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Five questions for Moon

Feb 15,2017
With Ban Ki-moon’s withdrawal from the presidential race, most political commentators consider Moon Jae-in to be the clear front-runner if not the inevitable victor. In democratic politics nothing is ever inevitable (just ask Hillary Clinton), but Moon now faces greater scrutiny and questions about his position on the issues.

One might expect a center-right conservative veteran of the Bush administration to be wary of Moon’s candidacy, but I have often been impressed with his steady leadership. (Note: this is not an endorsement!) When I was in charge of Asia on the National Security Council staff at the time of the Roh Moo-hyun administration, Moon was seen as a steadying voice in an otherwise turbulent, ideological and divided Blue House.

I also remember sitting three rows behind President Lee Myung-bak and former Presidents Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung at the memorial service for Roh in May 2009 when distraught supporters of the deceased president surged towards Lee screaming emotionally. Moon rose from his seat and calmed them down so that the proceedings could continue.

Moon is not seen as a great champion of the U.S.-ROK alliance, but he has generally been viewed as a steadying influence — at least when not running for office.

Nevertheless, Moon is now running for office and presides over a group of political supporters who sometimes remain stubbornly resistant to the U.S.-ROK alliance, human rights, and the reality that North Korea has become a far more dangerous and threatening regime. So while this is a bit presumptuous and I certainly would not expect Moon to respond publicly, these are the five questions my colleagues and I watching from Washington would have for him:


1. Will he stand firm on the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system?

Moon took flak from more left-leaning politicians for “flip flopping” when he said that it would be difficult to cancel Thaad. Of course, he was right. Cancelling Thaad would signal Beijing that it can force Seoul to abandon decisions made in the legitimate interests of Korea’s own defense — a very dangerous precedent. Cancelling Thaad would also have signaled to the United States that Seoul did not care if U.S. forces were vulnerable to North Korean missiles, since Thaad was a U.S. deployment. It seems Moon has now set his stance on this issue. But if he is challenged from the left, will he adjust again?


2. Will he reduce pressure on North Korea?

Moon has said that dialogue should be prioritized over pressure and that certain U.S.-ROK military exercises should be postponed to avoid provoking the North. This may be good campaign rhetoric, particularly given the reality that North Korea remains basically undeterred in its pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles. However, does Moon really believe that carrots will work with North Korea given the overwhelming evidence to the contrary over the past ten years? Opening talks in itself may not be harmful, but would he really postpone U.S.-ROK exercises and reduce the readiness of the alliance as a “carrot” for the North? I suspect the answer is no, but the question is in the air and will only embolden the North if not addressed at some point.


3. Would he reopen the comfort women issue with Japan?

This was not a popular agreement in Korea and Japanese public opinion is also becoming more negative because of the erection of a comfort woman statue in Pusan, contrary (from the Japanese perspective) to the terms of the December 2015 agreement between President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. But on such a sensitive issue it would be impossible to satisfy both sides and Moon’s call for a renegotiation of the deal to force Japan to accept full legal responsibility would only return Japan-ROK relations to a state of tension and confrontation with virtually no possibility of achieving a perfect deal. The international community would probably not side with Seoul in that event while Pyongyang and Beijing would be delighted at the disarray among U.S. allies. It is common in election politics to criticize diplomatic agreements reached by the government. (Diplomacy by necessity always involves some compromise). But in practice cancelling diplomatic agreements can be very costly. Would Moon?


4. Would he stand for human rights in North Korea?

Many of Moon’s supporters continue to believe that the governments of Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan committed far greater human rights abuses than North Korea ever did. This is an extreme view that makes no sense to rational observers around the world, but it continues to shape progressive politicians’ views on the abysmal human rights situation in the North. With the UN Commission of Inquiry and a crescendo of outrage around the world about the tragedy occurring within North Korea, a Moon administration would find itself completely isolated from the community of democratic nations and aligned with authoritarian regimes if it tried to reverse the positions of the Lee and Park governments.

Moon cannot be expected to necessarily stick to Lee and Park’s precise positions on human rights in North Korea. It may be possible for progressives to take a principled stand against human rights violations in the North without calling for regime change. But would a Moon government do that?


5. Will Moon run against Donald Trump?

It could be very tempting for any left-of-center candidate to use President Trump’s extreme statements as an excuse to ignite anti-Americanism and to undercut a more pro-U.S. conservative opponent. However, Moon would be wise to be cautious for several reasons.

First, public opinion in Korea remains strongly in favor of the U.S.-ROK alliance, despite concern about the disruptive 2016 election in the United States. Second, Prime Minister Abe’s recent summit with Trump suggests that the new administration might already be “normalizing”
its foreign policy. And third, Trump is not likely to remain quiet about personal criticism of him during the South Korean presidential campaign. Any impact would linger.

I expect that Moon would have a reasonable answer to all these questions in private. However, election politics and transitions to power in Korea (or the United States for that matter) can cause strange departures as politicians battle their opponents and seek more votes.
And to be fair, I promise to write a similar set of questions for the conservative front-runner.