Since his election in May South Korea’s President Mon Jae-in has developed a productive relationship with US President Trump, particularly on the difficult issue of both countries’ dealings with North Korea. Regrettably Australian and other mainstream media is reporting Trump’s rants, intended for his domestic support base, rather than the positive outcomes from those summit meetings.
While someone from Lowy gravely (and absurdly) suggested on the ABC News on 4 July that the DPRK (North Korea) now had an ICBM that could be launched at Darwin, around the same time, the South Korean newsagency Yonhap reported that South Korean President Moon Jae-in had told David Cameron in Seoul that he hoped North Korea would not go past a ‘point of no return’ and Yonhap further reported;
“The policy to seek the resumption of dialogue while maintaining maximum pressure remains unchanged,” a Cheong Wa Dae [the president’s office] official told reporters, while asking not to be identified.
Regrettably Australian and other mainstream media is still doing what Trump wants, reporting Trump rants, intended for his domestic support base, rather than what is agreed out of summit meetings.
South Korean officials, media and business leaders who had been in Washington with Moon on 29-30 June were apprehensive about delay in release of the agreed joint statement. They knew that Trump White House staff deliberately delayed release of such statements (for days in the case of Saudi Arabia) and they did not want the outcome of the visit to be as ranted by Trump at a joint press conference.
After seven hours, the joint statement emerged — intact and it is important to read carefully.
Down in the middle of the statement is this critical paragraph:
President Trump supported the ROK’s leading role in fostering an environment for peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula.
President Trump expressed support for President Moon’s aspiration to restart inter-Korean dialogue on issues, including humanitarian affairs.
This too shows strength in the ROK’s getting back sovereignty and command of issues on the peninsula:
The two leaders decided to continue the Alliance’s work to expeditiously enable the conditions-based transfer of wartime operational control [OPCON] of ROK forces.
“Continue” covers the to and fro on this transfer issues, postponed by the previous administration. The statement is a recognition of ROK sovereignty.
There is also a large amount of conventional expression of support for the alliance. Conventional except in that there were apprehensions Moon might be a radical and Trump might be a bit… Trump. All of the statements out of Washington indicate good rapport between the two and real trust of Moon by Trump. Trump accepted an invitation to visit Seoul this year.
Moon’s comment to Cameron on 4 July needs to be seen in that context: he does not want to be trampled, to lose what he has gained, by trampling of elephants before and behind. Also, in my view, the DPRK’s missile launch is part of a hurried approach to ‘negotiation from strength’. But who will assess it rationally?
Moon’s visit to Washington was preceded by a carefully-orchestrated academic and media conference at which some forward looking views on inter-Korean relations were presented by one of his advisors, who could then say “oh, I’m just an academic”. Moon took with him to Washington a great contingent of business leaders, to whom – people who would have never wanted Moon elected – he said in Washington that he was sorry that this was their first meeting since he took office, but hey, we’re here together now. He announced Korean investments in the US and other warming goodies. The Joint Statement does not say, though Trump said, that the Free Trade Agreement would be re-negotiated.
The presidential election results were declared on 9 May just before 9am. Moon Jae-in was inaugurated at 4pm. On 10 May he abolished the ‘official’ history texts his predecessor had demanded for schools, and he reversed the ban on commemoration of the Gwangju Massacre in May 1980 and the ban on singing the march of that uprising. On 18 May he want to Gwangju for the anniversary, taking with him heads of political parties, to hold hands, weep and sing (all but one of them sang). In the ROK current history this compares with Tiananmen. The ROK has turned a corner, China has not.
Instead of meeting with business leaders he went to see workers at the international airport on 11 May and said he wanted to see the 10,000 of them who were casual employees made permanent during his term of office. The airport corporation promptly said this would happen before the end of 2017.
Instead of meeting promptly with business leaders Moon began an assembly of office holders to take on the chaebols, the handful of conglomerates (Hyundai, Samsung, etc) that dominate the Korean economy. Instead of falling in with habits, he appointed a woman as foreign minister, who had not been through the foreign ministry system but had a history in charge of human rights at the UN and as head of the transition team of the new UN Secretary General. He gave charge of veterans affairs to a woman, the first female South Korean helicopter pilot, and gave the job ministerial status.
Instead of meeting with business leaders he visited classrooms and talked with children. At the end of a month he shocked the nation where no one takes a day off from work, declaring he would take a public service day off … and went with his wife to their house in the country for a day.
And so it has gone. He has a popularity rating over 80%.
In May at the request of a Korean political science journal I wrote a paper in part drawing comparatively on the history of the Whitlam Government and problems it faced as a reform government. Moon has in two months shown the world, with smiles, how to reform, make friends and secure control of difficult issues. But who is watching? All eyes are on the shrieking roller-coaster.
Dennis Argall has been an observer of North Asian affairs since 1970 and was an ambassador to China. The abstract of his paper “The Dilemmas of Middle Powers: Australia and South Korea in The Age of Trump” can be read here.