Four and a Half Years of Moon Administration That Divided Japan, U.S., and South Korea
South Korea has entered the final stage of the presidential election campaign which will be held in March 2022. The Moon Jae-in administration has caused a rift between Japan, the U.S., and South Korea, and destroyed the foundation of friendship between Japan and South Korea. It has also greatly damaged South Korea’s trust in the international community. In South Korea, which has a five-year presidential term, a change in government may mean bold reversals in policies from progressive to conservative, which could be as different as black and white. Of all the policy reversals, the one that is considered most difficult to recover pertains to Japan-South Korea relations. Moreover, the U.S.-North Korea relations mediated by the Moon administration have been nothing more than a political show, and North Korea’s nuclear development has without a doubt progressed.
The Moon administration started with the concept of “continuing the left-wing administration for 20 years and achieving the candlelight revolution,” but “the revolution” only sowed division in Korean public opinion. There is a good chance the government will be reclaimed by the conservatives. In the opinion poll, the support for the change of government (57 percent) exceeds that of President Moon (40 percent). But South Korea has lost a lot in the last four and a half years.
Unhealthy Relationship between Japan and South Korea
In his policy speech in December 2021, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said: “The Republic of Korea (ROK) is an important neighbor, and based on Japan’s consistent position, I will continue to strongly urge the ROK side to make appropriate responses. ”
The policy phrase, “South Korea is the most important neighbor with which Japan shares basic values and strategic interests,” disappeared during the Moon administration. At the time of the inauguration, the Kishida administration held a telephone conference with the South Korean leader only after calls with the leaders of China and Russia. An unhealthy and distorted relationship between Japan and South Korea has become the norm.
The cause lies in the Moon administration. It scrapped the Japan-Korea agreement on the comfort women issue and dissolved the “Reconciliation and Healing Foundation” for which Japan paid 1 billion yen. The administration also replaced the Supreme Court justice with a leftist who ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation for the wartime laborers. This was the starting point of the souring relations.
However, in South Korea, Japan is considered at fault and even now, many believe that former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the one who broke Japan-South Korea relations. Both the former administration of Yoshihide Suga and the current Kishida administration are often mentioned in terms of their distance from Abe.
It used to be that in South Korea, a representative figure of an evil Japanese man was Hirobumi Ito, the first Resident-General of Korea. But according to a Korean newspaper reporter, Shinzo Abe is disliked even more.
South Koreans criticized Abe, claiming such things as he will revive militarism, or he will use South Korea politically, and the export restrictions reflect Abe’s grudge. One of the reporters even said the fault is with the Abe administration’s view of history, bringing up Abe’s visit to Yasukuni shrine (2013), the revisiting of the Kono statement (2014), the statement marking the 70th year since World War II (2015), Japan’s Legislation for Peace and Security (2017), and stricter export control measures (2019).
However, these are issues that should be domestic discourses on Japan’s own stance, and it’s not for South Korea to complain about. In addition, the government imposed stricter export control due to the suspicion that South Korea had diverted items such as sodium fluoride exported by Japan to Iran and North Korea. Even then, South Korea continued to neglect Japan’s request for talks.
At the same time, the anti-Japanese-oriented Moon administration was opportunistic. It was in the fall of 2020 that he changed his attitude. VIPs from Korea visited Japan one after another and offered to cooperate with the Suga administration for the Tokyo Olympics. It was an attempt to invite North Korean dignitaries to the Tokyo Olympics and use them for North-South reconciliation. The Japanese government was disappointed, the Suga administration responded coldly, and South Korea ultimately announced the government would not visit Japan just before the opening of the Olympics. Such behavior made Japan even more distrustful of the Moon administration.
In January 2021, the Seoul District Court handed down a vicious decision, ordering the Japanese government to pay damages to former comfort women. It was an extraordinary situation in which the nation treated comfort women in the same line as genocide, using a strange measure to eliminate the sovereign immunity principle of international law that stipulates countries could not be sued by the judiciary of another country. In the recruitment lawsuit, the procedure for selling the assets of the seized Japanese companies is already in the final stage.
Relentless Anti-Japanese Screams
Immediately after Japan announced the tightening of export control regulations, President Moon said at the South Korean presidential office: “We will never lose to Japan again.”
