After a month in office, President Moon Jae-in continues to bask in 80 percent-plus approval ratings. This does not mean, however, he is doing a good job in every matter. North Korea is one area of concern.
One sign of disorientation in Moon’s North Korea policy came in his efforts to appease the Pyongyang government through civilian aid, which was largely suppressed during the previous nine years of two conservative governments.
Determined to reverse the trend, the Moon administration has given the go-ahead to 15 North Korea aid programs pushed by civilian and religious groups from the South.
Moon braved criticism that such a peace overture would send the wrong signals not only to the North, but also the international community, which is engaged in a standoff over the communist country’s nuclear and missile threats.
What Moon got was a slap in the face. North Korea rejected all the proposals outright, with its propaganda outlets demanding the Seoul government lift sanctions it imposed on the North first.
That means Moon’s nascent North Korea policy has hit a snag, and worse yet, has little prospects for success. Moon had argued that the South -- despite tensions over the North’s nuclear and missile provocations -- should seek to improve relations with the North, and insisted that one such way is promoting civilian exchanges and humanitarian aid. The North’s response shows it only wants the South to choose between dialogue and sanctions, not sit on the fence.
Another, yet bigger, disorientation in Moon’s policy is with the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system in South Korea.
The president ordered an investigation into allegations the Ministry of National Defense intentionally kept him in the dark over the arrival of additional launchers for the THAAD battery. Then he ordered a thorough assessment of the missile shield system’s impacts on the environment, which could take from six months to one year.
All those actions and statements are made in the name of “transparency” and “democratic process” in bringing the US missile defense system into the country. For all the rhetoric, however, it is apparent that Moon seeks to delay the deployment of the THAAD battery.
It would be strange if US officials and politicians did not cast suspicious eyes toward the South Korean government’s position on THAAD. Reuters reported Monday that US diplomats had sought clarification from Seoul as to whether the environmental review was a “prelude” for a rejection of the whole THAAD battery.
The report followed a White House meeting US President Donald Trump -- in the heat of his Russia scandal -- had with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis last week.
State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert did not give the details of their discussions, but said the US is aware of the “suspension” of the THAAD deployment and that it would continue to work closely with South Korea.
The US Defense Department said in a statement that it trusts South Korea’s official stance that the THAAD deployment was an alliance decision and will not be reversed. Obviously, US officials are worried about an about-face on the part of Seoul.
Congressional members are more outspoken. Sen. Dick Durbin, who met Moon during his recent visit to Seoul, did not conceal his frustration with the fact that THAAD is being resubmitted for what he called “political debate” in South Korea. “I can’t follow their logic,” he said.
Durbin, who told Moon in Seoul that Washington could use the $923 million needed for the THAAD battery elsewhere if Seoul does not want the missile shield, also raised worries that Moon may see a “better chance” working with China, which vehemently oppose the missile defense system, to contain North Korea than with the US.
There may be more in Washington who share the view of the US senator. There number will only grow if Moon keeps offering the olive branch toward Pyongyang and tampering with the deployment of a system that aims to deter present threats from the North with ambiguous, unconvincing reasons.