Bloombergpolitics

South Korea’s Leader Transforms Into a North Korea Hawk

  • South Korea leader’s reconciliation policy has gone nowhere
  • Tensions with Trump have helped buoy Moon’s approval rating

A few months ago, South Korean President Moon Jae-in took office promising a new era of engagement with North Korea. Now he’s pushing for a military overhaul to keep Kim Jong Un’s regime at bay.

In the past few weeks, Moon has sought stronger warheads on ballistic missiles, stepped up military drills, discussed the deployment of U.S. strategic bombers to South Korea and embraced a missile defense system he’d questioned. He has also called on his generals to draw up a detailed timetable to complete a last-resort strategy to strike North Korean nuclear sites, intercept missiles and take out its leadership.

Moon, whose May election win ended nine years of conservative rule, had little choice but to shift focus after Kim tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles, fired a rocket over Japan and detonated North Korea’s most powerful nuclear device yet. Kim has shunned overtures from Moon, saying he’d never negotiate away his nuclear weapons if the U.S. maintains its hostile policy.

“Moon is showing that he’s pragmatic,” said John Blaxland, head of the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in Canberra. “The circumstances are more dire than he faced when he took office. He isn’t as doggedly ideologically left as some might have anticipated.”

Still, for U.S. President Donald Trump, Moon hasn’t gone far enough. Tensions between the leaders surfaced recently, when Moon asserted a right to veto any U.S. strike against North Korea. After Kim’s regime detonated what it called a hydrogen bomb on Sunday, Trump dismissed Moon’s approach as “appeasement.” A day earlier, Trump reportedly threatened to kill a U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement.

Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump

Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

While the two leaders spoke by phone on Monday and agreed “to maximize pressure on North Korea using all means at their disposal,” tensions remain evident. Moon’s office rebutted a White House statement saying Trump gave his approval for “many billions of dollars’ worth of military weapons.”

What a U.S.-North Korea War Might Look Like: QuickTake Q&A

“There is little affinity between Moon and Trump, and grave concern in South Korea about where the Trump administration is taking things,” Blaxland said. “But Moon is messaging Trump to say that in South Korea you have a faithful partner.”

Moon has little choice but to rely on the U.S. for now. South Korea hosts roughly 28,500 American troops and depends on the nation’s nuclear protection to deter a North Korean attack.

Trump’s criticism of Moon and trade threats are playing into the hands of Kim, whose strategy is to break the U.S.-South Korean alliance, Christopher Hill, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and negotiator on North Korea’s nuclear program, said on Twitter on Sunday. In June, Hill wrote that such a split would “would enable the reunification of the Korean Peninsula on Kim’s terms.”

One of Moon’s main goals is for South Korea’s military to complete the transfer of wartime operational control from the U.S., a legacy of the Korean War in the 1950s. The transition, first agreed in 2007, has been repeatedly delayed by budgetary constraints and regional tensions. On a visit to the White House in June, Moon and Trump agreed to “expeditiously enable the conditions-based transfer” of control.

‘Die Over There’

South Korea’s opposition wants Moon to go even further. Hong Joon-pyo, chief of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, has pushed for the deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to test its commitment to defend South Korea. His comments reflect concern that the U.S. could renege on the alliance as North Korea develops the capability to target American cities with nuclear weapons.

While Moon’s administration confirmed on Tuesday it still seeks the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, Trump’s comments have increased speculation he’d be willing to tolerate collateral damage in Seoul to protect the U.S. from a nuclear attack. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican, told NBC News in August that Trump told him that “if thousands die, they’re going to die over there.”

“Moon’s at least doing better than Trump, who obviously has no idea of what an alliance is,” said Ha Tae-keung, a lawmaker with the conservative-leaning Bareun Party, which controls less than 10 percent of seats in parliament. “It’s hard to predict what Kim will do, but one thing that’s clear is that he already saw too much of a gap in the U.S.-South Korea alliance at a time when coordination should have been water tight."

Read More: How Moon Became a North Korea Dove

Ha said that while Moon was initially “too naïve,” he’s now “starting to have some sense of reality.”

Trump’s rhetoric and threats on trade should boost public support for Moon, according to Lee Ho-chul, a political science professor at South Korea’s Incheon National University.

“While Moon is not having his way with North Korea, that won’t immediately bring his approval rate down,” Lee said. “Trump’s brand of toughness isn’t being embraced warmly in South Korea either.”

Moon’s approval rating is above 70 percent. That’s partly because he played a strong national security hand, even while pleasing left-leaning votes with his push for talks with Pyongyang, according to Christopher Green, senior adviser on the Korean peninsula at the International Crisis Group.

Moon, the son of North Korean refugees, has continued to seek dialogue even as he bolsters South Korea’s defenses. On Wednesday, he urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to help find a solution during a meeting in Vladivostok, warning that North Korea “could sink into an uncontrollable situation” if the international community fails to act quickly.

“He gets very high approval partly because he is able to bring the conservatives on side with his agenda,” Green said. “Moon’s strategy cannot possibly survive these kind of circumstances at this time, so what does he do? He beefs up the military side of things.”

— With assistance by Heejin Kim, and Kanga Kong

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