On May 7, 2017, two days before Moon Jae-in’s historic election as South Korea’s president, I interviewed the former human-rights lawyer after he spoke to a campaign rally in Gwangju, the industrial city in Korea’s southwest famous for its 1980 citizens’ uprising against a US-backed military government.
Moon had just pledged to 2,000 cheering supporters gathered in front of the city’s high-speed rail station to “raise my voice loudly” to ensure that Seoul was in the lead in any dealings with North Korea. This was a reference to President Donald Trump, whose escalating rhetoric against North Korea was frightening Korean voters and had raised tensions in Asia to a boiling point.
As we sat down to talk in the stationmaster’s office, I asked Moon about the pundits and officials in Washington who were complaining about his pledge to continue the “Sunshine Policy” of his progressive predecessors, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Was Moon concerned about predictions that his laser focus on engagement and dialogue with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would create fissures with the Trump administration and shake up the US-South Korean alliance?
His answer was an emphatic no. “I don’t agree,” Moon said, his face breaking into a wide smile. “To solve the North Korea nuclear problem is in both our common interests. If South Korea takes an active role, that would be helpful to the United States and would relieve the US burden.” Trump, he said, “would also sympathize with my idea and understand me on this issue.”
What I witnessed in that interview was the beginning of Moon’s months-long effort to seize control over the Korea crisis and turn it into a peace process that would ensure that the Korean people were protected from the outbreak of a second destructive war. Today, it’s clear that his gamble has paid off—big time—with one of the biggest political reversals in the history of US foreign policy: Trump’s momentous decision—after months of hair-raising confrontation—to meet face to face with the leader of North Korea, an unprecedented step for a sitting US president.
Moon’s words that day last spring were “prophetic and right on the mark, and he’s done exactly what he said,” says Joseph DeTrani, a former CIA analyst who was a US envoy for the “Six-Party Talks” during the Bush administration. Looking back, in an interview with The Nation, at the events that led up to Trump’s decision to meet with Kim, DeTrani said that “Moon Jae-in has not only taken the lead, he’s taken the lead and run with it in a very impressive way. He has handled this brilliantly.”
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, of course, claim that Moon’s success is due to the US “maximum pressure” campaign of military threats and sanctions. But that alone would not have brought Kim to the table, says Suzanne DiMaggio, a skilled negotiator with the New America Foundation who has been meeting with North Korean diplomats regularly in what’s called the “Track II” process. “The other major factor is the diplomatic heavy lifting and finessing done by President Moon and his colleagues to get us to this point,” she said.