Half a year passed since his inauguration, and President Moon Jae-in’s foreign policy appears quite disastrous, and I am not exaggerating. Although South Korea is not as awkward as Gaddafist Libya was, it is highly questionable how many allies the Moon Jae-in administration can count on.
There are several factors that have deteriorated the isolation of South Korea, which Koreans used to call “Korea Passing.” First and foremost, the new Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Kyung-hwa is a layperson who has not experienced in any foreign policy-related field except spending several years in the United Nations. It is reported that the reason Moon appointed the inexperienced figure to such a high post is Moon’s eagerness to show off his “gender awareness.” Kang is Moon’s first woman minister as well as the first woman Minister of Foreign Affairs. The problem is, however, being a women does not compensate the lack of experience. During her visit to New York City for the UN General Assembly, the only delegate she could have an one-on-one meeting with was Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. Ousainou Darboe of Gambia, a small West African nation. On the other hand, Kang did not join the trilateral meeting US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had with Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Kono on Sep 18.
The Moon Jae-in administration is divided between the radicals and the moderates. The former is led by Professor Moon Chung-in, a leading advocate of the Sunshine Policy and pro-Chinese foreign policy, who serves as a special presidential adviser on diplomacy. Although it is unclear how much influence he exercises over the decision-making process since he is an “adviser” that does not hold any “official” post, he is often deemed as the de facto decision maker in foreign policy. Known as a flamboyant talker, he is also vocal critic of President Donald Trump and his foreign policy.
The latter is led by Minister of National Defense (equivalent to US Secretary of Defense) Song Young-moo, a former admiral of the South Korean Navy. Since President Park Geun-hye favored the Army generals for her military advisers, President Moon sought his minister from non-Army personnel. Despite being President Moon’s close aide who also worked as his special adviser on national defense supporter during the 2017 presidential campaign, Minister Song is known as a maverick in a cabinet filled with former anti-American activists. He is one of few officials who openly disagreed on pro-North Korean policy.
Their clash was observed since the controversy regarding the deployment of the THAAD defense system in Korean territory: on Jun 19, Moon was not only skeptical but even provocative, “If the THAAD issue breaks S. Korea-US alliance, what kind of an alliance is it?” It was a matter of time before Song reached the limit of his patience; on Sep 19, he publicly reprimanded Professor Moon. Although Minister Song announced his apology at President Moon’s request, the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under Professor Moon’s influence collided again on Sep 28: Professor Moon recalled that Washington was very upset at the Moon Jae-in administration’s proposal for inter-Korean military talks with Pyongyang, naming US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as the person who used strong language at Minister Kang. The Ministry of Defense immediately denied any possible quarrel between the US and South Korea; when the reporters asked the spokesperson of the Ministry if Professor Moon lied about the matter, the spokesperson answered brusquely, “Ask Professor Moon.”
It has become obvious in the midst of this split that Minister Kang is not influential at all. As of now, it seems the radicals are more influential than the moderates as Im Jong-seok, the Blue House chief of staff, is closer to Professor Moon. On Sep 19, the Blue House publicly reprimanded Minister Song. Professor Moon, not afraid of the discord with Washington, is seeking a “reconciliation” with Pyongyang; I am not the only one who look forward to a WWE-like, heated argument when President Trump who has always been vocal about his stance visits Seoul and meets another vociferous figure Moon Chung-in.