A major gap between liberal and conservative priorities exists in South Korea. Seoul’s liberal leadership is driven by a pro-North Korean ideology clearly evidenced just last November.
Its president, Moon Jae-in, rejected a request to meet with an American couple whose son died after being brutalized by Pyongyang.
The request came from the Warmbiers, parents of Otto — the American student arrested in North Korea in 2016 and tried for subversion simply for removing a pro-Kim poster. Otto spent 17 months in prison before being returned to the U.S. in a vegetative state, only to die six days later.
Timing was not an issue; the visiting Warmbiers were flexible. Conservatives were upset that Moon claimed to be too busy for them, however, as only days later Moon met with U2’s lead vocalist Bono, who heaped praise upon him for his peaceful approach to the North. Thus, Moon’s sole motivation for snubbing the Warmbiers was not to offend their son’s killer, dictator Kim Jong-un.
Moon, upon winning election in 2017, implemented a North Korea foreign policy proven unsuccessful almost two decades earlier. In a throwback to Seoul’s disastrous 1998 “Sunshine Policy,” once again the South surrendered much while getting little back in return. To curry Kim’s favor, Moon sought independent initiatives in violation of U.S. sanctions.
Fellow liberals seem content with Moon’s “temporary nuclear confrontation avoidance” policy that only buries the fact Pyongyang is building a nuclear arsenal. Ignoring this threat, liberals instead direct criticism at U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris — a retired admiral and the first American of Japanese descent to head U.S. Pacific Forces.
Criticism of Harris has nothing to do with U.S.-Korean foreign policy but with his facial hair!
He effectively is being taken to task on social media and other platforms for growing a mustache. Despite World War II’s end 75 years ago, hatred for anything Japanese lingers. While Harris’ heritage is visibly discernible, the addition of a mustache has brought back memories — at least for some South Korean snowflakes — of the reviled, brutal mustachioed Japanese rulers once occupying the Korean peninsula.
It seems young South Korean liberals now need their “safe space.” Ironically, one senses they choose to find it distancing themselves from the U.S. ambassador while moving closer to a brutal North Korean regime!
The mustache has apparently led to other criticisms, such as against U.S. efforts to recoup expenses in stationing 40,000 troops defending against an invasion. Trump seeks a 400-percent payment increase. It remains to be seen what the art of the deal will yield.
Meanwhile, Moon acts like a jilted lover. Eager to bond with Kim, he seeks to resume cross-border group tours, halted a decade ago, to the North’s scenic Mt. Kumgang. He does so despite Kim wanting nothing to do with Seoul.
Pyongyang‘s disdain for Moon was obvious following his 2020 New Year’s message, hoping to explore mutual cooperative efforts, which the North labeled as “foolish dreams.” Harris publicly criticized Moon’s independent initiatives as sending the wrong message sanctions might be lifted.
For South Korean conservatives, however, the issue is North Korea’s nukes. Numerous protests, led by activist Reverend Jun Kwang-hoon, have cited displeasure with Moon’s appeasement policy. Moon undoubtedly feared a meeting with the Warmbiers might give critics fuel to criticize Kim while one with Bono would give his fellow liberals fuel to keep supporting their president.
Moon has little idea what Kim’s motives are. What is known is Kim does not play domestic politics as did his grandfather or father. The former struck a delicate balance between the country’s two pillars of power — the military and the party — while the latter favored the army with a “military first” policy.
Kim plays a riskier game of alternating favorites. An equal opportunity killer of members from both power bases, he has reportedly executed a general for napping during a military event and executed his uncle for treason. He recently relieved his foreign minister, replacing him with Ri Son-gwon, a prominent military official with no foreign policy expertise.
This “musical chairs” approach to governing, where someone favored one day is out the next, has resulted in senior North Korean defectors suggesting Kim lacks the absolute authority his grandfather and father had. If so, Kim clearly does not wish to give the appearance of weakness to his military by bending to external demands he end his nuclear weapons program. The selection of a hawkish new foreign minister suggests he seeks tougher negotiations after failing to gain concessions from President Donald Trump at their Hanoi summit meeting.
Trump has made it clear the next move is Kim’s; meanwhile, Moon paints a picture for domestic consumption it is “too early to be pessimistic” a stand-off exists.
The need for a “tough guy” persona undoubtedly led to Kim’s initial claim the world was in store for a “Christmas gift” surprise last year, causing the U.S. to go on alert. U.S. satellites had identified new work undertaken to expand buildings used for intercontinental ballistic missile launcher production, leading to the belief the surprise was missile-related. This was followed by Kim’s declaration the last day of 2019 that Pyongyang would unveil “in the near future” a new strategic weapon and also announcing an end to a moratorium on nuclear weapons and ballistic missile testing.
Despite Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach towards Pyongyang seeking to further devastate its economy — contrary to Barack Obama’s do-nothing “strategic patience” approach — the result has been the same: no voluntary denuclearization. This is a message a North Korean defector has long been sounding, one South Korean conservatives now accept.
Kim’s need to project toughness makes it doubtful Trump will win any concessions before the 2020 presidential election.
But, in a nutshell, “how goes the North’s nuclear arms program, so probably goes Kim.” While this is a top concern for South Korea’s conservatives, liberals focus on much less important issues.
Sixty-seven years after a hot war ended on the Korean peninsula, liberals need to grasp the reality that “temporary nuclear confrontation avoidance” makes for a very unsafe Seoul.
Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of “Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields,” “Living the Juche Lie: North Korea’s Kim Dynasty” and “Doomsday: Iran–The Clock is Ticking.” He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.