliatory overtures, at a speed faster than many observers had expected. It is understandable why he did it, knowing the thinking behind his moves. This may also be an indication that the “independence faction”(자주파), not “alliance faction”(동맹파), is winning in gaining his ear—a déjà vu from the Roh administration. But such a conclusion may be premature; further observations are needed.
Personnel appointments are a standard barometer to gauge a new government’s policy directions; therefore, it is worth noting Moon’s picks for key foreign policy and security posts. Moon has filled key positions in his North Korea team with people who previously served his “Sunshine” predecessors. Picking these “old hands,” including the chief of the nation’s main spy agency, the National Intelligence Service (NIS), who met with Kim Jong-il more than other any other South Korean, indicates his desire to successfully navigate the maze of often frustrating negotiations with North Koreans, without repeating the same mistakes. The NIS will be in charge of North Korean affairs, not the unification ministry.
Moon’s key foreign policy & security advisors
Moon Chung-in (66), special advisor to the president. Moon is professor emeritus at Yonsei University and Moon Jae-in’s special advisor on “unification, foreign affairs and national security.” He certainly is an “old hand.” He was advisor to both Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun and attended their inter-Korean summits (2000 and 2007). He is seen as the architect of the Sunshine Policy. Moon argues that improving inter-Korean relations through “pre-emptive dialogue” with North Korea is a key factor in strengthening Korea’s diplomatic standing. He has taken a critical attitude toward the deployment of THAAD and the shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. His appointment to the key advisory position, therefore, has a significant bearing in the Moon government’s policy. There is a view that his actual influence may be greater than that of the chief National Security Officer or the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
The professor came under the spotlight for his remarks at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC on June 16, where he stated that South Korea and the United States may “consider scaling down US strategic assets on the Korean Peninsula if North Korea halts its nuclear provocations.”6 Apparently, he made the statement without consulting with the Blue House, which brushed it aside as a “personal view.” Despite the official denial, some skeptics maintain that the professor’s view is congruent with President Moon’s thinking on the matter.
Chung Eui-yong (71), chairman of the National Security Office. Chung is a retired diplomat who served as ambassador to Geneva and Israel and later as a lawmaker. An MPA graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School, he has been the most noticeable face among Moon’s advisors since assuming office. Chung was present when Moon held phone conversations with Trump, Xi, Abe, and Putin. He has been in charge of handling the details of the upcoming Moon-Trump summit with his American counterpart. When an eight-person US delegation from the House Committee on Armed Services, led by Chairman Mac Thornberry, visited South Korea, it was Chung who explained to them the direction of the Moon administration’s policy on the South Korea-US alliance. The fact that Chung has a diplomatic background is seen significant, as his two predecessors were from the military. Chung’s choice for the post reflects Moon’s preference to handle the multifaceted security risks South Korea faces primarily through diplomatic means.
Suh Hoon (63): director of the National Intelligence Service. Suh met Kim Jong-il more than any other person in South Korea. He made behind-the-scenes contact preparing for the landmark summits held in June 2000 and October 2007. He is known as one of the best negotiators in dealing with North Koreans. Suh lived in North Korea for two years from 1997 as head of the field office for the multilateral organ (KEDO) set up to guide the nuclear freeze in exchange for economic aid. Suh honed his skills to negotiate with North Korean officials during this time.
“There is no country that knows North Korea better than we do,” Suh once said. He is a veteran spy. He joined the spy agency in 1980 and worked until his retirement in 2008. Afterwards, he taught at Ewha Womans University.
Cho Myoung-gyun (60), Unification Minister nominee. The unification minister is “the point man on North Korea.” However, during the conservative governments that took a more hardline policy toward North Korea, the ministry’s status and role was downplayed. The Lee Myung-bak government even considered shutting down the ministry. On the contrary, during the progressive governments, the unification ministry played a critical role in inter-Korean relations. For instance, Chung Dong-young, as unification minister, was sent to North Korea to head the South Korean delegation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in 2005. Cho served in the unification ministry as a secretary to Roh Moo-hyun and played a key role in preparing for the inter-Korean summit in 2007. He was also a “note taker” at the summit and transcribed the conversation of the two Korean leaders. He was responsible for tourism at Kumgangsan, the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and the North-South railway and road connection projects. He participated in various inter-Korean talks. Both Cho and Suh are regarded as top negotiators, and their skills will likely be duly used under the Moon administration.
