Moon’s Failed Balancing Act

The mood was decidedly upbeat in South Korea around this time last year: following the “historic summit” between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore, many praised Moon Jae-in as the “master mediator.”1 When Trump contracted cold feet just two weeks before his meeting with Kim, Moon staged a surprise inter-Korean summit to dispel their growing misgivings; the Singapore summit was back on schedule within two days of its cancelation. The specter of handshakes and hugs that followed were in stark contrast to the threats of “fire and fury” just a year earlier⁠—talk of peace abounded, and countless rounds of applause went to Moon, both at home and abroad. Moon’s campaign promise to put Seoul in the “driver’s seat” appeared more promising than ever.

Yet, what transpired before, during, and after the G20 summit in Osaka painted a different story: far from the image of a veteran negotiator Moon sought to maintain, he retreated to passivism⁠ in navigating Seoul’s bilateral and trilateral relations, prompting criticisms of irresponsibility and irrelevance. In truth, Seoul had little room to maneuver diplomatically: it was marginalized by Washington’s growing disregard for their alliance (and multilateralism more generally); overlooked by Beijing as it drew closer to Pyongyang after years of alienation; pressured under Pyongyang’s impatience as nuclear talks faltered; and besieged by Tokyo’s sudden trade onslaught. Under these circumstances, Moon’s failure to avert diplomatic inertia⁠ and, in worse cases, collapse is unsurprising. 

In this article, I evaluate Moon’s bilateral and trilateral diplomacy, focusing on the latest developments surrounding the G20 summit. More specifically, I assess Moon’s diplomatic priorities and how they were manifested in a string of diplomatic contests of late. Relying on South Korean sources, I also report on the growing divide between progressive and conservative voices on how Seoul should respond to its prevailing diplomatic challenges: 1) US-North Korea relations; 2) Japan-South Korea relations; and 3) the US-China trade war. This article is an attempt to take a more comprehensive stock of what has lately transpired and what Seoul should do as new twists and turns arise.

US-North Korea relations

For Moon, the more consequential event in June 2019 was not the Osaka summit but what occurred in its immediate aftermath: Trump’s visit to Seoul and his impromptu meeting with Kim Jong-un in Panmunjom. Despite the failed Hanoi summit in February, Moon found relief in the resilience of Trump and Kim’s personal ties: the two leaders continued to exchange “love letters” and confirm their mutual—if performative—fondness. In fact, their chemistry prevailed even in the face of renewed transgressions by the North; Trump defended Kim against reports of another domestic purge and doggedly downplayed his latest missile firings, calling them “very standard.” Encouraged by these signals, Moon has sought to revive the stalled talks; yet, the prospects of his brokerage seem significantly less sanguine than they did a year ago.

Moon has, broadly, three objectives when it comes to US-North Korea relations: (1) closing the gap between their varying approaches to denuclearization; (2) ensuring South Korea’s say in shaping a negotiated settlement for peace; and (3) advancing inter-Korean relations (not necessarily in tandem with US-North Korea relations). These objectives are mutually supportive but are, likewise, mutually contingent. Existing rifts on denuclearization could widen if Seoul endorses inter-Korean projects without corresponding improvement in US-North Korea relations—but failure to deepen inter-Korean relations would likely weaken Seoul’s bargaining leverage in trilateral talks. Successful realization of Moon’s objectives depends greatly on timing and coordination, as well as the strategies of other leaders over which he has little control.

Prior to the Hanoi summit, there were some signs of progress on narrowing the gap between the leaders’ different approaches to denuclearization⁠. Washington appeared to veer away from its traditional “all-or-nothing” approach—one that required Pyongyang to denuclearize before any form of sanctions relief would be contemplated. In a widely-cited speech at Stanford, the US special envoy Stephen Biegun stated, “…we are prepared to pursue—simultaneously and in parallel—all of the commitments our two leaders made in their joint statement at Singapore last summer.”2 This suggested an approach that came considerably closer to Pyongyang’s view that steps toward denuclearization and sanctions relief should be phased and reciprocal. For a moment, Washington and Pyongyang seemed to be converging toward what Moon called a “comprehensive” approach, which combines the objective of final and fully verifiable denuclearization (FFVD) with an incremental process for rewarding sanctions relief.

