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Han: A Korean Moon Shot

When U.S. President Donald Trump sat down with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last week in Hanoi to reopen talks for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, the world watched with curiosity and trepidation. American demands for North Korean denuclearization met Kim’s desire for the removal of extensive economic sanctions and the halting of American-South Korean joint-military drills. The result? No deal. Regardless, with all the buzz around Trump and Kim’s second meeting, it would be easy to think the summit was solely a result of work between diplomats of the two countries. However, one shouldn’t discount the months of work done by Kim’s southern counterpart: South Korean president Moon Jae-in. Moon Jae-in has staked his legacy on resolving the North Korean problem, relying on the hope that his behind-the-scenes work can compel President Trump and Chairman Kim to move past platitudes. However, with the second summit closing with no significant progress, Moon, whose personal diplomacy with both Trump and Kim lead to rapprochement from both nations and facilitated  the two summits in the first place, enters into dangerous waters, his political survival hanging in the balance. Inter-Korean relations have become integral to Moon’s strength within South Korea and the failure of a deal leaves the leader in limbo as he struggles to prove his foreign policy to an increasingly skeptical electorate, who has grown dissatisfied with his domestic initiatives.

Since his election in 2017, Moon, who leads the liberal Democratic Party of Korea, has revived the “Sunshine Policy”—which arose in the late 1990s and focuses on inter-Korean cooperation, reconciliation, and economic assistance—and worked towards rapprochement and denuclearization on the Korean peninsula. Last spring, Moon met Kim on the Korean border and in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, setting the stage for the Hanoi summit. His approval rating surged over 80% as South Koreans viewed him as instrumental in defusing potential military conflict between the U.S. and North Korea. Furthermore, Moon has pushed for greater inter-Korean cooperation as he announced that both Koreas would submit a joint bid to host the 2032 Summer Olympics. Moon has used sporting events to help bring together both Koreas multiple times during his tenure, most notably when both Korean teams competed together at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. This event allowed for high ranking North Korean officials to cross into South Korea for the first time since the Korean War in the 1950s. Moon’s inter-Korean actions have helped him encourage both Kim and Trump to meet again as he has routinely intermediated between the two leaders in order to preserve rapprochement.

Moon, whose administration has often been defined by his foreign policy, has struggled with declining popularity on domestic issues. Since his peak last spring, his poll numbers in February 2019 have fallen to below 50% as domestic issues have waned Moon’s popularity. Most notably, Moon’s progressive economic policies of raising taxes on high-income earners and increasing the minimum wage have led to his domestic problems. The country has seen damage to small businesses, a decrease in economic growth, and increased unemployment. Furthermore, Young Koreans, a traditional base for Moon’s Democratic Party, have grown critical due to the failure to create new jobs. However, it should be noted that while Moon’s economic policies have led to issues in the short run, unemployment has been slowly decreasing in recent reports. This may signal that this economic turmoil may eventually resolve itself as the country adjusts, though Moon’s policies currently still beget broad dissatisfaction. In addition, Moon’s government overall has faced further criticism beyond the economy as multiple members of Moon’s ruling party have been embroiled in allegations of sexual misconduct and other scandals, damaging the party’s popularity even more.

The long-term aftermath to the Hanoi summit and Moon’s future both remain to be seen. Many South Koreans, while still concerned with national security, care more about domestic policies and economic growth. A growing number are becoming skeptical of Moon’s foreign initiatives, viewing them as ultimately ineffective. While Trump has stated that he’s open to another summit with Kim, the efficacy of these meetings remains in question as no denuclearization deal has been achieved. As North-Korean and American relations continue to develop, the focus should also be on Moon Jae-in, and his behind the scenes actions to ensure greater diplomacy.