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Can South Korea’s President Moon Make Peace With North Korea?

Will South Korea’s president be able to create peace with his quarrelsome northern neighbor, or will he stumble over economic weaknesses at home?

Published on January 9, 2019

How popular is President Moon Jae-in in South Korea?

South Koreans see Moon as a progressive and pragmatic politician. However, they are unconvinced of his ability to handle economic policy.

Moon is more popular than almost any other president in South Korean history. He began his presidency with an 81 percent approval rating, and remained above 70 percent until July 2018, according to Gallup Korea’s opinion polls (link is in Korean).

But his popularity is waning. This is not unusual in itself. South Korean presidents serve a single five-year term, but they tend to lose steam by the second half of their presidency. Around the halfway mark, other politicians start to focus on the next election and stop making as much of an effort to help the president fulfil earlier campaign promises. Although Moon’s approval rating remains high, it dropped below 50 percent for the first time in early December according to a Realmeter and YTN poll.

Why does Moon’s shifting popularity matter?

Three months after taking office, Moon announced an ambitious five-year plan. It included a reformist economic policy with higher corporate and real estate taxes, rooting out corruption, reducing reliance on nuclear energy, and defense reform.

A year and a half into his presidency, however, the economic policies Moon has put in place have not jumpstarted the Korean economy.  Rapid increases in the minimum wage, shorter working hours, higher corporate tax rates, and haphazard housing policies have all contributed to anemic growth, without many jobs created.

South Korea’s youth unemployment has been consistently above 9 percent over the past four years, and 48.6 percent of elderly South Koreans live in poverty, the highest of the thirty-four OECD countries.

These issues are extremely important to his progressive base. If Moon cannot deliver, he risks losing their support—even if his inter-Korean policies remain popular, and especially if those policies become expensive.

Historical Presidential Approval Ratings
  • Roh Tae-Woo
    Roh Tae-Woo
  • Kim Young-sam
    Kim Young-sam
  • Kim Dae-jung
    Kim Dae-jung
  • Roh Moo-hyun
    Roh Moo-hyun
  • Lee Myung-bak
    Lee Myung-bak
  • Park Geun-hye
    Park Geun-hye

Why do people like him, or not?

When polled, the people who say that Moon is “doing a good job” cite his North Korea policy. After each major inter-Korean summit, his approval rating gets a temporary boost.

But Korea is the world’s eleventh-largest economy, and its voters ultimately vote with their pockets. They support Moon’s engagement with the North, but they don’t want to spend tens of billions of tax dollars on inter-Korean projects without tangible benefits. Moon’s economic policies have not caused significant economic growth or new jobs—two of his big campaign promises.

By November 2018, half of all people who do not support Moon told pollsters that his economic policies were the reason they gave him a lower rating. Only about one to two percent of his supporters said his economic record was the reason they had a positive opinion of him.

There seems to be a growing sense of hubris in Moon’s administration. Despite his faltering economic reforms, Moon has refused to change course. Nor has he fulfilled his promises to create a more transparent government, entrust greater power to the cabinet, or work closely with opposition parties.

These choices may come back to haunt Moon if his party performs poorly in the next election.

Does Moon’s background as a human rights lawyer affect how he governs?

Moon has strong progressive leanings. These are rooted in his human rights advocacy work, his left-of-center political activism, and his ties with liberal grassroots organizations.

However, when it comes to human rights in North Korea, he has remained silent since becoming president, in order to avoid derailing engagement with Kim Jong Un.

He has also concentrated power in the presidential office—breaking a campaign pledge—after the former president was impeached over corruption.

What is driving Moon’s attempts to make peace with North Korea?

Moon is a soft-spoken politician who connects with the public, but his smooth demeanor shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of focus.

He is convinced that he can create peace on the Korean Peninsula by declaring an end to the Korean War armistice that has been in place since 1953, signing a permanent peace treaty, and putting into place security measures to prevent future conflicts.