But the moment was short-lived. Within a few days of the Hanoi collapse, Washington returned to its original “denuclearization-first” policy. A senior official from the US State Department confirmed as much when he stated: “Nobody in the administration advocates a step-by-step approach. In all cases, the expectation is a complete denuclearization […] as a condition for all other steps.”3 This clearly contradicted Biegun’s earlier remarks. Some posited, in light of this shift, that the Trump administration was deeply divided⁠ between hard- and soft-liners⁠ on the right approach to negotiate with Pyongyang—and that the recent reversal reflected the dominant camp of the day. If true, conflicting signals from Washington would continue to complicate Moon’s efforts to bridge the gap between Trump and Kim over their preferred models of compromise.

A decision on the broader approach is, in fact, only the beginning. Even if Washington and Pyongyang were to agree to a “comprehensive” approach, the question still remains: how much and how soon should sanctions be relaxed—and for what kind of steps toward denuclearization? During the Hanoi summit, Pyongyang proposed that Washington lift the five most recent rounds of UN Security Council sanctions in return for dismantling some parts of the Yongbyon nuclear facility. Washington rejected the offer—and little has been said as to what type and level of concession it is willing to provide, if any, in exchange for verifiable steps toward denuclearization. That Pyongyang prepared no follow-up offer also indicates it is not interested in making unilateral concessions. An agreement—on either the broader approach or the details it would entail—remains elusive.

More troubling, whether Moon has the requisite leverage to advance Seoul’s interests appears in doubt as Washington and Pyongyang are losing faith in his ability to mediate in their favor. Washington, for one, has repeatedly warned Seoul against any unilateral moves to deepen inter-Korean ties. Following the inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo protested to his South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha that inter-Korean projects—with clear economic benefits to the North—would undermine pressure on the North to denuclearize.4 In an unusually stark display of discord, Pompeo stressed that nuclear progress must not “lag behind” any advancement in inter-Korean relations. Yet, Seoul has been pushing for a separate, rather than parallel, engagement process with Pyongyang.5 Indeed, though Seoul has yet to defy Washington in any overt manner, it has tested its confines by contemplating unilaterally lifting sanctions on Pyongyang.6 While it later backtracked on the idea, the instance elevated alarm in Washington about Seoul’s intentions—and the friction has remained visible since.7

Pyongyang has been far more explicit in its criticism of Seoul. When Kim and Trump met for their “spontaneous handshake” in Panmunjom, a North Korean official chided Seoul to “mind its own internal business,” vowing that nothing will “go through” Seoul again.8 The statement echoed Kim’s earlier remarks that Moon was acting like an “overstepping mediator.”9 In another pointed rebuke to Seoul, the North resumed the testing of short-range missiles and openly portrayed the latest launch as a “warning to South Korean military warmongers.”10 Many speculate that the move was intended to punish Seoul for failing to facilitate the US-North Korea talks in Pyongyang’s favor and to press Seoul to acquire larger concessions from Washington. Kim’s message has been made clear: Seoul should stay out if it cannot help Pyongyang.

Fears of “Korea passing” have reemerged in fuller force as a result. The expression refers to situations in which South Korea is overlooked in decisions affecting the Korean Peninsula. It gained particular traction in 2017 amid rising volatilities in US-North Korea relations. Faced by North Korean provocations, Trump ramped up his threats of preemptive military action. In one particularly tense period, Pyongyang fired a missile over Japan, to which Washington responded by dispatching a fleet of bombers and fighters to the North—and it did so without consulting Seoul. This was the first time Washington conducted such a military operation beyond the Northern Limit Line (NLL)—the de facto maritime boundary between the two Koreas—since the Korean War. Speculation about “Korea passing” mounted as Washington seemed increasingly bent on unilateral military action, in spite of the immediate and total wreckage this would cause to Seoul.

