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A new Moon

Nov 13,2019
이미지뷰
이미지뷰
President Moon Jae-in makes a speech before convening a meeting with his senior aides at the Blue House on Monday. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]
Nam Jeong-ho
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

If the Moon Jae-in administration fails to renew the Korea-Japan General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) before it expires at midnight Nov. 22, it will go down in history as one of Korea’s biggest diplomatic blunders. It could even beat former President Lee Myung-bak’s foolish visit to the Dokdo islets in 2012. Since that symbolic presidential claim over the islets in the East Sea, bilateral relations have never recovered.

The two situations are identical in many ways.

First, both leaders ignored the opinions of the government offices in charge of security and foreign affairs. Withdrawing from the mutual intelligence-sharing pact was opposed by the Defense Ministry, Foreign Ministry and National Intelligence Service (NIS). Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo told a parliamentary hearing that the decision to walk out of Gsomia in response to Tokyo’s export restrictions should be “considered prudently,” given the benefits of the military pact. A day later, the Blue House announced its intention to terminate it. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha also reportedly advised not to renounce the pact “in view of the tripartite security alliance among Korea, the United States and Japan” in an informal meeting.

NIS Director Suh Hoon most vehemently opposed that move. In a parliamentary hearing early August, he said nullifying Gsomia should be “prudently” considered because of its practical and symbolic benefits. But the National Security Council chaired by President Moon nevertheless announced the withdrawal. Whether the decision was made by the president himself, or whether he was misguided by his aides, opinions of the most relevant offices were clearly ignored.

The same happened at the time of former President Lee’s Dokdo visit. The Foreign Ministry strongly advised against it. A senior diplomat regretted later that the ministry had not protested harder to talk the president out of the idea. Then-Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan indirectly voiced a compliant, saying the Foreign Ministry could not be involved because the visit originally had been scheduled as a presidential tour around local areas.

Second, in both cases, bilateral ties with Japan were used for political purposes. The withdrawal from Gsomia was announced in late August when the controversy over the appointment of Cho Kuk as justice minister was raging. Negative views (49.2 percent) about President Moon narrowly outpaced positive ones (46.7 percent) in a poll at the time. Some speculated the bombshell announcement was intended to turn public attention away from the Cho Kuk affair. Ex-president Lee went ahead with his controversial visit to Dokdo when his approval rating plunged to the 20 percent level, following the arrest of his brother Lee Sang-deuk on bribery charges. Both cases seemed to be a president exploiting the innate negative public sentiment towards Japan to help raise his approval ratings.

Third, both cases were worsened by fiery rhetoric. After Tokyo resorted to export barriers in the wake of the Korean Supreme Court’s rulings on wartime forced labor, Moon declared he would never give in to Japan. Lee also irked Japan by demanding the Japanese emperor apologize to Korean independence fighters if he wished to visit South Korea. Both leaders were stubborn enough to dismiss advice from experts and let emotions guide them – at the expense of major diplomatic harm to the nation.

What now? Dillydallying in search of a way to reverse the decision can do more harm. If Moon had let Cho Kuk go earlier, he could have reduced the damage to his presidency and society. If Gsomia is not renewed, the ramifications could be huge.

It is braver and wiser for a leader to acknowledge a misjudgment. Former President Roh Moon-hyun dramatically changed his engagement policy towards North Korea after it carried out its first nuclear test in October 2006. In a press conference after the nuclear test, he said it was difficult to maintain his policy. “We cannot stay all-engaging no matter what North Korea does,” he said. A newspaper wrote an editorial titled “Is this really the same president that we knew?”

Moon must take an equally bold measure, and opponents and supporters alike may soon be asking if this is the same president they have known.

Missteps could be repeated if the Blue House continues to disregard the opinions of experts in his administration. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” American philosopher George Santayana famously said.