As it was promised, we are going to take a closer look at the speech presented by South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in in front of the UN General Assembly on September 24, 2019. The rationale behind this analysis is the fact that nothing can tell you more about a politician than his public speeches.
It was widely assumed that the South Korean leader would talk about “Seoul’s efforts to ensure common prosperity together with its northern neighbour, by strengthening peace on the Korean Peninsula.” It was believed that a set of propositions would be laid out before those attending the session that could improve cooperation between the two Koreas Such efforts had previously came to a screeching halt a while ago. One could have safely expected Moon Jae-in to call on the international community, urging it to assist drought-stricken North Korea which has been struggling to overcome the natural disaster.
The speech given by South Korea’s President is freely available on the Internet, and there’s a lot for an analyst to consider on top of the customary diplomatic courtesies and compliments. For the sake of this analysis, it will be divided into a number of quotes that will be presented with short commentaries, beginning with:
The Republic of Korea is a country that has benefited immensely from the United Nations. It was liberated from colonial rule in the year of UN’s inception. It was able to overcome the scourge of war with the assistance of the United Nations and the international community. Carrying a sense of responsibility commensurate with the progress it has made, Korea is now working together with the international community to bring about peace and prosperity in East Asia and the whole world.
It’s worth mentioning that the Korean Peninsula was liberated without any form of involvement by the UN, as it was carried out by Soviet troops. As for “overcoming the scourge of war,” it existing in the first place due to the fact that what was essentially a civil war between the South and North was transformed into an international conflict by the United States and its allies, who entered the war under the UN flag. Later on, the establishment of South Korea become possible due to the US referring the Korean question to the United Nations, where it enjoyed a comfortable majority, with numerous states aligning with Washington.
The Olympic Truce resolution adopted in November 2017 by the United Nations gave a big help to Korea once more. In accordance with the resolution, the joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States that had been planned for the spring of 2018 were suspended, which helped create an environment that allowed the North Korean Olympic delegation to come to PyeongChang.
The suspension of the joint exercises was largely connected with new developments taking place in the North, as Kim Jong-un in his New Year’s speech, made an invitation for Seoul to launch a bilateral dialogue. Thus, Moon puts the cart before the horse, as he wants to be diplomatic with the UN crowd, but those who have a deeper insight into the developments on the peninsula would certainly take those words with a grain of salt.
The Pyeong Chang Olympic Winter Games, in spite of initial concerns over security, was transformed into a Peace Olympics. It also served as an invaluable opportunity to resume dialogue between the two Koreas. Inter-Korean talks subsequently led to dialogue between the United States and North Korea.
There was no transformation whatsoever. It’s true that Moon Jae-in, as a clever and watchful politician, was mindful of the fact that a new escalation on the peninsula associated with Peyong’s new launches could potentially jeopardize Seoul’s return on investments from this incredibly costly sports event. And that’s where his political ratings would have come tumbling down.
Decisions made by President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un provided the momentum behind the dramatic change in the situation on the Korean Peninsula. Compared to the past in which it took only a few rounds of gunfire to instigate major political unrest, the Korean Peninsula has undergone a distinct change. The negotiating table for peace on the Peninsula still remains accessible. The two Koreas and the United States are setting their sights not only on denuclearization and peace, but also on the economic cooperation that will follow thereafter.
Yes, the tensions were somewhat defused, but any form of actual economic cooperation remains suspended until Peyonyang “surrenders its nuclear arsenal.”
The Republic of Korea intends to create a “peace economy” whereby peace can lead to economic cooperation, which, in turn, will reinforce peace, all working in a virtuous cycle. The examples of how the European Coal and Steel Community and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe had a positive impact on peace and prosperity within Europe present a fine model for us to emulate.
Now, here’s where Moon demonstrates his lack of knowledge of the OSCE’s history along with his poor understanding of the European model that is no way applicable to the Korean peninsula. The economic gap between the South and the North is so big, that for any player to try to close it, like was done during the reunification of the Federal Republic of Germany and German Democratic Republic, will have to invest a couple trillion dollars in the North. As for Moon’s remarks about the reunification creating an economic powerhouse capable of leaving Japan far behind in ten years, those resulted in local conservative media sources questioning Moon’s sanity.
Peace on the Korean Peninsula remains an ongoing challenge, and peace on the Peninsula and in the whole world are inextricably linked to each other. The Republic of Korea will continue dialogue with North Korea and will find and make a way toward complete denuclearization and permanent peace while maintaining cooperation with UN member states.
Now, those are beautiful words and a lot of them, but they are bound to be followed by practical propositions and nothing else.
Over the past year and a half, dialogue and negotiations have produced significant results on the Korean Peninsula. Panmunjeom, which used to be a symbol of division, has now become a demilitarized area in which not even a single pistol exists. The two Koreas withdrew guard posts inside the Demilitarized Zone, thereby transforming the DMZ, the very symbol of confrontation, into a peace zone worthy of its name. In the past, unceasing breaches of the Armistice Agreement had raised military tensions and at times escalated the threat of war, but not a single confrontation has occurred since the inter-Korean comprehensive military agreement was signed on September 19 last year.