On the wall of a conference room at the presidential office, a banner read “Today’s Republic of Korea is different. We will not lose anymore.” Rhetoric such as “It’s an attack by the Japanese government,” and “if you give in to the challenge, history will be repeated,” filled the media. People began holding signs that read “No Japan” and “No Abe” on the streets and boycotted Japanese goods.
In the center of Seoul, thousands of people sat in protest holding candles in one hand and signs that read “No Abe,” “Apologize,” and “Condemn Abe” on the other. The gathering was composed of pro-North Korean labor unions and civic groups and students, who were organizers of the candle rally that overthrew the former administration of Park Geun-Hye. The gathering was named Condemnation of Abe’s Historic Distortion, Economic Invasion, and Threats to Peace Candlelight Cultural Festival. Anti-Abe rallies were also held in the local cities of Daejeon, Chungcheong, Busan, and Ulsan. The labor union members gave performances of smashing Japanese products, delivery drivers boycotted and refused to deliver UNIQLO products, and supermarkets excluded Japanese products. The anti-Japanese movement of the Moon administration reached its climax. This was the summer two years ago.
Subsequently, anti-Japanese sentiment blew up at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. South Korea framed produce from Fukushima Prefecture as being contaminated and set up their own food center for their athletes in Japan to avoid ingredients from there. There were reports in the Korean media that brought attention to Fukushima-grown Eustoma in the bouquets given to the medalists. Former Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba of the Constitutional Democratic Party said the moves have become insulting. However, the anti-Japanese moves at the Olympics were not treated as an issue in Korea and the country never reflected on its inward nationalism.
The friendship between Japan and South Korea, two East Asian countries, has already lost its presence in the international community. However, the international community does not understand the current crisis between the two as South Korea’s unilateral violation of international law. The U.S. Biden administration and other related countries are urging Japan to improve relations with South Korea. Japan should proactively disseminate information that South Korea is responsible for the current state of Japan-South Korea relations.
It seemed that the Moon administration has been aiming for the deterioration of Japan-Korea relations from the start. This is because the anti-Japanese movement is proof of existence for the Moon administration. Its historical view is that the Japanese rule deprived the Korean people of their spirits, and the pro-Japanese faction created a false country called the “Republic of Korea.” It vows that the candle revolution would expel the conservatives of South Korea, who are pro-Japanese factions.
But to try and sell a violent condemnatory view of history that all Koreans were forced into labor in Japan’s aggressive invasion to annex Korea, at the expense of the relationship built after the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two states, is a political idea that is biased and narrow-minded.
The two countries have not held a summit meeting since December 2019. The Japanese government does not intend to move until the Korean government proposes an improvement plan for the violation of international law regarding the ruling on forced laborers. South Korea is losing the foundation of its more than fifty years of friendly relations with Japan, which its predecessors have built, all just in the four and a half years of the Moon administration.
The U.S.-North Korea Summit Was South Korea’s Creation
South Korea’s Chung Eui-yong, the head of the National Security Office, who visited the White House in Washington, DC in March 2018, handed a letter from the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to President Trump. President Trump reportedly accepted this with a momentary impulse.
In his memoir The Room Where It Happened, John Bolton, the former White House Adviser under Trump, writes: “Ironically, Chung later all but admitted that it was he who had suggested to Kim that he make the invitation in the first place!”
Bolton said the “whole diplomatic fandango was South Korea’s creation,” relating more to Seoul’s unification agenda than a serious strategy by Washington or Pyongyang.
Moreover, Bolton said President Moon told Trump over a telephone conference that “Kim had committed to ‘complete denuclearization,’ offering to close their Punggye-ri nuclear test site.”
The memoir revealed behind the scenes of the U.S.-North Korea summit, in which the South Korean government is running around trying to set the two countries up. But how much is true of Kim Jong-un’s denuclearization message that was conveyed by Moon ? Chung told the U.S. government that South Korea requested Kim Jong-un to denuclearize within a year, and Kim agreed, but what exactly did Kim “agree” to?
North Korea has spent a huge amount of time developing nuclear weapons for half a century, over generations. Would it agree to “denuclearize” without anything in return from the U.S.?
South Korea has pitched the “first-ever U.S.-North Korea summit” to the Trump administration. It also pitched the idea to North Korea. Did it recommend Kim Jong-un seek President Trump, a known deal-lover, to cancel the U.S.-Korea joint military exercises or lift sanctions?