Song Young-moo (68), Defense Minister nominee. Song is a retired Navy admiral who was picked by Moon to reform the ministry, which has usually been headed by an army general. In June 1999, Song led his side to victory in a naval skirmish with North Korean forces near Yeongpyeong Island in the West Sea. Song is a military strategist. He was also involved in a plan to acquire wartime operational control (“wartime OPCON”) of South Korean forces from the United States under the Roh administration. Similar to Suh and Cho, Song also served Roh. As such, some argue that Moon’s appointments reflect a desire to restore Roh’s policy of engagement with North Korea.
Kang Kyung-hwa (62), Foreign Minister. Kang, a Ph.D. holder in communications from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is remembered for her work as a translator for Kim Dae-jung. Her later professional career had been mostly with the UN, recently as assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs in the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and as United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights. Moon’s choice of Kang is strategic. Her mission is to reform the foreign ministry, strengthen multilateral diplomacy, and network with international organizations using her personal network. As a female, non-mainstream chief (who did not go through the state exam to enter the foreign ministry), she is expected to make the ministry more open and less authoritarian. The fact that she has had no experience dealing with North Korea or managing US or Chinese bilateral ties is seen by some as a weakness for a foreign minister, but Moon judged that her international background outweighs her weaknesses. In addition, 10 former foreign ministers all publicly endorsed Kang when opposition parties vehemently opposed her appointment.
The ROK-US alliance
In South Korea’s domestic politics, gaining US support carries great significance. A president who has strained relations with the United States will likely suffer. Roh Moo-hyun, who said, “I am not going to go to the United States for the sake of a photo-op [with a U.S. president],” paid the price in the court of public opinion in South Korea, particularly from the conservatives. Kim Dae-jung botched his first summit with George W. Bush, when he unsuccessfully tried to explain the merits of the Sunshine Policy to him. Even before his return to Seoul, South Korean media were up in arms, accusing him of missteps. This is the ecology of public opinion in South Korea.
So far, Moon appears to be a more skillful politician. During the campaign and after winning the election, he emphasized Seoul’s relationship with Washington as the bedrock of his administration’s foreign policy. For instance, immediately after the election, Moon said in his phone conversation with Trump that the US-ROK alliance was "the basis of our diplomatic and security policy."
However, South Korea’s progressives have long raised the issue of a “tilted playing field” in the alliance, in which Washington always calls the shots. The alliance is seen as a partnership that is unfair from the perspective of the smaller partner, Seoul. It is also seen as a political device to “intervene” in South Korea’s foreign affairs. Whether it is Seoul’s relationship with Pyongyang, Beijing, or Tokyo, South Korean diplomats (mostly “pro-American”) privately complained about Washington’s interference and tendency to “guide” Seoul’s moves. Even when South Korea was planning to start an economic project with Russia, Washington reportedly stepped in to tell Seoul to scrap it (against the background of G7 sanctions imposed on Russia). The progressives in South Korea do not appreciate US unilateralism, especially when it comes to dealing with North Korea, bypassing South Korea. Over years of such an unequal partnership—and in particular, distressed by Washington’s perceived role during the 1980 Kwangju Uprising—the progressives grew very critical of US hegemonic behavior.
The THAAD decision is also seen as reflecting US unilateralism, because its deployment was hurriedly carried out days before the presidential election. As a candidate, Moon called for a delay in THAAD deployment as it became a national controversy, arguing that the fate of its installation should be determined by the incoming government. His request, even though he was the top candidate, was not honored. Further, Trump’s remark in April that “South Korea should pay for THAAD” enraged the South Korean public. Youn Kwan-suk, Moon’s spokesman, responded to Trump’s demand, accusing him of acting “unilaterally and without close bilateral consultations” with South Korea. (Trump also raised some eyebrows in South Korea by saying that Korea used to be “part of China.”)
