Moon Jae In, the new president of South Korea, was supposed to be a liberal dove. After his election victory in May, many observers called him “softer” on North Korea than his predecessor, the conservative, “more hawkish” Park Geun Hye. He was also expected to clash with U.S. President Donald Trump, as committed a hawk as Moon was supposedly a dove. Pundits feared that Moon would try to resurrect the “Sunshine Policy” of his liberal predecessors, kowtowing to North Korea to appease Kim Jong Un—futilely, in their view.
So Moon’s aggressive reaction to North Korea's recent long-range missile testing may come across as a surprise. Moon was the first to suggest to Trump that South Korea and the United States should respond with their own joint missile-firing drill. The situation called for “more than just a statement,” he said, according to a spokesman, as he ordered what is known as a “decapitation” missile drill: preparation for the scenario in which armed hostilities break out, and the North Korean leadership must be eliminated quickly. Reportedly, Moon ordered his staff to ensure that the press understood the drill was a "show of force." He kept up his rhetoric at the G20 summit in Hamburg, calling for an "even greater level of international sanctions and pressure" in a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
For those who have observed Moon's political career closely, none of this should have come as a surprise. The notion that he is dovish is a lazy caricature, drawn from the previous liberal presidents of South Korea. Presidents Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun, whose consecutive administrations ran for 10 years from 1997 to 2007, pursued the Sunshine Policy in which South Korea would dialogue and engage with North Korea, believing that warm gestures rather than harsh standoffs would cause the Kim regime to open its doors.
But Moon, son of North Korean refugees and a former special forces paratrooper, is not a dove. He has always advocated for an alternating, dual-track approach to North Korea of pressure and dialogue—instead of “sunshine,” what may be called a “sunburn” policy. Even before North Korea's latest missile test, it was clear that Moon was prepared to pressure Pyongyang first. In a phone conversation with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe soon after Moon took office, he said that “now is not the time for a dialogue [with North Korea], but rather the time to enhance sanctions and pressure.” Although it may be too early to assess Moon’s North Korea policy, there is no indication yet that he would be soft on the country. Even though the South Korean government proposed a dialogue with North Korea on Monday, the dialogue was with the leaders of the South Korean military rather than diplomats. (North Korea is yet to respond to the proposal.)
Yet even as Moon engages in saber-rattling, he might be benefiting from his reputation as a left-leaning dove. In a survey conducted this past February, at the tail end of Park’s scandal-tarnished administration, 80 percent of the South Korean public said it preferred a dialogue-based North Korea policy, with 76 percent approving the idea of an inter-Korean summit meeting. A strong majority—75.9 percent—was also critical of Park's decision to close the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a North-South joint industrial park located in North Korea. Yet today, there seems to be no real objection from the South Korean public to Moon's muscular response to the North. He continues to enjoy sky-high approval ratings—85.1 percent, according to the latest survey by Korea Society Opinion Institute. In the same survey, 78.1 percent responded that they agreed with Moon’s North Korea policy.
It is unlikely that the South Korean public suddenly reconsidered its preference for a dialogue-based North Korean policy in the last five months. What’s more likely is that a mirror image of the “Nixon goes to China” phenomenon is in play. A commonly held theory suggests that only a staunch conservative like Richard Nixon could have visited Beijing to normalize the Sino-U.S. relationship without suffering any domestic political repercussions. Like Nixon’s conservative credentials, Moon’s liberal bona fides are impeccable. As a law student, he was jailed while protesting against South Korea’s military dictatorship. After passing the bar, Moon spent his legal career as a human-rights lawyer who defended student protestors and labor-union members who were wrongfully accused of being communist sympathizers. His first foray into politics was as a high-ranking aide to the former liberal president Roh Moo Hyun, who was once Moon’s law firm partner. Considering this track record, the South Korean public trusts him to raise the heat on North Korea while not escalating the tension recklessly to a point where a full-scale war might break out.
This reverse-“Nixon goes to China” dynamic is presenting possibilities beyond Korea for Moon, too. Defying expectations, his relationship with Trump is off to a strong start. His first meeting with Trump was a successful affair, where both presidents agreed upon the dual-track, pressure-and-dialogue approach to North Korea. Then, only days later, Moon pivoted to meet with Xi Jinping, the president of China, at the G20 summit, making his administration the quickest in the history of South Korean democracy to hold its first summit with China. Although it produced no concrete commitment, it was reportedly a friendly encounter. Xi opened the meeting by quoting the Chinese maxim that appears in Moon’s autobiography: "the later flow of the Yangtze River pushes out the earlier flow"—a hint that China may end up valuing its relatively new relationship with South Korea over its older relationships, like its relationship with North Korea.
The world may need Moon to be as popular with Trump and Xi as he is with the South Korean public. The path to a peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue must navigate through the interests of the world's two foremost superpowers. At a very high level, both America and China agree that there should be some combination of pressure and dialogue to denuclearize North Korea. Yet the Trump administration's attempts to compel China to take action against Kim Jong Un generated only a minimal response. It may take a middle man like Moon to thread the needle.
The manner in which the Moon administration handled the U.S. deployment of the terminal high altitude area defense (THAAD) missile system in South Korea suggests a deft touch when it comes to balancing American and Chinese interests. China has objected strenuously to the deployment of THAAD, believing its radars would track China’s own missile systems. To pressure South Korea into rejecting the deployment, China has engaged in low-grade trade warfare against South Korean companies doing business in China. Nonetheless, South Korea accepted the first components of the missile defense system only three days before Korea’s Constitutional Court removed Park Geun Hye from office.
Nearly as soon as Moon took office, he delayed THAAD’s full deployment, effectively tipping his hat toward China. Although this delay ran the risk of angering the United States, Moon assured Trump during their summit that South Korea will fully deploy THAAD in due time, following an environmental review. In doing so, Moon successfully lowered the temperature on a contentious issue, giving time for the cooler heads to prevail.
Of course, challenges remain. On some matters, U.S. and Chinese interests will simply never converge. To say that Moon only delayed the inevitable clash between America and China over THAAD might be uncharitable, but not unreasonable. But one would be hard-pressed to think of any world leader better situated to inspire trust from in Washington and Beijing. The longstanding U.S.-South Korea alliance assures Washington that Moon is not about to compromise its forward position in northeast Asia. Meanwhile, Moon's liberal leaning may convince Beijing to take his proposals more seriously, with the expectation that he’ll be different from South Korea's conservative presidents who were, in Beijing’s view, toadies to U.S. interests.
In 2005, President Roh Moo Hyun said South Korea may play a “balancer's role” in the region, adding that “the map of power in Northeast Asia could shift depending on what choice we make.” At the time, his statement was widely derided as fanciful. Yet Roh's former chief of staff Moon Jae In may have the chance to elevate South Korea into the precise role Roh predicted: a balancer of interests for China and the United States over the Korean Peninsula. We are about to see whether Moon Jae In would make his old boss a delusional windbag, or a prescient visionary.