The talks between the U.S. and North Korea broke down at the Hanoi meeting in February 2019. Through this rupture, we can see how North Korea underestimated the U.S. position on North Korea’s denuclearization. As Bolton said, it is highly possible that the “South Korean creation” was the cause of the rupture. After the Hanoi talks, North Korea at once cooled off its relationship with the South. South Korea’s attempt to mediate between U.S.-North Korea may have been a political effort to use the U.S. for the sake of North-South reconciliation.
Predictably, after the memoir was published, the South Korean government protested claiming Bolton had distorted the truth.
The “Achievement” in the Miserable North-South Relations
If Moon were to be asked about his political achievements as a president, he would probably say it would be his work as a bridge to realize the North-South summit and the first-ever U.S.-North Korea summit. But their consequences were disastrous.
The Panmunjom Declaration agreed upon at the inter-Korean summit stipulated the end of the Korean War, the establishment of a North-South joint liaison office, relaxation of military tensions, holding dialogue, and disarmament. The inter-Korean liaison office opened in September 2018, but North Korea withdrew all officers in March 2019. It was in operation for just over six months. At the order of Deputy Department Director Kim Yo-jong, North Korea exploded the facility in June 2020; the building roared and collapsed, and the North-South relations deteriorated further.
Moon showed off his smile as he rode in an open-top car with Kim Jong-un to parade the city of Pyongyang during his visit to North Korea in September 2018. The two sides signed an inter-military agreement. However, the content of the relief of military tension in the agreement only prescribed unilateral disarmament by South Korea, including the pilot withdrawal of the surveillance station in the Demilitarized Zone and the setting of a flight ban above the military demarcation line.
The U.S. was furious because the military agreement was made without notice to the U.S. Mike Pompeo, the then secretary of state, reportedly yelled at South Korea’s then Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-Wa over the phone. Surveillance over the military border has been conducted jointly by the U.S. and South Korean troops and the withdrawal is a violation of the U.S.-ROK alliance. The Moon administration wanted to snuggle up to North Korea even by betraying the U.S.-ROK alliance.
The U.S.-North Korea summit, the North-South summit, and the China-North Korea summit that took place in 2018 attracted the attention of the world and ended up being performances of the century. Some even suspect that South Korea’s mediation was a deception of the century.
In 2021, Moon focused on realizing a summit meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, who took office in January of that year. His aim was to once again get involved in the U.S. policy toward North Korea and serve as a bridge between the U.S. and North Korea. In the joint statement of the U.S.-South Korea Summit in May, the countries specified (1) the importance of the framework of the Quad which included Japan, the U.S., and Australia, (2) respect for international law especially in the South China Sea, and (3) the importance of peace and security in the Taiwan Strait.
The content of the statement would have irritated China, but South Korea decided to save America’s face. In return, however, the statement contained wording that favored North Korea, something South Korea placed importance on.
These were: (1) diplomacy and dialogue, based on previous inter-Korean and U.S.-DPRK commitments such as the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration and Singapore Joint Statement are essential and (2) denuclearization of “the Korean Peninsula” (instead of North Korea). We could almost hear the self-praise coming from the Blue House that the U.S.-South Korea joint statement was “the greatest achievement for the Moon administration.” In other words, the Moon administration earned points for North Korea.
In a speech at the General Assembly of the United Nations in the fall of 2021, Moon insisted on the need for a declaration of the end of the Korean War as he did in the previous year. The end of the Korean War is mentioned in the “Panmunjom Declaration.” However, with the U.S.-North Korea talks ruptured and North Korea’s willingness to denuclearize unclear, there is little reason for the U.S. to agree to the declaration of the end of the war with North Korea. Considering the provocative behavior of North Korea, which has continuously launched missiles, the feasibility of declaring the end of the war is infinitely zero. Nevertheless, Moon continues to be a “Northern spokesman,” ignoring the perceptions of the international community.
The Obsession to Move Forward North-South Relations
Moon, whose administration is in its final stages, continues to speak and act with a visible desire to manage the deteriorated North-South relations. The year 2021 yielded little result. The only thing that was realized was the restoration in October of the direct communication line between North and South, which is a symbol of North-South relations.