A ranking military advisor said to Moon that South Korea should disapprove of an alliance that “ignores South Korea’s independence and sovereignty.” More specifically, he believed the alliance should not target or check a third country that does not pose a threat to the security of South Korea—implying China. There is also a heated wartime OPCON debate, first raised by Roh in 2005. Moon wants the Korean army to have wartime OPCON, wherein the US army plays a supporting role. On this and other issues, many of Moon’s advisors are particularly sensitive to unequal treatment. They seek breathing room in the relationship. As the alliance has become more mature, they argue that the two countries do not have to be on the same page on all issues, at all times. This way of thinking is bound to impact the relationship.
Under Roh Moo-hyun’s shadow?
When Moon was elected president on May 9, Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin twitted: “FYI, South Korea just elected an anti-American president.” He tagged his tweet to "realDonaldTrump,” the official Twitter account of Trump. One day later, the Post ran a headline after Moon gave his first speech at the National Assembly: “On first day in office, South Korean president talks about going to North."
Moon’s opponents have long marketed a narrative that he was a "sympathizer" of North Korea and would be "soft" toward it. They expressed misgivings that he would undermine the current UN sanctions by unconditionally engaging Pyongyang. They also highlighted the fact that Moon formerly served as chief of staff to Roh, who declared he would not "kowtow to the Americans." Against this backdrop, the Post’s headline perfectly fed into the conservative narrative and reinforced the preconceived notion about Moon and his policy on North Korea.
The problem is that in his speech, Moon talked about visiting the United States first, Beijing and Tokyo second, and, lastly, North Korea, "under the right conditions.” During the presidential campaign, Moon also said he would use both "carrots and sticks" toward North Korea. Moreover, he repeatedly emphasized the importance of the Seoul-Washington alliance. Skeptics largely brushed these statements aside as campaign rhetoric. Hong Jun-pyo, the conservative contender in the last election, even claimed that the Moon administration would speed up the "North-Koreanization" of South Korea.
Then came another missile test by North Korea. Everyone was keen to see how Moon would react. Moon used the occasion to declare that there will not be any "unconditional dialogue" with North Korea, contrary to the skeptical view that he would be "soft" on North Korea. He also publicly affirmed his commitment to Seoul’s traditional alliance with Washington. Yet, the framing war against Moon is not over yet and will likely continue throughout his administration.
At the May 23 memorial service for Roh, who committed suicide by jumping off a cliff, Moon said, in front of Roh’s bereaved wife, that this would be his last visit to the memorial, and that he would not attend it any more for the remainder of his presidential term: “President Roh Moo-hyun, I miss you, I miss you ever so dearly. But during the rest of my term, I shall keep you in my heart only. This is to be the last time that I attend this memorial ceremony as standing president. I hereby return you to the people.”7
In that way, Moon symbolically cut his ties to Roh. During his inaugural address, Moon declared that he would “become a president for all,” and represent the entire nation, not just Roh and his legacy. Even after this striking gesture, however, Roh’s influence may be prevail in Moon’s policies and politics. Carrying on Roh’s legacy and philosophy is a source of pride, but also a source of vulnerability that could expose Moon to attacks by conservatives.
For instance, when Moon picked Im Jong-seok for his chief of staff, many conservative pundits criticized Im’s “pro-North Korea” activities as a college student. Im became famous in 1987 for organizing an unauthorized visit to North Korea by a fellow student activist. He served three and a half years in jail for that. He was also suspected of masterminding a student sit-in in 1985 at the US Information Service building in Seoul. Due to this background, in 2001, he was denied a visa to visit the United States. Media reports show that Im has since moderated his view. For instance, when he served as a lawmaker, he supported deploying South Korean soldiers to Iraq at Washington’s request. He also supported an FTA with America, despite the fact that the issue was polarized. Nonetheless, his past still haunts him. For instance, some people are already insulting him on the Internet, mocking that he will not be able to accompany Moon for a summit with Trump because he will not get a US visa.
Moon also fought hard to shed “leftist” credentials associated with his past links to Roh during his campaign. His engagement posture toward North Korea was easily taken as a sign that he would be soft on the regime and negligent about the national security. To dispose of such an image, his campaign strategists found and circulated a photo of Moon in a special forces army uniform from his days serving in the military. A group of retired army generals and senior colonels from the Defense Security Command, a powerful military unit that conducts intelligence and counter-intelligence investigations, also gave their full support for Moon in the days leading to the presidential election.8 Moon pledged to create a “strong nation” and promised to increase the defense budget to 3% of the GDP.
