Hangover after the honeymoon: Post-election euphoria fades for South Korea’s President Moon

Special to WorldTribune.com

DonKirk31By Donald Kirk

It’s tempting for punsters to play on the surname Moon. There’s “honeymoon,” of course, and “moonshine” – the latter for whiskey distilled in the mountains of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee by the light of the moon.

How long, then, will the honeymoon last for President Moon Jae-In while North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un orders weekly missile shots? The question assumes critical relevance after the North’s latest test of a Scud missile that flew nearly 300 miles before landing in waters inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

The tests have definitely diluted the thrills of a honeymoon in which Moon has reached high levels in popularity while appointing aides noted for having opposed bygone conservative policies. That’s to be expected considering Moon’s record as a liberal activist and advocate of dialogue with North Korea.

New South Korean President Moon Jae-In, right. / Yonhap via AP

In his state of shock, however, Moon agrees with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that it’s “not the time for dialogue with North Korea.” Could it be the liberal Moon and the arch-conservative leader of Japan have reached a consensus? Amazingly, we’re told, they spoke by telephone of the need “to heighten sanctions and pressure.”

Indeed, Korean history tells us nobody should be too optimistic after the initial excitement wears off. The revelry of moonshine may turn into misery sooner than expected as long as Kim Jong-un orders missile tests and possibly a sixth nuclear test.

As Moon is figuring out his response to North Korea’s provocations, he has to be aware of the curse of Korean presidents. They all faced barrages of criticism before or soon after vacating the Blue House.

Park Geun-Hye, ousted nearly a year before her normal five-year term would have expired, is the latest in a string of victims of accusations and retribution. Roh Tae-Woo, the first president elected under the 1987 constitution, was convicted of both corruption and involvement in the Gwangju massacre while in command of a division under the dictatorial Chun Doo-Hwan, also convicted and sentenced to death. (Both, to be sure, were eventually pardoned and released in the name of national harmony.)

Kim Dae-Jung, elected in 1997 in an upset over the conservative candidate, is remembered for having channeled hundreds of millions of dollars into North Korean coffers to bring about his June 2000 summit with Kim Jong-Un’s father, Kim Jong-Il. Six months later, he achieved his longtime goal of winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Can Moon, who would like nothing better than to bask in a fresh burst of Sunshine, escape the calumny that befalls Korean presidents? As Moon’s honeymoon ends, will people discover they’d been imbibing too much moonshine? Will the joy of moonshine fade into a nightmare of charges and counter-charges, chagrin and disappointment?

North Korea has not yet begun insulting Moon in rhetoric similar to its denunciations of Park Geun-Hye but has criticized “confrontation” while arguing tests are needed to defend both Koreas. North Korea’s position is sure to harden after Moon sees President Donald Trump in Washington, coordinating on a policy that’s likely to mingle incentives with threats, i.e., the old carrot-and-stick thing.

Really, however, there is little room for optimism. The fact that Kim persists in these tests means he’s simply not going to compromise. How might Moon respond to North Korea’s continued challenge?

While basking in the glow of the candlelight vigils that brought about a seismic shift of power, Moon has to be careful not to appear pro-American. Chances are he will still be looking at reopening the Gaeseong complex, and he might want to resume tours to Mount Geumgang.

There are other ways too. He might authorize more visits to North Korea, and he might think about resuming shipments of rice and fertilizer that South Korea was donating during the decade of the Sunshine Policy initiated by Kim Dae-Jung.

In that spirit, Moon responded with shock to word the U.S. had added several more rocket launchers to the THAAD counter-missile battery without anyone asking him about it. Were the U.S. command and the ministry of national defense conspiring not to let him know? Should he not have been told of plans to expand the controversial weapons system that’s now a fixture on a golf course way southeast of Seoul?

While North Korea is test-firing missiles, THAAD is one of many headaches Moon has to suffer in the hangover after the honeymoon.

Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Northeast Asia for decades. He’s at [email protected]

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