South Korea’s new leadership has a record of promoting summitry with North Korea

Special to

DonKirk31By Donald Kirk

The drama of South Korean history opens a tumultuous new act with the election of a liberal labor lawyer who has promised both to bring about detente with North Korea and satisfy the demands of restive masses fed up with alleged rightist abuses.

Whether Moon Jae-In will be able to live up to his campaign pledges is about as problematic as Donald Trump keeping his word to “make America great again.” Like Trump, Moon is likely to find taking charge of the government and getting people to follow his bidding is more difficult than talking about it.

South Korean President-elect Moon Jae-In has nominated Suh Hoon, above, to head the National Intelligence Service.

What takes priority, reconciliation with North Korea or economic hardship at home ― and how does President Moon work through the maze of bureaucratic and legislative obstacles, not to mention the shrill protests of those who opposed him?

Yes, he won far more votes than either of the other two major candidates, the conservative Hong Joon-Pyo and the centrist Ahn Cheol-Soo. Throw in the votes for all the also-rans, however, and you get a clear majority of the electorate preferring someone other than Moon.

No doubt the issue that transfixed most voters in the past few months has been the ongoing scandal of the ousted, jailed Park Geun-Hye, whose fall from grace had everything to do with endemic corruption and the cozy bonds between the top layers of government and the chaebol that prop them up. Sure, people care about North Korea too, but you didn’t hear too many demands for a revival of the Sunshine Policy of Kim Dae-Jung and his successor, Roh Moo-Hyun, for whom Moon served as chief of staff.

Moon signaled the priority he’s giving to rapprochement with North Korea, however, by appointing as director of Korea’s National Intelligence Service a man who had played a central role in bringing about the two North-South summits – first in June 2000 when Kim Dae-Jung, met North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang.

Suh Hoon was in a good position to negotiate the summit in secret with North Koreans. He had run the North Korean office of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization in the late 1990’s, preparing for installation of two nuclear energy reactors. The expenses were to be borne mainly by South Korea, Japan and the U.S., which was shipping in heavy oil to fulfill the North’s energy needs before the reactor were to go online.

Related: How South Korea’s Kim Dae-Jung bought his Peace Prize and financed Kim Jong-Il’s nuclear program, Feb. 2, 2017

That deal flew apart in 2002 after North Korea was revealed to be developing nuclear warheads with highly enriched uranium after agreeing in the 1994 Geneva framework to shut down its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, but Suh was still able to negotiate secretly for the summit in late 2007 between Kim Jong-Il and Roh Moo-Hyun. Suh’s contacts in North Korea may come in handy as Moon dreams of another mission to Pyongyang, this time as a supplicant before Kim Jong-Un.

The coveted invitation, though, may not be all that easy to get. We can be pretty sure Kim will first want to see if Moon really is as Sunshine-minded as he might have seemed during his campaign. The litmus test will be whether he loosens the ties that bind the Republic of Korea in tight alliance with the United States. Moon will have to show he’s not America’s man before Kim invites him for a summit.

Moon himself was quoted as saying he would rather go to Pyongyang to see the North Korean leader before going to Washington to call on the American president. He has denied, however, having said anything quite like that. For sure, he’ll be off to the White House not too long after taking over the Blue House.

A Moon-Trump summit, though, does not mean he has to be all that cooperative. Surely he’ll want to see what Trump was talking about when he said South Korea owed the U.S. $1 billion for the luxury of providing a home for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) counter-missile battery now lurking on a Lotte golf course way south of Seoul.

Will Moon tell Trump, look, we’re not only not going to pay for it, we’re going to ask you to plant it in someone else’s backyard? Or will he be advised to vacillate and avoid an early confrontation with the Americans while risking the wrath of China and, of course, North Korea?

How Moon deals with THAAD will signal the course of his policy toward all the nations surrounding South Korea.

China has been punishing Lotte and other Korean companies by suspending or curtailing their operations, ordering tough customs and safety inspections and stopping hordes of Chinese from coming to Korea on group tours. How long will the Chinese exert this type of pressure while also pressuring North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile program?

For Moon, North Korea will be more difficult. All Kim Jong-Un need do is order a few more missile tests, maybe another nuclear test. Will Moon, in his eagerness for dialogue, argue that sanctions are not working and negotiations are essential? Would he dare offend North Korea by calling for tough measures?

Judging from what he’s said, Moon would still be disposed to concessions ― reopening the Gaeseong Industrial Complex, authorizing more visits to North Korea by South Koreans, even resuming the shipments of rice and fertilizer that South Korea bestowed on the North during the decade of Sunshine.

But will his foes let him do all that? Moon, as a minority president, will have to study the art of compromise for the sake of both his policy toward North Korea and his political survival against foes who would like nothing better than to destroy him.

Donald Kirk has covered all Korea’s presidential elections since introduction of the Democracy Constitution in June 1987. He’s at