Roh was blamed by critics for being overly eager to engage with North Korea, but hesitant in calling out North Korea’s human rights conditions.9 Moon will therefore consciously focus on North Korea’s human rights conditions. This is not window dressing—after all, he was a human rights lawyer. Simply because the Moon government is progressive, whose political lineage dates back to the Roh era, does not mean that it will agree to hold an unconditional dialogue with North Korea. The inter-Korean dialogue will not resume automatically either. It will require a gradual process, starting from civilian exchanges and then, when the right conditions are met, expanding to government-level talks. These have been the standard talking points by the Moon government.
Roh was criticized for his lack of communications skills with the media. Moon will emphasize the importance of communication and relations with the media to better inform the public regarding the government’s plans, for instance, on North Korea. In part, this reflects Moon’s learning curve from working in the Roh government. As Moon wrote in his memoir, “We need to calmly reflect and review what we were lacking. We need to learn a lesson from it.”
At the same time, like his center-left predecessors, Moon wants to play a balancing role between the regional powers. Progressives are Moon’s main supporters, and they tend to be more critical of US foreign policy, especially toward North Korea. Moon has a double mission of maintaining support from his progressive base, while simultaneously avoiding alienating the conservatives. This is a delicate balancing act. It sometimes opens the door for incoherency, especially on sensitive issues such as North Korea or the ROK-US alliance. For instance, Moon Jae-in supports the resumption of the Six-Party Talks and a “suspension for suspension” approach, originally proposed by China. One of his advisors, Moon Chung-in, also strongly advocates repairing relations with China. While China supports Moon’s desire for dialogue with North Korea, the US approach has been to strengthen sanctions. This is likely to create a chasm between Seoul and Washington.
Moon sees Washington’s reliance on sanctions and pressure (even the “maximum pressure” as prescribed by Trump) as unsuccessful and says it is time to give engagement and dialogue with Pyongyang another chance. He advocates, in particular, the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea and put a halt to the controversial deployment of four additional THAAD launchers until an environmental safety inspection has been completed. In the bigger scheme of things, Washington and Seoul may agree on engaging North Korea “under the right conditions.” However, they are likely to differ on what constitutes “the right conditions.”
The THAAD system will be the most immediate diplomatic challenge Moon faces. Moon will approach the divisive issue from his stated principle—namely, to allow public discussion, including through a National Assembly review and a legally-required environmental impact assessment. He will try to avoid the perception that the end result will somehow be part of a “turf war” between Washington and Beijing for gaining or losing clout over South Korea. In fact, THAAD has gone beyond a military issue and become a geopolitical symbol; China sees it as a test of its growing sphere of influence in South Korea, while the United States sees it as a test of the alliance’s strength.
Against this backdrop, the first summit between Moon and Trump will draw close attention not just in Washington and Seoul, but also in Beijing and Tokyo, for any signs of a “crack” in the alliance. They will notice whether Trump will alienate another traditional ally, unable to narrow their differences. As such, it will be carefully staged and largely hinge on building a personal relationship between the two leaders. Moon will not likely say anything that will surprise Washington. The details of bilaterally sensitive issues will be dealt with more discretely by key officials, most likely under the table. However, when it comes to Trump, things may not unfold as planned.
Broadly speaking, Moon will face a much tougher international environment, dramatically changed from a decade ago when he was a high official in the government. North Korea is now a de facto nuclear state, having almost mastered an ICBM technology that will be able to attack the continental United States soon. Accordingly, US and Japanese attitudes are hardening against Pyongyang, calling for stronger sanctions. South Korea is the “odd man” out among US allies in this regard.
According to Realmeter’s June 16 survey on the new government’s policy toward North Korea, 62.5% of respondents said that the Moon government should resolve the North Korean problem through "dialogue and negotiations,” while 22.5% preferred “sanctions and pressure.”10 In the same poll, 49.4 percent of the respondents said that they would support the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, while 39.9% of respondents opposed it. So, Moon’s outreach toward North Korea will gain more support domestically than internationally. Under the current circumstances, however, Seoul’s economic engagement with North Korea may be seen as a violation of the UN mandate. It will be important for Seoul to gauge the perceptional differences and work judiciously.