Now, that’s actually true. A series of recent agreements has considerably reduced tensions on the border between the two Koreas. The better part of those agreements were approved during last year’s meeting between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un.
Among his other achievements, Moon would often cite the recent transfer of the excavated remains of 177 South Korean and US-coalition soldiers who died during the Korean war.
These efforts have also made it possible for President Trump to become the first sitting American president to cross the Military Demarcation Line and set foot on North Korean soil. The easing of military tensions and solid trust among the leaders of both Koreas and the United States set the stage for a momentous trilateral meeting at Panmunjeom. President Trump’s action in taking Chairman Kim’s hand and stepping over the Military Demarcation Line was, in itself, a declaration of the true beginning of a new era of peace. It was a remarkable step that will go down in the history of peace on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia. I hope both leaders will take yet another huge step from there.
It’s true that Trump’s visit to South Korea was an important development, but there was no trilateral meeting to speak of, as Trump and Kim met at the DMZ to hold a bilateral meeting there, with Moon himself joining the two leaders just briefly. Those developments gave a new impetus to the dialogue, but it hasn’t produced any visible results as the meeting of the working groups in Sweden would end producing no yield.
Further into his speech, Moon presents three principles that he was adhering to in his attempts to bring peace back to the peninsula.
The first principle is zero tolerance for war. Korea is still in a state of armistice; the War has yet to come to an end. The tragedy of war should never be repeated on the Korean Peninsula. To this end, we must put an end to the longest-running armistice in human history and achieve a complete end to the War.
Well, yes, but what has been done so far to prevent the hostilities from ever recurring again? South Korea hasn’t made any noticeable attempts to negotiate a peace deal with the North, as its military expenditures continue rising.
The second principle is a mutual security guarantee. South Korea will guarantee the security of North Korea. I hope North Korea will do the same for South Korea. When the security of both sides is assured, it will become possible to accelerate denuclearization and the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. At the very least, all hostile acts must be put on hold while the dialogue is ongoing. I hope that the international community will also work together to alleviate the security concerns on the Korean Peninsula.
What are the real security guarantees that the North and South can give each other? The formal mutual denouncement of hostilities has already been voiced, but should one of the parties choose to go to war, it can safely accuse the other of violations, pointing out to military exercises, missile launches or propaganda campaigns. And how can the South provide any guarantees to the North without approval from Washington, to which Seoul remains tied by a defense agreement?
The third principle is co-prosperity. Peace does not simply mean the absence of conflict. Genuine peace is all about enhancing mutual inclusiveness and interdependence while working together for co-prosperity. A peace economy in which the two Koreas take part will solidify peace on the Peninsula and at the same time contribute to economic development in East Asia and the whole world.
Nevertheless, at the recent meeting between Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump joint economic projects between Pyongyang and Seoul weren’t even discussed. No a single word was said about the Keson Industrial Complex. As for DPRK’s proposals to bring substance to the proposals about promoting economic cooperation, they are being derailed by the South referring to the decisions made by the UN Security Council and the second boycott introduced by the United States. Thus, standing in front of the UN General Assembly, the sitting President of South Korea speaks about steps that cannot possibly be implemented at this point in time.
The wishful thinking of the ruling South Korean elites becomes even more evident in the enchanting proposal that Moon would make about transforming the demilitarized zone cutting the peninsula in two into an international zone of peace. From Moon’s point of view, it’s both an “ecological treasure” and…
A symbolic space steeped in history, which embraces both the tragedy of division as embodied by the Joint Security Area, guard posts and barbed-wire fences as well as the yearning for peace.
Thus, Moon Jae-in proposed to transform the demilitarized zone between the two countries into a world heritage site recognized by UNESCO! And once the two Koreas make peace, this place will become:
a zone where both Koreas and the international community can jointly explore the path to prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.
According to Moon’s vision, UN offices together with those other international organizations related to matters of peace, ecology and security are to erect new offices across the barren strip of land, transforming it into an “an international peace zone in name as well as substance.”
Well, that’s an example of thinking big for sure, especially if we take into account the costs of transforming the DMZ from a desolate strip into an epicenter of international peace. It goes without saying that it would be the UN that would be demanded to foot the bill for this project, not Seoul. In addition, the headache associated with such a massive project will fall on the shoulders of Moon’s successors, as even at the highest possible pace of preparations for the construction works they wouldn’t break ground while Moon is still in office. Finally, all these plans may become a reality once peace is established on the peninsula, and Seoul does virtually nothing to secure this goal. Then, if there’s any aggravation of the situation to occur any time soon, all of the progress achieved so far will go down the drain.
South Korean media sources described the idea of transforming the DMZ as “a bold plan to promote inter-Korean peace,” but in the speech given by Moon Jae-in there was no answer as to how peace could be achieved.
The establishment of an international peace zone will provide an institutional and realistic guarantee to North Korea’s security.
For sure, once all is said and done, the US wouldn’t dare mount a full frontal assault against a disarmed DPRK, since its charging tanks could prevent humanitarian workers from getting to their offices on time.
