Moon’s failure to lead the Korean peninsula is now evident with the Japan restricting exports to South Korea while the North gains leverage with Trump
Ever since the former South Korean President Park Geun-hye was unexpectedly arrested and jailed, her successor Moon Jae-in has made considerable achievements.
Under the efforts of the new Korean government led by Moon, South Korea-China relations gradually broke free from the THAAD issue, and the North Korea nuclear issue showed signs of substantial thawing as well.
In a sense, Moon was pulling South Korea back from the edge of regional conflicts. With this achievement, Moon has won considerable support within the Korean government, especially the military. However, such achievements are weakened with the recent trade dispute between Japan and South Korea.
Due to the relative disadvantages in the key industry chain, the Japanese government’s recent export restrictions have caused South Korea to face huge economic downward pressure.
Under the dual effects of the global economic slowdown and the trade dispute between Japan and South Korea, South Korea’s foreign trade volume has experienced a continuous decline for nine months, which has had a huge impact on South Korea, a country highly dependent on export trade.
On this basis, the government is facing tremendous policy pressure, and the abolition of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan actually signals its last move.
The logic behind it is that South Korea is using the survival of the regional alliance system as a bargaining chip to make Japan abandon its existing policies or force the United States to intervene. In its essence, this is nothing more than a political gamble.
So far, the effect of Moon’s political gambles has been less than ideal. While there has been a growing call in the U.S. policy community for the U.S. government to intervene, there is no specific response from top policymakers including Trump, Pompeo or even Bolton (who got fired this week).
Some senior U.S. officials even bristle at South Korea’s failure to take care of the overall situation. In contrast, although trade barriers would affect the economy of the Japanese in the long run, Abe’s government is aware that Japan’s ability to withstand the trade barriers far exceeds that of South Korea.
They are also aware of the fact that South Korea will be almost impossible to abandon the U.S. alliance system due to the unsolved Korean nuclear issue. South Korea’s move to withdrawing from the intelligence-sharing agreement is more of diplomatic blackmail than anything else. As a result, Tokyo has almost categorically rejected the South Korean Prime Minister’s “trade for information” offer.
According to the logic of this event, the main motivation for Japan to restrict exports this time is the dissatisfaction with its declining influence in regional affairs and the hope of resolving the unresolved historical dispute of wartime labor between Japan and South Korea.
Besides, under the influence of identity recognition, Japanese people and companies have reached a rare consensus with Abe’s government on measures to restrict exports.
Abe’s dominance within the Liberal Democratic Party also means that the government is unlikely to change its policies because of partisan political factors. Therefore, the Japanese government has strong support from both international and domestic factors, hence it does not have the motivation to change the current policy.
On this basis, the likelihood of Moon political failure is growing by the day. While Moon has maintained high approval ratings among ordinary South Koreans under ideological factors such as nationalism, there are now divisions within the South Korean government.
The reason is that when diplomacy has run its course, many South Korean interest groups have come to believe, although not entirely, that Moon’s ouster could provide a new opportunity for the current deadlock. Even opposition leaders accused Moon of withdrawing from the intelligence-sharing agreement to divert public attention from his scandal-plagued aides.
This internal pressure will continue to increase as long as South Korea’s economy sinks, eventually making Moon a victim of national interests.
However, Moon certainly does not want to end his political career at this point of time, especially given that his ouster does not guarantee a settlement of Japan-ROK trade disputes. Given the precedent of South Korea’s trial of its former Presidents, he will definitely go to great lengths to protect his political career.
He now has two possible options: First, to preserve his political career by maintaining his stance, using nationalism to shore up his popularity, and expecting Japan to buckle under tensions and be the first to compromise in the prolonged confrontation.
Second, by taking the initiative to change the situation in northeast Asia. This means to show Japan and the United States the importance of South Korea in maintaining regional stability, thereby influencing their current policies. For Moon, the most likely breakthrough would be cooperation between the two Koreas.
In fact, Moon has previously proposed a plan to reunify the two Koreas around 2045. However, North Korea has not responded enthusiastically to this. In addition, this status quo could change as the current U.S.-North Korea talks come to a standstill.
At present, the Korean nuclear issue is in a stalemate. The Trump administration has abandoned its previous policy of applying extreme pressures, but it still cannot tolerate North Korea as a de facto nuclear weapon state.
At the same time, domestic criticism of its move is increasing. North Korea, on the other hand, despite having a current international environment that is far better than the situation in 2017 when war was on the verge of breaking out, still hopes that the United States will lift the sanctions that was imposed on it, so as to achieve its economic liberalization and development.
At the same time, for its own security and regime legitimacy, North Korea is unlikely to accept the U.S. conditions for a “full nuclear disarmament” unless there is a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula.
Therefore, the United States and North Korea are stuck in a stalemate over the North Korean nuclear issue, with neither side able to make more concessions.
As a direct participant in the North Korean nuclear issue, South Korea is undoubtedly one of the core countries on the issue. This means that both the U.S. and North Korea have a certain degree of dependence on South Korea, which creates an objective possibility for Moon to once again dominate the North Korean nuclear issue.