On Saturday, Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korean supremo Kim Jong Un, delivered an invitation to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to attend a summit in Pyongyang. A Moon spokesman said Kim wants to meet “at an early date.”
Moon is also eager. “Let’s create conditions to make it happen,” he said to Kim’s sister.
What are the right conditions? Observers think the phrase means progress in “denuclearizing” the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a top goal of the Trump administration.
North Koreans, however, are thinking in other terms. As Fletcher School professor Lee Sung-Yoon told The Daily Beast, inter-Korean summits occur because the South agrees to pay off the North. “How much admission fee will Kim charge Moon for the privilege of his Pyongyang pilgrimage?” Lee asked. “In 2000, it was $500 million.” The first year of the millennium saw the first of the two summits between the then leaders of the two Koreas.
Any payment of course would undermine Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign to starve North Korea of resources. Moon, however, believes in supporting the Kim regime, and that is why Vice President Mike Pence’s trip to the Winter Olympics in South Korea’s Pyeongchang was so consequential.
Unfortunately, Pence, in South Korea on Friday, engaged in some of the most counterproductive acts of American public diplomacy in years. His blunders were striking, coming just hours after making an especially strong start in arguing America’s case to the South Korean people. Debacle that day followed triumph.
The vice president’s office made it clear what he intended to do in the Republic of Korea, the decades-old American ally, before the start of his five-day trip. “We’re not going to let the North Korea propaganda machine hijack the messaging of the Olympics,” Jarrod Agen, the vice president’s communications director, told The Washington Post.
To prevent the hijacking, the vice president on Wednesday aptly called North Korea the world’s “most tyrannical and oppressive regime.”
And to drive the point home, Pence began Friday by delivering what Korea scholar David Maxwell termed a “sledgehammer to the face.” Actually, the vice president took three sledgehammer swings at the North Korean regime. Good for him.
In Pyeongtaek, about 70 kilometers south of Seoul, Pence visited the Cheonan Memorial, which honors the 46 South Korean sailors killed when a North Korean torpedo struck their frigate in March 2010.
Later, Pence in Pyeongtaek met with those who had escaped the horrors of the North, and then he ended the day by bringing to the Olympics opening ceremony Fred Warmbier, the father of Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student brutalized by the Kim regime. Otto Warmbier died in a coma last June, just days after Pyongyang released his motionless body to American officials.
Pence, to his great credit, left no one in doubt about the horrific nature of Kim family rule. Yet the storylines emerging from Friday were not about the millions of North Koreans killed by the three Kim leaders but Pence’s three boorish acts, accomplished in quick succession at the end of the day.
First, Pence embarrassed Moon Jae-in. The American vice president stayed at the South Korean president’s reception for a grand total of five minutes. Pence also blew off his host by not going to the following dinner, leaving an empty space at the head table, which had to be rearranged at the last moment.
Second, the vice president at the opening ceremony of the Olympics sat stony-faced just feet away from Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister, and Kim Yong Nam, the North’s head of state. There were no interactions between Pence and the North Koreans during the event, making the vice president look hard-headed.
Third, and most significantly, Pence and wife Karen managed to disrespect every South Korean by not standing when the unified Korean team entered the Olympic stadium.
Who cares about the three snubs? About 327 million Americans should. For one thing, South Korea is America’s front line. Without it, the U.S. defense perimeter would have to be drawn far closer to the American homeland. So offending South Koreans is not sound defense strategy.
And that perimeter, now far more than in the recent past, depends on South Korean public opinion.
Americans certainly cannot depend on South Korea’s newish president. On Air Force Two, as he winged his way back from South Korea, Pence told reporters he and Moon “spoke as friends.” Maybe the pair are buddies on a personal level, but Moon is no friend to America.
Now 65, Moon grew up in the generation that saw the U.S. as the enemy of democracy in his homeland, and as President Roh Moo-hyun’s chief of staff, he attempted to move Seoul away from Washington and toward Pyongyang, Moscow, and Beijing.
As president himself, Moon has taken actions, without consulting the Trump administration, that are fundamentally inconsistent with the U.S.-South Korea defense treaty, such as his giving the infamous “Three Nos” assurances to Beijing in late October: no to additional THAAD anti-missile batteries, no to participation in an integrated missile defense system, and no to joining in a South Korea-Japan-U.S. alliance. Moon is pushing policies that weaken the ability of his country and the U.S. to defend against a North Korean attack.
Furthermore, Moon’s Olympic outreach to North Korea was accomplished largely behind Washington’s back.
Pence, flying home, also told reporters “there is no daylight between the United States, the Republic of Korea, and Japan on the need to continue to isolate North Korea economically and diplomatically until they abandon their nuclear and ballistic missile program.”
The vice president may have thought he needed to say something like that, but those words are obviously inaccurate as Moon, over the course of his short tenure, has been looking for ways to provide aid and assistance to North Korea and to bring Pyongyang into the international community.
A realistic picture of Moon’s policies comes from the Fletcher School’s Lee. “Moon,” the professor told The Daily Beast, “is abetting Kim Jong Un overturning sanctions, advancing WMDs with which to threaten Americans and South Koreans, prolonging crimes against humanity, and ‘completing the juche [North Korean ideological] revolution.’”
Moon, however, has a problem: Many South Koreans do not support his outreach to North Korea. Moon never had the backing of the so-called conservatives, but now many in the president’s “progressive” camp, who propelled him into office in last May’s election, are agreeing with the conservative skeptics of the Kim regime.
As a result, recent opinion polls show Moon’s high popularity coming down fast. His approval rating dropped to a four-month low last month—down six percentage points in a week among the crucial segment of people in their twenties. This was due in large part to resentment over his outreach to North Korea, specifically the decision to turf out South Korean women ice hockey players to make way for those from the North so that the two Koreas could field a joint team. One poll showed a two-week, 10-point drop in approval among all adults.
American security, as a practical matter, will be enhanced by further erosion of Moon’s popularity. And that is why Pence’s not honoring the Korean team on Friday evening was so damaging to American interests. Washington needs the South Korean electorate to help hem in their anti-American president, and not rejoicing in South Korea’s team—what Pence did by not standing as the team entered the stadium—has in fact not played well in the South.
Fortunately, Pence’s gaffes are not irreversible. Kim Yo Jong, now known as “the Ivanka Trump of North Korea,” has gone home. And the real Ivanka is going to Korea soon. She will attend the Olympics closing ceremony as a representative of her dad. Round Two is on.