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Weakness from Washington and Seoul Has Emboldened North Korea

After years of “friendship,” “love letters,” and “trust,” the Kim regime is as potent as ever.
December 7, 2020
Weakness from Washington and Seoul Has Emboldened North Korea
SOHAE SATELLITE LAUNCHING STATION, NORTH KOREA -- NOVEMBER 29, 2020: Figure 4. Close up of Vertical Engine Test Stand. (Note: False-color infrared imagery) Satellite image © 2020 Maxar Technologies. All rights reserved.

No matter how many illegal missile tests North Korea conducts, how bellicose the Dear Leader is in his threats, or how many South Korean citizens his administration murders, South Korean President Moon Jae-in will always reach back with open arms begging for Kim Jong-un’s embrace. And Donald Trump has gone along with him.

The Moon administration’s weakness and naïveté, combined with Trump’s foreign policy ignorance and sympathies with dictators, presents a threat to Northeast Asian security and to America’s national interest.

Throughout Moon’s political career, he has been credulous towards North Korean leadership and their empty words about “peace.” As a “human rights lawyer,” he was a member of Minbyun (Lawyers for a Democratic Society), a progressive law group that has utterly ignored human rights abuses in North Korea and at times harassed North Korean refugees residing in South Korea. As a political strategist, he served as campaign manager for Roh Moo-hyun, the leftist successor to the Sunshine Policy who rode to power in 2003 on a wave of soft anti-American sentiment. Now as president, he has appointed North Korea sympathizers to policy positions and constantly downplays North Korean aggression. Moon and Korean liberals in general have also been more antagonistic towards the democratic Japan and softer towards an increasingly aggressive China than the previous conservative president.

Moon’s actions in 2020 are illustrative. In March, North Korea conducted four missile launches in violation of UN resolutions. Yet after the first missile test, Moon’s communications secretary  praised Kim Jong-un for sending a letter that “showed his constant friendship and trust toward Moon.”

In May, a North Korea soldier fired bullets that hit a South Korean guard post. Moon was still trying to get the Panmunjom Declaration, the agreement Moon and Kim signed agreeing to cooperate on an official end to the Korean War, ratified by Korea’s National Assembly. After North Korea blew up the joint liaison office, Moon appeared to be more disappointed that it stifled his plans for easing sanctions on North Korea than that it was an unprecedented escalation.

Now, in the most recent and most brazen example, President Moon called for an official end to the Korean War at the UN one day after a South Korean fisheries official had been executed and had his body burned by North Korea.

The South Korean president’s weakness toward the abusive communist regime to its north isn’t concerning just for the 76 million Koreans on the peninsula. It’s also concerning for the United States as it puts regional security in jeopardy.

North Korean leadership is emboldened by South Korea’s appeasement. They know they can get away with anything. They have found that by pairing violent actions with personal letters and shallow apologies, the Moon administration has something reassuring to wave in front of the public. North Korea is thus able to continue developing its missile capabilities, which could be aimed at U.S. troops in Korea or Japan, with little resistance.

In line with Moon’s present foreign policy, the latest South Korean defense white paper has removed the mention of North Korea as an “enemy.” This is a serious underestimation of the threat posed by the Kim regime.

Moon’s administration has pulled the United States along on its failed detente policy. The U.S. made the decision to meet with Kim Jong-un at Moon’s insistence, but the U.S. has nothing to show for two years of unproductive talks but propaganda images legitimizing Kim’s regime and reduced Chinese pressure on the North.

To be sure, the United States never should have followed Moon as closely as Trump did. Trump rashly announced he was willing to meet with Kim with no preconditions after being told by Moon’s national security advisor Chung Eui Yong at an impromptu White House meeting in March 2018 that Kim wanted to meet. Chung was representing Moon’s desires, and then-National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster explicitly warned Trump against making such a haphazard decision, one which contradicted the administration’s maximum pressure policy. But nonetheless, Trump directed Chung to make the announcement to the White House press that the U.S. was willing to meet.

For Trump to make major foreign policy decisions on the basis of what he is told by foreign officials compromises U.S. security. Chung Eui Yong has been criticized by The Korea Herald for being soft on North Korea. When North Korea conducted illegal missile tests in violation of UN resolutions, Chung dismissed them, saying, “I don’t see missile capabilities now being developed by North Korea as a grave threat to our national security.”

Some of Moon’s other appointees have worrying histories of supporting socialism and sympathizing with North Korea. His first chief of staff and current Special Advisor for Foreign Affairs Im Jong-seok was convicted of organizing a propaganda trip to Pyongyang in 1989 where radical South Korean student activists met Kim Il-sung. Former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, a “Gangnam socialist” (the Korean analogue of a limousine liberal), was a former member of the Socialist Labour League. North Korea’s flagship state-run newspaper defended him against conservative criticism before he resigned last year.

Moon hails from a progressive movement tinged with socialism that has been pursuing “decolonization”—by which they mean getting rid of American troops and influence from the peninsula. His instance on an end-of-war declaration and his push for “unification” would move in that direction.

Declaring a premature end to the war, however, could undermine the legitimacy of the United Nations Command and U.S. troops remaining on the peninsula . Should Korea be “unified” in a manner that does not displace the illegitimate Kim regime, human rights in South Korea could disappear.

Even if Korea were to be unified entirely on ROK terms, it is unclear what that might mean for the future of U.S. troops in Korea. China would certainly demand that U.S. troops withdraw, and without the presence of North Korea staring down the Republic, it is not clear what rationale the U.S. would rely on to maintain its military presence, nor whether broad support for U.S. troops would remain within the Korean public.

In the face of an assertive China and a stubborn North Korea, a strong U.S. presence in Northeast Asia is as important as ever—and will remain so after the election. Moon’s and Trump’s weaknesses put American security at risk. President Biden will have to contend with the mess their failed diplomatic groveling to Kim has created.

Mitchell Blatt

Mitchell Blatt is a columnist and vlogger based in Seoul, who writes about Korean politics and foreign policy for outlets including The National Interest and The Korea Times. He has a Masters Degree in International Relations and Korea Studies from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.