Skep­ti­cism ris­ing in South Korea ahead of sum­mit with North

The Freeman - - OPINION -

SEOUL, South Korea — The shine is start­ing to come off South Korean Pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in's en­gage­ment strat­egy with the North.

The lib­eral politi­cian, who re­versed nearly a decade of con­ser­va­tive hard-line pol­icy to­ward North Korea af­ter his elec­tion last year, is pre­par­ing for a third sum­mit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un amid grow­ing pub­lic skep­ti­cism about his ap­proach.

Moon, who goes to Py­ongyang on Tues­day, has seen his ap­proval rat­ing fall to 49 per­cent in a re­cent Gallup Korea sur­vey, the first time it dipped be­low 50 per­cent since he took of­fice in May 2017 promis­ing bet­ter ties with North Korea and po­lit­i­cal re­form. Moon's ap­proval rat­ing stood at 83 per­cent af­ter his first sum­mit with Kim in April.

South Kore­ans are di­vided over whether this week's sum­mit in Py­ongyang will help break a stale­mate over nu­clear diplo­macy be­tween the US and North Korea, ac­cord­ing to an­other sur­vey re­leased in early Septem­ber. By com­par­i­son, sur­veys af­ter the April sum­mit found over­whelm­ing sup­port for Moon from a pub­lic fas­ci­nated with the his­toric hand­shakes, bor­der cross­ings and other dra­matic scenes the two lead­ers pro­duced af­ter years of ris­ing ten­sions.

"Our peo­ple are be­gin­ning to learn that North Korea will not eas­ily give up its nukes, some­thing that many ex­perts had al­ready re­peat­edly pre­dicted," said Kim Tae­woo, for­mer pres­i­dent of the gov­ern­ment-funded Korea In­sti­tute for Na­tional Uni­fi­ca­tion in Seoul.

Moon may face in­creas­ing dif­fi­cul­ties if his sum­mit with Kim in Py­ongyang fails to make tan­gi­ble progress on ef­forts to get North Korea to scrap its nu­clear weapons pro­gram.

Eco­nomic woes such as a lack­lus­ter job-mar­ket growth and soar­ing real es­tate prices are com­pound­ing Moon's prob­lems, adding to op­po­si­tion to his North Korea pol­icy, many ex­perts say.

"If Moon fails to ad­dress eco­nomic prob­lems, he can't main­tain pub­lic con­tent­ment with his gov­ern­ment only with his North Korea pol­icy," said Nam Sung-wook, a pro­fes­sor at Korea Univer­sity. "If the econ­omy gets worse, many peo­ple will de­mand that Moon stop look­ing to North Korea and start re­solv­ing our own eco­nomic prob­lems."

Moon knows how im­por­tant pub­lic sup­port is for his North Korea pol­icy. Most ma­jor de­tente projects with North Korea started by his lib­eral pre­de­ces­sors dur­ing a 1998-2008 "Sun­shine Era" were sus­pended af­ter con­ser­va­tives took power. Moon hasn't been able to re­vive them be­cause of US-led eco­nomic sanc­tions on North Korea.

Lib­eral pres­i­dents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun en­dured with­er­ing con­ser­va­tive crit­i­cism that their lit­tle-stringsat­tached ship­ments of aid and co­op­er­a­tion projects with North Korea helped fi­nance the North's weapons pro­gram. Moon served as Roh's chief of staff and was in charge of prepa­ra­tions for Roh's 2007 sum­mit with Kim's fa­ther, for­mer North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

South Korean politics is char­ac­ter­ized by a fun­da­men­tal con­ser­va­tive-lib­eral di­vide over how to view North Korea. Lib­er­als con­sider the North one to rec­on­cile with while con­ser­va­tives see it more as an en­emy state that poses a sig­nif­i­cant se­cu­rity threat.

Hyung-Jin Kim

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