As for the prospect of putting the DMZ on the UNESCO recognized list, this step would in no way affect inter-Korean rapprochement. It’s a known fact that South Korean lobbyists want to put everything they can on the UNESCO list: their kimchi cabbage, the way it’s being prepared, which has deep internal symbolism, as well as folk songs performed during this process…
And should we reduce the ideas voiced by Moon Jae-in to the notion that after the establishment of peace between South Korea and the DPRK, both sides will be able to jointly implement projects aimed at putting certain cultural and historical sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List,” then we must recognize that nothing prevents them from pursuing those objectives separately. And that’s exactly what they are doing now.
And, finally, proposals about the establishment of a peace zone were voiced long before Moon Jae-in took office. The idea of such an ecological reserve was discussed as early as in the 1990s, then the leaders of the two countries discussed the creation of a “zone of peace” in the DMZ in 2018. This idea was one of the highlights of the Panmunjom Declaration of April 27, 2018.
The following lines seem to be more specific, but that’s just an impression:
Approximately 380,000 anti-personnel mines are laid in the DMZ, and it is expected to take 15 years for South Korean troops to remove them on their own. However, cooperation with the international community, including the United Nations Mine Action Service, will not only guarantee the transparency and stability of demining operations, but also instantly turn the DMZ into an area of international cooperation.
Thus, the sitting South Korean president has de facto recognized that his army, in spite of being the 6th largest in the world, and in spite of being vastly superior to DPRK’s in terms of technical equipment, does not have the ability to independently perform the task of demining the DMZ and that there’s no way to ensure the transparency of this process, without some form of international assistance. Although, it should be noted that the trial attempt made in 2018 didn’t cause much headache for the military.
It seems that, when speaking about 15 years, Moon proceeds from the opinion that these mines will be removed manually by a small group of explosives experts. Should there be more troops or modern technical means involved, it will take considerably less time to perform this task.
Then, Moon Jae-in proceeds with:
Chairman Kim Jong Un and I agreed on the peaceful use of the DMZ, and on-site inspections on the current state of North Korea’s railroads were conducted after the two Koreas embarked on the reconnection of the severed railroads and roads. In addition, the groundbreaking ceremony for their reconnection and modernization has already taken place.
But the sitting president forgot to mention that no steps were taken after the ceremony, as the attempt to assess the quality of North Korea’s routes succeeded on the second attempt due to the policies of the Joint Command of South Korea and the US. This evaluation showed that in some areas there’s nothing to repair, as certain communication lines cannot be qualified as roads.
That’s when it would be handy if Moon Jae-in could provide some insight about what could actually be done about it, but then again he would go on to discuss how these nonexistent efforts could be of assistance in strengthening the peace foundation on the Korean Peninsula and contribute to peace and stability in Northeast Asia.
That’s where he started discussing global matters:
Carrying a sense of responsibility commensurate with the progress it has made, Korea is now working together with the international community to bring about peace and prosperity in East Asia and the whole world.
As for the tactics that would allow Seoul to achieve these stated goals, it’s clear that ceremonial meetings will be of crucial importance here. Like the planned South Korea – ASEAN meeting of South Korea and the Mekong countries. However, there’s more:
In particular, Korea will actively participate in the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which will mark its 20th anniversary next year, and the Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations that had been adopted in Vancouver in 2017. We will also host the next Peacekeeping Ministerial in Korea in 2021. The Republic of Korea will host the second round of the P4G Summit: Partnering for Green Growth and the Global Goals 2030 next year. The second P4G Summit will serve as an opportunity to strengthen the international community’s solidarity for the implementation of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. I hope that many stakeholders from governments, international organizations, businesses and civil society will take interest and participate.
However, it goes without saying that by hosting such events a country receives a perfect opportunity to raise funds via various strategies, including attracting new investments.
Moon has also mentioned the hot topic of climate change, and although his speech was inferior to Greta Tunberg’s, the South Korean president announced that considerable efforts are being made to safeguard ecology. Among these efforts, one can mention the creation of a presidential commission on sustainable development and the adoption of a series of laws bearing flashy names. Yet, here’s where Moon Jae-in takes advantage of the achievements made by his conservative predecessor: the term “low-carbon green growth economy” and the laws adopted to ensure it was the legacy of both Park Geun-hye, and Lee Myung-bak.
In addition, the head of South Korea touched upon the topic of the steps of economic retaliation introduced by Japan, demanding that Tokyo change its position and emphasizing the importance of the values of free and fair international trade:
We will be able to make further progress when we cooperate while safeguarding the values of free and fair trade upon the foundation of an earnest self-reflection on past history.
As you can see, Moon demonstrates the model of the classic “social leader” who made a career without ever occupying an administrative position. Such politicians are confident that green bills somehow grow in the bank, and the best way to address a problem is to devote the most solemn meeting to the matter of its solution and develop a program with a creative and proud name.
Such leaders are perfectly capable of hosting major events with incomprehensible practical results; as they’ve become proficient in the subtle art of explaining why a problem hasn’t been yet resolved or why more money is needed to address it. Inherent populism makes them the darlings of the masses, as they are all about promises, of which they are never in short supply. However, the outcome of their stay in power is usually disappointing.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.