With China, Moon will enhance efforts to strengthen strategic cooperation and partnership, while seeking the leadership’s understanding on THAAD. Upon his election, Moon sent a delegation to China’s Belt and Road forum in Beijing and later threw Seoul’s full weight behind the Chinese-led AIIB initiative. Moon’s government is supportive of China’s approach to the North Korean problem that underscores “dialogue and negotiations,” a method compatible with Moon’s thinking.
With Japan, Moon will aim to prevent further souring South Korea’s relationship with Tokyo over the sex slave (or euphemistically called “comfort women”) issue. Moon’s position is that the “landmark agreement” by Park Geun-hye did not reflect the overriding public sentiment on the matter. Importantly, Park did not even ask the victims’ opinions prior to signing onto the deal. Moon, however, will not let one issue derail the entire Seoul-Tokyo ties. He will carry out a “two-track” approach, separating this thorny issue from other bilateral issues. The question is whether Japan is willing to accept such a “dual track” solution when it feels that enough apology and monetary compensation have been made and that the issue was finally resolved when the 2015 deal was made.
A new feature in Moon’s foreign policy is to expand its focus from South Korea’s traditional diplomatic emphasis on the “Strong Four” (the major powers) to other countries in the region. Particularly, the administration seems interested in strengthening ties with ASEAN, India, Australia, and Indonesia. Diplomatic diversification is partly a hedging strategy amid intensifying US-China tensions.
Challenges will come from all directions. The United States will be apprehensive in dealing with a progressive government; South Korea’s conservatives will cry foul when they see Moon reaching out to the North with an olive branch. North Korea is also not in an all-embracing mood at the advent of a progressive government, reacting to recent overtures of aid and civilian exchanges by denouncing then in light of the continued UN sanctions and demanding Seoul to first fully implement earlier South-North summit agreements.
THAAD may not be among the summit topics between Moon and Trump in order to avoid clashing over differences and failing to establish rapport so early on in their administrations. In fact, Moon’s advisors indicate that THAAD is the area where Seoul and Washington may differ the most. Seoul takes issue with the known limited technical utility of THAAD, including its inability to distinguish decoy missiles and its high expense. This is relevant because experts generally agree that South Korea needs three to four THAAD units. The United States has deployed one. The cost of additional deployments, if they proceed, would be expected to be borne by South Korea. The regional security aspect of THAAD is also problematic. “THAAD cannot provide any useful level of defense to South Korea,” claimed Theodore Postol, a US missile expert, on March 6, 2017.11 While THAAD is likely to stay in South Korea, according to some of Moon’s advisors, public forums and hearings on the matter, as well as the ongoing environmental inspection, will be necessary democratic procedures.
1. Gallup Korea, June 16, 2017.
2. “현대硏, 올해 韓성장률 전망치 2.3%→2.5%로 상향 조정,” Yonhap, June 18, 2017.
3. “South Korea Finance Chief Hopeful of Easing Tensions With China,” Bloomberg, June 19, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2017-06-18/south-korea-finance-chief-hopeful-of-easing-tensions-with-china
4. “President Moon Jae-in’s inaugural address,” Yonhap, May 10, 2017, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/news/2017/05/10/0200000000AEN20170510009100315.html
5. “Moon: Seoul is ready to hold talks if N. Korea stops provocations,” Yonhap, June 15, 2017, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/news/2017/06/15/0200000000AEN20170615009800315.html
6. “S. Korea may consult with U.S. about scaling back joint exercises if N.K. suspends nuclear activities: advise,” Yonhap, June 17, 2017, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/news/2017/06/17/0200000000AEN20170617000252315.html
7. “Full text of President Moon Jae-in’s memorial address for former President Roh Moo-hyun,” The Korea Herald, May 23, 2017, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20170523000598
8. “기무사 출신 장성·대령 22명, 문재인 지지선언 “안보 책임질 최고의 적임자,” Seoul Sinmun, April 10, 2017, http://www.seoul.co.kr/news/newsView.php?id=20170410500071
9. “불편한 진실② 북한 인권,” Hankyoreh, March 22, 2012, http://www.hani.co.kr/arti/opinion/column/524757.html
10. "개성공단 재가동 찬성 49%, 반대 40%," Yonhap, June 19, 2017, http://www.yonhapnews.co.kr/bulletin/2017/06/19/0200000000AKR20170619031800001.HTML