Super Spring is coming for South Korean President Moon Jae-in – which includes the inter-Korea summit in late April, the United States-North Korea summit in May or June, and South Korea’s local elections on June 14. The two North Korea summits have received the most publicity, but they will shape the results of the local elections in important ways.
The two summits will be a litmus test for Moon’s leadership of South Korea and a major factor in the local elections. Moon thus faces strong domestic motivations to achieve a meaningful outcome in the inter-Korean summit and the U.S.-North Korea summit, though he will not have a significant role in the latter.
On July 7, 2017 at Berlin’s Old City Hall, Moon vowed to sit in the “driver’s seat” on North Korea issues. The meaning of sitting in the “driver’s seat” was unveiled in his remarks: “With a more leading role by [the South] Korean government, I will embark on a dauntless journey towards establishing a peaceful regime on the Korean Peninsula.”
Despite Moon’s ambition, his “driver’s seat policy” seemed doomed from the outset due to North Korea’s continued military provocations throughout 2017, including a mid-range missile launch in August and its sixth nuclear test in September. Unsurprisingly, Moon faced criticism from his political opponents such as “Moon fails to even sit in the passenger’s seat.”
However, Kim Jong-un’s decision to send a delegation to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics changed the calculus. During the Winter Olympics, Kim invited Moon to Pyongyang through his sister, Kim Yo-jung, and suggested a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump.
The outcomes of the “Peace Olympics” restored confidence in Moon as the “driver” for a peaceful resolution of the Korean crisis. However, he had to take on political risks at home to make the Olympics a success.
The first domestic risk was Moon’s launching of a unified women’s ice hockey team. Before proposing the combined team to North Korea, Moon’s government did not seek the approval of the national team, despite the fact that adding North Koreans to the team would eliminate the opportunity for South Korean players to participate in the Olympic Games. It appeared to show a lack of government consideration for the sacrifices and hard work of the players.
This issue provoked criticism from the public, especially among young South Koreans who strongly supported Moon in the 2017 election. They felt that Moon had abandoned pledges he made at his inauguration speech: “Under my government, everyone will have equal opportunities. The process will be fair and the result will be righteous.” Moon supporters in their 20s and 30s — who by and large hated the corruption of the Park Geun-hye administration — felt that Moon’s decision betrayed their beliefs that his administration would be more open and honest. This backlash damaged Moon’s approval ratings. In a poll conducted by Gallup soon after the unified team was announced, Moon’s approval ratings fell below 70 percent for the first time since he was elected in May 2017, falling six percent in only one week.
The second risk was Moon’s decision to accept Kim Yong-chol’s visit to the closing ceremony of the Olympics. Kim Yong-chol is a controversial figure, suspected of orchestrating the sinking of the South Korean navy corvette Cheonan. The Cheonan incident was one of the most devastating military provocations since the Korean War, resulting in the deaths of 46 South Korean sailors. At that time, Kim Yong-chol was leading North Korea’s Reconnaissance Bureau, which is in charge of military provocations toward South Korea. Hence, Moon was strongly criticized by his political opponents and the bereaved families of the murdered sailors for allowing a visit from the “culprit” behind the military attacks.
Further, Kim Yong-chol had been blacklisted under South Korean and American sanctions for his involvement in North Korea’s military attacks and its nuclear weapons program. Conservative parties like the Liberty Korea Party and Bareun Party argued that accepting Kim Yong-chol’s visit would lead to a crack in the sanctions against North Korea. The Moon administration’s response to critics, that Kim Yong-chol was never named as the mastermind of the Cheonan incident in official reports, failed.
Recalling the sensitive and tragic incident, along with criticism that he was catering too much to North Korea, hit Moon’s high approval ratings. On March 2, Gallup reported his approval rating dropped to 64 percent, attributing the decline to Kim Yong-chol’s controversial visit. It was the second-lowest approval rating for Moon, after the controversial launch of a single unified women’s ice hockey team.
However, Moon’s risks appear to have paid off for now. After the announcement of the inter-Korean summit, his approval rating climbed back up to 71 percent, implying that South Koreans are both glad at the prospect of talks and have high expectations for the summit.
On April 12, at the fifth meeting of the Inter-Korean Summit Preparation Committee, Moon stated that the inter-Korean summit should be a “good guide” that will lead to the success of the Trump-Kim summit. Recognizing that South Korea cannot be directly involved in the Trump-Kim summit, Moon is cleverly tailoring his role from a “driver” to a “guide” in an attempt to maintain the leading role on the Korean Peninsula.
The outcome of the upcoming summit talks will shape local elections in June. The elections will be a test to see if Moon’s North Korea policy could offset his domestic political risks during the Olympics.
Moon is desperate for success. The fluctuation of his approval ratings during the Olympics shows that the substance of the inter-Korean summit could hurt him politically. If the summit talks fail, Moon would likely face backlash from his political opponents and supporters alike. The inter-Korean summit will thus be a major political crossroads for him that could define his legacy as a South Korean politician.
Hyewon Kim and is an Asan Academy Young Fellow (2017-2018) and a student at Korea University. Minhee Jo is an Asan Academy Young Fellow (2017-2018) and a student at Pusan National University.