I suspect Moon Jae-in. And that would not be good.
What would be great is if Moon would ask Kim Jong Un whether he still wants to takeover South Korea and, if Kim says no, then ask why he is building so many nuclear weapons. But I don’t think Moon will do anything so difficult. Nor do people in South Korea. No agenda has been announced for the talks at Friday’s inter-Korean summit, though plenty has been said about the ceremonies. We do know South Korea has essentially promised not to talk about North Korea’s prison camps or other human rights abuses.
The hype and theater around this summit — both sides have had rehearsals — far surpasses what preceded the 2007 inter-Korean summit between Kim Jong Il and Roh Moo-hyun that I covered. A Bloomberg reporter tweeted out SBS’ use of South Korea’s silver medal-winning curling team in a promo for its summit coverage:
SBS strikes again with a Garlic Girls-themed advertisement of planned inter-Korean summit coverage pic.twitter.com/zh42JQzvp8
— Sam Kim (@samkimasia) April 25, 2018
That much of Friday’s activities will be broadcast live in South Korea shows how far Moon is going to build support in South Korea, as well as in places like China and Russia and the U.S., for more talks. The main payoff from all this, of course, is a reduced chance for armed conflict. Moon also apparently sees a payoff in advancing ideas that pretend that North Korea doesn’t want to take over South Korea. Maybe, he thinks he can position himself for a Nobel Peace Prize. Kim’s payoff is that the longer talks go on, the more likely it is that sanctions will ease on North Korea and that he can preserve the status quo rule of his regime.
Oh Young-jin, who was President Roh’s press secretary to the foreign media at the time of the 2007 summit, wrote a piece in Friday’s English-language Korea Times that says the inter-Korean summit is a moment for the two Koreas to take their fate into their own hands. He’s right, but will Moon do it? Will he advance the South over the North, or the North over the South?
In the hope that Kim won’t beg out of this inter-Korean summit, Moon has diminished himself by saying “no more war,” taking human rights off the table, taking steps to silence critics even in the U.S. and trying to keep prominent North Korean defectors out of the public eye in South Korea in recent weeks. Trump went along with some of Moon’s desires by agreeing to reduce the scale of the joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises. And Trump has also turned obsequious in talking about Kim.
Will they wimp out sitting across the table from Kim? Here are some thoughts from people who have considered worst-case outcomes, the ones that keep the Kim regime in power with both nukes and greater authority over the South.
Robert Kelly, the Busan University professor who was a rising star even before his delightful kids burst into his office one day during a BBC appearance, on April 4 wrote Moon an agenda for negotiating with Kim that makes sense in a normal diplomatic world. “Get the North Koreans to agree to some mid-level proposals which can be overseen in some detail, and then let’s see if they actually stick to them,” Kelly wrote. “There is little strategic trust between North Korea, South Korea, and the US. Moon really will be pilloried, as Chamberlain was, if he naively hopes that Kim is not of the same ilk as his family predecessors.” Moon may instead go for another sweeping, ultimately meaningless, gesture as he signaled when aides last week began talking about a peace treaty.
AEI’s Nick Eberstadt, writing in the New York Times today, says that Moon’s leap toward talking about a peace treaty shows that the Sunshine Policy of his former bosses Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun has given way to “P.T. Barnum-style, a-sucker-born-every-minute diplomacy.” He adds, “North Korea is a fearsome adversary. Let’s not play pretend-diplomacy with it.” It’s a fearsome takedown of Moon’s strategy.
Josh Stanton, writing at his One Free Korea blog earlier this week, fears that Moon’s recent actions, along with the longer-term agenda that was published on the summit website, show that he wants to drive South Korea into a confederation with North Korea that would give the North considerable leverage over the South. “Rather than involving anything as implausible and dramatic as a North Korean occupation, this hegemony would be enforced by South Korean institutions, such as state media, the National Intelligence Service, and the riot police,” Stanton writes. He first raised this idea in December, not long before Kim Jong Un suddenly shifted into wanting to work with the South and breaking the ice with the Olympic move. “I’m not oblivious to how conspiratorial it all must seem,” Stanton writes in his latest post about the direction Moon is taking South Korea. “But then, on what evidence do skeptics of this view believe that those who staff the top ranks of the Moon administration … have moderated their views? At some point, status quo bias must yield to what’s right before our eyes.”
Brian Myers, the literature professor and author of two books on North Korea propaganda, envisions something similar playing out. Myers has stepped out of the media spotlight in recent years, angry that his thoughtful and complex explanations of events get cut down so much in the media that they turn nonsensical or wrong. But he writes a blog and on March 23 he wrote that the two Koreas have similar short-term goals, essentially the ones I outlined above of easing sanctions on North Korea and driving toward a confederation of some type. “Their longer term goals are different,” Myers wrote. “The North wants unification under its own flag, while South Korean progressives want the two states to coalesce over decades of mutually beneficial economic cooperation.” Myers thinks this would be more trouble for South Koreans than they realize.
Over the next few days, much of the media coverage, particularly by U.S. media, of the inter-Korean summit is going to be about how it sets things up for Trump in his prospective meeting with Moon. I’ll be watching to see if whether it marks the first steps in a longer-term transformation of the Korean peninsula. And worse, does it look like a change that sells out South Koreans and their freedom?