Moon and Kim Jong-un reportedly exchanged about 10 personal letters since the spring of 2021, under Moon’s initiative. The contact point of South Korea was reportedly its intelligence agency, while for North Korea, it was Kim Jong-un himself. It seems that Moon strengthened his pro-North Korea stance through such exchanges. However, it is completely unknown what kind of proposals and promises the South made to the North through these direct exchanges, or whether North Korea requested something in return. Some people point out the possibility that the Kim Jong-un regime has used the Moon administration for its merit.
As he goes into the presidential election in March 2022, what Moon wants more than anything is a recognition of historical achievement. The year 2018 was marked by the inter-Korea summit and Moon’s visit to the North. Following year, he held the Panmunjom meeting, where he succeeded in giving the impression that a new generation of North-South peace had begun. However, after the Hanoi talks between the U.S. and North Korea broke down, Moon has been criticized in his country as having a double standard (as he is questioned whether he is prioritizing U.S. sanctions or ethnicity). Moon wants an achievement ahead of the election. Whether he gets it or not depends on Kim Jong-un. South Korea’s excessive pro-North Korea stance will likely continue into 2022. The international community will likely distance themselves as they watch over the development.
Moon’s Domestic Policies Were Self-Righteous
In 2021, the most notable political schedule in South Korea was the April 7 mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan. The preceding mayors of both cities, which in Japan would correspond to Tokyo and Osaka, were removed from their posts after sexual harassment allegations. The news of Seoul mayor Park Won-soon committing suicide the day after he was accused by a former secretary sent shockwaves around the country.
The mayoral elections of the two cities ended in devastating defeats for the ruling party. In response, the Moon administration replaced party executives and reshuffled the cabinet, but the nominated ministers faced a series of scandals. Moon’s speech (given in May 2021) in his fourth year in office, was all about self-praise, which was met by criticisms from domestic newspapers as being self-righteous. His party failed to regain momentum.
The Korean public is most critical of the administration’s economic policy, which is a decisive factor in presidential elections. The administration tightened regulations on conglomerates, the pillar of South Korea’s economy, and raised the minimum wage, hurting small businesses. Its failure of real estate policies has led to soaring real estate and commodity prices. House prices in the metropolitan area have doubled, and young people lamented that they won’t be able to buy homes in their lifetime. In addition, non-regular employment is increasing, and the youth unemployment rate is rising.
The government’s economic failure can be partially attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many people point out it also has to do with Moon’s socialism that ignored reality, its anti-conglomerate policies, and its pro-labor union stance.
We do not know which way the presidential election is headed at this point. Generally speaking, the ruling party candidate would be pro-North Korea, anti-Japanese, and anti-American, and the opposition candidate would be anti-North, Japanese-friendly, and pro-American. However, the current Japan and South Korea relations are not so easy. Even if Yoon Suk-yeol, an opposition candidate who is attacking the anti-Japanese stance of the Moon administration, can take over the government, it cannot ignore the public on Japan-South Korea relations. Neither could the supreme court decision on wartime laborers be easily overturned.
The only way to normalize Japan-South Korea relations is to have a political agreement for South Korea to take on the payment for the compensation for the laborers instead of Japan, but it would be publicly unpopular for South Korea to acquiesce completely. Even if the conservative government takes over, can South Korea participate in the Quad (Japan-U.S.-Australia-India framework) as an observer to restore the trilateral relations with Japan and the U.S.? It will face tough decisions such as how much it should align its stance with Japan and the U.S. against China, a country they highly depend on for trade.
On December 13, South Korea announced President Moon would not participate in the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics. This is because they are planning to realize political exchanges between North Korea and China and North and South Korea and to display North-South reconciliation at the Beijing Olympics in February. Thus, in the U.S.-China confrontation, they clearly chose to stand with China.
Under the Moon administration , South Korea has moved closer to the continental forces of China and North Korea. Even if the conservative party goes back in power, it will not be easy for South Korea to reconcile with Japan, regain the trust of the international community, and for the maritime powers of Japan-U.S.-South Korea to regain influence.
This article is a translation of the Japanese original published in the February 2022 issue of Seiron magazine.
Ruriko Kubota graduated from Seikei University. She worked as the Seoul correspondent at the Sankei Shimbun. She is currently a senior staff writer at the Sankei Shimbun and an Affiliate Professor at Kokugakuin University. Author of Hannichi Kyokuzoku Shugi (in Japanese, from Bunshun Shinsho).