The Quiet Diplomacy of Moon Jae-In
Last Tuesday’s summit in Singapore represents a historic and potentially transformative milestone in the relationship between North Korea and the United States. It was the first time a sitting U.S. President has met with a sitting North Korean leader. It also resulted in the United States agreeing to cease military drills on the South Korea-North Korea border, a decision that President Trump and his team deserve credit for, in the context of a hawkish foreign policy team whose leading voices have advocated for “preventive war” against North Korea. In exchange, North Korea appears to have agreed to completely denuclearize, which has been the end goal of decades of carefully constructed, yet unsuccessful, foreign policy.
But in typical Trumpian fashion, the agreement signed by the two countries has been presented in an inflated way that ignores its flaws. For one, there was no mention of how North Korea’s denuclearization process will be verified, which is typically a long and arduous process managed by international organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency. When asked about how denuclearization will be verified, Trump responded rather ambiguously: “It will be verified. It’s going to be achieved by having a lot of people there, and by developing trust, and we think we have done that.” It’s important to note that agreements between North Korea and the United States in 1992, 1994 and 2005 all fell apart after North Korea failed to follow through with its promises of denuclearization.
There was also a significant lack of attention during the summit to human rights abuses in North Korea, which, as argued by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, may have grave consequences going forward. Trump instead chose to call Kim Jong Un “talented” and a leader that is loved by his people. This, I believe, is dangerously tone-deaf, and disrespectful to the tens of thousands of prisoners (maybe more) who have been brutally tortured and killed by the regime, many for the simple act of crossing the border into China in search of food.
More troublingly, we are made to believe that it is Trump and Trump alone that should be commended for the “success” of the summit. In a tweet on Sunday, Trump expressed frustration over not being given enough credit for the summit: “The denuclearization deal with North Korea is being praised and celebrated all over Asia. They are so happy! Over here, in our country, some people would rather see this historic deal fail than give Trump a win, even if it does save potentially millions & millions of lives!”
In fact, the “win” that Trump credits himself with is due almost entirely to the subtle yet historic diplomacy on the part of South Korean president Moon Jae-in. Similar to the inflated presentation of his other accomplishments –think economy, unemployment rate, freeing of North Korean prisoners, and others– President Trump takes sole credit for things that he’s only played a minor, and sometimes counterproductive, role in. While Trump was comparing button sizes and threatening “fire and fury,” Moon Jae-in was vehemently calling for rapprochement and peace. It was Moon Jae-in who organized North Korean participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics, reached out to Kim Jong Un’s sister to propose talks, and met personally with Kim Jong Un nearly a month before the Singapore summit. Without Moon Jae-in’s skillful diplomacy and ability to temper the bluster of Kim Jong Un and President Trump, it’s safe to say the Singapore summit wouldn’t have taken place. Really all that we can credit President Trump (and Kim Jong Un) with is behaving themselves during the summit.
Moon Jae-in’s life and political career elucidate his consistently liberal and peace-based approach to leadership. Raised in poverty by parents who fled North Korea, Moon Jae-in made a name for himself in university by organizing demonstrations against the repressive regime of Park Chung Hee, who at one point said that he didn’t care if 30,000 lives were lost in order to suppress student protests and rioting. He served as a human rights lawyer for over two decades, often representing low-wage workers and students. After being one of the leading voices against South Korea’s former president Park Geun-hye, who was impeached and removed after a corruption scandal, Moon Jae-in was elected on a platform that advocated for talks with North Korea and a reduction of income inequality, marking a significant break from his predecessors. He currently has an approval rating of over 80%.
While Moon Jae-in implemented a consistently peace-based approach to North Korea, Trump and his administration consistently jeopardized rapprochement efforts. Aside from tweets and fiery rhetoric, Vice President Mike Pence nearly ruined the chances of a meeting by implying that the “Libya model” would be applied to North Korea. The overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi following rapprochement with Libya is often cited as one of North Korea’s biggest fears in dealings with the West. It must also be mentioned that in late May, Trump called off the meeting with North Korea, and only reinstated it after prodding from South Korea, which encouraged a more “open-minded” approach.
The appropriation by President Trump and his administration of the hard work of Moon Jae-in is a clear effort to garner domestic support. It is also shameful and typical. Most importantly, it discounts Moon Jae-in’s skillfully calculated efforts towards peace on the Korean peninsula.
Trump’s tendency to appropriate the work of others is reminiscent of the age-old “antagonistic group member who does no work and gets a high grade because the others did extra work” narrative. It’s terribly frustrating but rarely worth pointing out to the teacher, usually because the other group members are above such tomfoolery, or perhaps too busy to care. To me, Moon Jae-in’s humility is the ultimate indicator of his authenticity as a leader and politician; he has consistently thanked and rewarded Trump for his willingness to meet with North Korea despite the fact that Trump has been one of the biggest hindrances in the movement towards peace.
If anyone is deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize, it’s Moon Jae-in.