Moon has spent the bulk of his political capital on this agenda. It is his number one priority. Moon wants to be remembered as the president who brought enduring peace between the two Koreas. He wants to leave his lasting legacy on inter-Korean détente and ensure that bilateral economic, political, and military agreements remain irreversible.

People on the left believe this is essential for inter-Korean rapprochement and peace. But those on the right fear that peace might come at the expense of South Korea’s national security. They worry about watering down South Korea’s critical alliance with the United States, and reducing the number of U.S. troops in South Korea, while North Korea gets to keep its nuclear program.

Why has Moon taken such a conciliatory approach?

There is a major divide over how to deal with North Korea between progressives and conservatives in South Korea.

Conservatives, like former presidents Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak, have traditionally taken a hardline approach. They are skeptical about engagement and emphasize South Korea’s alliance with the United States as a deterrent.

South Korean progressives, like Moon, believe that North Korea developed its nuclear program because of insecurity, much of which is caused by United States and the U.S.-South Korean alliance. They reason that if North Korea is granted concessions that make it feel less threatened, then it will be willing to negotiate on its nuclear weapons. Such allowances might include a peace treaty ending the Korean War, no more U.S.–South Korean military exercises, and security guarantees from the United States.

This is a chicken and egg situation. Like his fellow progressives, Moon believes concessions from the United States and South Korea should come first in order to encourage North Korea to act. Conservatives believe there should be no concessions without concrete action from North Korea first.

How do North Korea, Japan, and China view Moon?

Moon has a closer relationship with the North Korean leader than any of his predecessors. Kim Jong-un hopes that Moon’s policies will help him get relief from international pressure, orchestrate inter-Korean economic projects, and scale back international sanctions. The two leaders also agree on the importance of shared Korean nationalism on inter-Korean issues and minimizing foreign powers’ involvement.

China also likes Moon’s deeper engagement with North Korea. For the first time, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Seoul’s strategic interests have aligned.

However, there are two caveats. First, China will continue to pressure South Korea not to increase its military capabilities and to reduce its security cooperation with the United States and Japan. Second, despite warmer ties with Beijing, Moon does not want too much Chinese economic or political influence on the two Koreas.

Japan has an ambivalent view of Moon. The two countries have differing perceptions of history, and Japan fears that Moon’s fast-tracked détente with North Korea could come at the expense of Japanese security.

How is Moon’s relationship with his political opposition?

Politics in South Korea is nearly always zero-sum, with little bipartisan cooperation. Moon had a real chance to forge a bipartisan partnership after he was elected in a nearly unanimous rebuke of Park Geun-hye’s cloistered and corrupt approach to governance. Leading up to her impeachment, Park had an approval rating of just 4 percent.

But opposition politicians see Moon’s anti-corruption campaign—which led to the imprisonment of two former presidents and other high-ranking officials—as an attempt to squash dissent. Meanwhile, rather than collaborating with the 300 members of South Korea’s elected legislature to ratify the Pyongyang Declaration (an agreement to reduce tensions, signed after the third summit between the two Korean leaders), Moon chose to ratify it in a meeting with his cabinet. Any wide-ranging cooperation with the opposition now will be nearly impossible.

What might threaten Moon’s relationship with the United States?

So far, Moon has shown diplomatic agility, but he will need to be even more nimble. 

One big concern is how he will protect the all-important alliance with the United States.

The U.S.–South Korean alliance is largely justified by a need to defend against North Korea. If Moon presses for a peace treaty, effectively declaring that North Korea is no longer a threat, this may prompt North Korea, China, and Moon’s own party to seek changes to the alliance. The United States and South Korea must be prepared to decide what those changes might look like.

Moon must walk a tightrope between keeping international sanctions on North Korea, while encouraging the international community to gradually loosen them to jumpstart nuclear negotiations. To be successful, he also must not alienate the United States.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.