Moon’s big­gest mis­sion in New York

The Korea Times - - OPINION - Choi Sung-jin Choi Sung-jin is a Korea Times colum­nist. Con­tact him at [email protected]

Pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in will leave for New York City, Sun­day, to at­tend the U.N. Gen­eral Assem­bly and hold talks with his U.S. coun­ter­part on the side­lines.

Most diplo­matic watch­ers be­lieve the main event of Moon’s five-day U.S. visit will be his meet­ing with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, rather than the mostly cer­e­mo­nial get-to­gether of global lead­ers held an­nu­ally around this time of year.

Usu­ally, they may be right to sup­pose so, but it has to be dif­fer­ent this year.

Much seems to be at stake in the Moon-Trump sum­mit, the ninth such meet­ing over the past 28 months or so — al­most one every three months.

The South Korean leader will fly to Amer­ica with three vi­tal ob­jec­tives. First of all, he needs to en­sure that the U.S.-North Korea work­ing-level de­nu­cle­ariza­tion talks, which are likely to re­sume in a few weeks, will lead to the even­tual nu­clear dis­ar­ma­ment of the reclu­sive coun­try.

Sec­ond, Moon must fill the cracks in the for­merly wa­ter­tight al­liance be­tween South Korea and the United States, re­sult­ing, most re­cently, from his govern­ment’s re­fusal to re­new a mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence-shar­ing pact with Ja­pan.

He may also have to stave off Trump’s de­mand to raise Seoul’s por­tion of the cost-shar­ing for sta­tion­ing U.S. troops in South Korea to as high as $5 bil­lion a year, five times the cur­rent amount.

Thirdly, Moon should per­suade his U.S. coun­ter­part to re­main at least neu­tral in Seoul’s diplo­matic dis­pute with Tokyo. It would be best if Moon can get Trump to tell Ja­pa­nese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe to back down.

All th­ese are far eas­ier said than done. Es­pe­cially so if the South Korean govern­ment and its leader keep a low pro­file and try to please all ma­jor part­ners as they have done so far.

Di­plo­macy of­ten re­quires hu­mil­ity or even a self-dep­re­cat­ing man­ner to at­tain long-term ben­e­fits. This is truer for coun­tries with rel­a­tively weaker na­tional power such as South Korea in deal­ing with their much larger and stronger coun­ter­parts.

How­ever, it is nec­es­sary some­times to stand up to oth­ers, how­ever close or pow­er­ful they may be, to demon­strate one’s pres­ence, and now seems to be that mo­ment for Seoul.

South Korea has be­come the punch­ing bag of North­east Asia even be­fore it re­al­izes it. Ja­pan un­der Abe ap­pears set to ig­nore Seoul com­pletely, con­tin­u­ing to down­grade its strate­gic im­por­tance and im­pos­ing “re­tal­ia­tory eco­nomic sanc­tions” ap­par­ently for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons.

China made sim­i­lar moves years ago when South Korea al­lowed the U.S. to de­ploy a mis­sile de­fense sys­tem here, by clos­ing its doors to the lat­ter’s com­mer­cial and cul­tural ex­ports.

The U.S., a long­time blood ally of South Korea, is lit­tle bet­ter. Pres­i­dent Trump is treat­ing North Korea as a baby to soothe, and South Korea like an ATM of sorts.

He raised a stir here re­cently by ridi­cul­ing South Korea and its leader, say­ing, “It was eas­ier to get a bil­lion dol­lars from South Korea than to get $114.13 from a rent-con­trolled apart­ment in Brook­lyn …” Trump then mim­icked Moon’s ac­cent while de­scrib­ing how the lat­ter caved in to his de­mands.

Even North Korea is re­sum­ing its tac­tics of com­mu­ni­cat­ing di­rectly with the U.S. while hurl­ing in­sults at the South and its Pres­i­dent. It was only three months ago that the South Korean Pres­i­dent ar­ranged a one-on-one meet­ing be­tween Trump and Kim Jong-un at the truce vil­lage of Pan­munjeom, re­viv­ing the dy­ing flame of their bi­lat­eral con­tacts de­spite the jeers from Moon’s po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents.

Py­ongyang has since launched 10 short-range mis­siles, mak­ing it no se­cret that their po­ten­tial tar­gets in­clude South Korea. Pres­i­dent Trump all but en­cour­aged Kim, say­ing he was not con­cerned about the mis­sile tests and Py­ongyang can con­duct mil­i­tary drills as other coun­tries do. With friends like that, one hardly needs en­e­mies.

I can’t help but won­der what made South Korea, the world’s top10 eco­nomic and mil­i­tary power, the laugh­ing stock in this part of the world. It may be that too much mod­esty to ac­com­plish Seoul’s ul­ti­mate goal of re­uni­fy­ing this di­vided penin­sula in peace­ful ways, is be­ing used no mat­ter what.

If the sur­round­ing pow­ers and their lead­ers are set to ex­ploit this coun­try’s dire wishes, how­ever, Pres­i­dent Moon and his diplo­mats need to take the tac­tic of an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.

In their New York sum­mit, Moon should tell Trump why South Korea can­not be an ally of Ja­pan un­less and un­til Tokyo ac­knowl­edges its his­tor­i­cal wrongs and makes proper moves of self-re­flec­tion; this coun­try can­not be a pil­lar of the al­liance against a spe­cific coun­try, say China, in a re­newed Cold War regime; and it can­not dras­ti­cally raise its share of the cost for U.S. troops here be­cause they are not just for pos­si­ble mil­i­tary con­flicts with the North, but part of the U.S. global strat­egy.

Most of all, Seoul should not re­store the in­for­ma­tion-shar­ing treaty with Ja­pan un­der the pre­text of form­ing a joint front against the North Korean threat.

North Korea, even in­clud­ing its nu­clear ar­se­nal, was ranked 18th in world­wide mil­i­tary might in 2018, ac­cord­ing to Global Fire­power, a U.S. site spe­cial­iz­ing in the mil­i­tary power of coun­tries. South Korea ranks sev­enth, one notch higher than even Ja­pan.

Be­sides, the South’s econ­omy is al­most 50 times larger than the North’s. All this does not, of course, mean Seoul could stand alone, need­ing no al­lies. How­ever, the na­tion some­times needs to stand up to its larger part­ners, let alone its weaker and smaller neigh­bor in the north, mak­ing clear its likes and dis­likes and readi­ness to quar­rel till the end.

Seoul’s best weapon is its peo­ple who pur­sue peace, fair­ness and hu­man­i­tar­i­an­ism as well as a work­ing democ­racy, how­ever. China and Ja­pan, not to speak of North Korea, have been un­der one-party rule or some­thing sim­i­lar over the past seven decades or so. In­ter­na­tional pun­dits place South Korea’s democ­racy even higher than that of the U.S. and many Eu­ro­pean coun­tries.

So Pres­i­dent Moon’s most im­por­tant mis­sion dur­ing his New York stay is to make such prin­ci­ples clear be­fore the world rather than strug­gling with Trump, who has lit­tle else but money and his re-elec­tion in mind.

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