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Arthur I. Cyr: South Korea’s vital leadership

Arthur I. Cyr
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Plaquemine Post South

Today, mass media coverage of the Korean Peninsula focuses on two flamboyant personalities. President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un regularly vie for center stage.

This overshadows the leadership of President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, who often is overlooked. The associated sustained positive contributions of South Korea to Asian and broader international relations likewise are not the stuff of alarming headlines or TV melodrama.

At the end of 2018, the influential Asia News Network named President Moon “Person of the Year.” South Korea’s chief executive quite rightly is praised for serving as initiator, broker, and mediator between the U.S. and North Korea.

This accomplishment is too easily oversimplified and minimized. At the end of 2017, Trump and Kim were trading crude and at times personal insults via the global media.

Moon’s work behind the scenes not only restrained but also reversed that sad, silly situation. He insisted on meeting with the North Korea delegation to the Winter Olympics held in February 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The group included Kim’s sister, an influential figure in the regime.

Renewed intransigence by Pyongyang may continue, but at least is no longer to be assumed. Moon’s sustained efforts require discipline and courage, qualities demonstrated throughout his long career.

During Moon’s youth, he was arrested and imprisoned because of activism against the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee. Reflecting that experience, he decided to pursue a career as a human rights lawyer. He also served in the Republic of Korea army special forces, and saw action in the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) along the 38th Parallel.

President Moon was sworn in May 10, 2017, right after the voters’ ballots were counted following a special presidential election. He received approximately 41% of the vote, short of a majority but 17% ahead of the nearest rival. From the very start, he has emphasized relations with North Korea.

He took office in a time of tension and uncertainty on both sides of the 38th Parallel, the border that divides Korea into north and south. South Korea had just experienced the ordeal of impeachment and removal from office of a sitting president, Park Geun-hye. North Korea greeted the inauguration of President Moon by launching a long-range missile four days later.

Moon was chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun. He finished a close second to Park Geun-hye in the 2012 presidential election.

Military ties between South Korea and the United States are of vital importance but also often overlooked. Collaboration is particularly close and long-term between the armies of our two nations. During the long Vietnam War, South Korea maintained approximately 50,000 troops in South Vietnam.

A large percentage of that total were combat troops. ROK (Republic of Korea) Army troops developed a deserved reputation for effectiveness in that brutal, vexing war. South Korea at the time had no substantial economic investment in South Vietnam.

The sole incentive was strong commitment to the United States, dating from the Korean War of 1950 to 1953. That war made the Cold War global, no longer focused only on divided Germany.

Media emphasize Moon’s declining popularity and domestic controversies, but that indicates functioning democracy. Seoul has the moral high ground and a vastly stronger economy than Pyongyang. North Korea’s rigidity masks weakness; UN sanctions are taking a significant toll over the long term, affecting everyone.

Moon pursues a steady, responsible course. His numerous critics have yet to propose a persuasive alternative approach.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact acyr@carthage.edu.