In 2019, “Korea passing” has a different flair. Multiple rounds of summitry later, there is growing evidence that Moon is being sidelined in the dialogue. Despite having facilitated the Panmunjom rendezvous, Moon was conspicuously absent in the high-stakes meeting between Trump and Kim. For weeks, Moon had called for another inter-Korean summit in anticipation of Trump’s visit—only to be met with deafening silence. In a more dramatic turn of events, Pyongyang publicly refused Seoul’s offer of food aid in protest of its planned military exercises.11 The curious timing of Pyongyang’s decision—a day before it test-fired two short-range missiles and a day after the Russo-Chinese air operation—led some to speculate that it may have been part of broader, coordinated efforts by Pyongyang and its patrons to pressure Seoul to pivot away from Washington.12 In this new manifestation of “Korea passing,” Seoul is relegated from being the “driver” to the weakest link in the diplomatic chain.

One issue for which debates about “Korea passing” surfaced most intensely in Seoul is the question of a nuclear freeze. A nuclear freeze would require Pyongyang to halt its nuclear production (but allow it to keep existing nuclear assets) in exchange for corresponding concessions by Washington, ranging from suspending military exercises to lifting sanctions. Conservative critics assert that this kind of tit-for-tat process will legitimize the North’s nuclear possessions given the long-term commitment it entails and the relative ease with which the North can backtrack on any progress. Once frozen, Pyongyang could even demand the withdrawal of the US nuclear umbrella and troops from South Korea as preconditions for further denuclearization—and Washington might oblige in defiance of its alliance commitments to Seoul. By contrast, Moon’s progressive supporters reject the premise that a nuclear freeze would compromise Washington’s objective of denuclearization. Pyongyang already possesses nuclear warheads and ICBM capabilities, which must be completely dismantled in order to eliminate threats against the United States. In a growing rift, conservatives saw nuclear freeze as a possible sign of “Korea passing,” whereas progressives saw it as a necessary step toward denuclearization.

The debates over “Korea passing” and, more specifically, nuclear freeze reveal a broader disagreement between South Korea’s conservatives and progressives about the current framework of nuclear talks—namely, is it bilateral or trilateral? Conservatives see the aftermath of the G20 summit as a sign that nuclear diplomacy is proceeding in a strictly bilateral manner between Washington and Pyongyang.13 On the contrary, progressives portray the Trump-Kim rendezvous as trilateral with Moon playing an indispensable role of a mediator.14 The differences in how they view the latest diplomatic affair are crucial for understanding their assessments of and prescriptions for Moon’s diplomacy. Alarmed by what they deem a visible shift toward bilateralism in US-North Korea relations, conservatives condemn Moon for passivism and advise strengthening alliance coordination with Washington to protect Seoul’s interests. Meanwhile, progressives applaud the success of trilateralism and see little reason to change the direction of Moon’s strategy—they recommend, simply, more of the same.

Two months have passed since the Trump-Kim handshake and the promised working-level talks have yet to resume. Amid the delays, the North has resorted to a series of missile tests aimed at scapegoating the South and Washington has willfully dismissed them as inconsequential. Most recently, North Korea rejected further peace talks with Seoul following Moon’s Independence Day speech.15 Pyongyang’s state media said Moon was “overcome with fright,” signaling its displeasure with his deferential attitudes to Washington. Photo-ops appear to have run their course, unmasking the fundamental differences between the US and North Korea that Seoul is unable to reconcile. Moon’s policy on US-North Korea relations has reached an impasse.

Japan-South Korea relations

Seoul’s diplomatic isolation is exacerbated by another issue that has all too quickly spiraled: its disputes with Tokyo. While their relations had steadily deteriorated under Moon, they finally came to a head during the week of the G20 summit in Osaka. The first conspicuous sign of their strained ties was when Abe Shinzo decided to forego a bilateral meeting with Moon. The decision came amid mounting frictions in bilateral relations, following Seoul’s withdrawal from the 2015 “comfort women” agreement and, more recently, its court ruling on forced labor. Matters turned dramatically worse when Tokyo announced restrictions on the export of three chemicals that are essential to South Korea’s semiconductor industry and, later, removed Seoul from its preferential trade “white list.” In response, Seoul downgraded Japan’s trading status and subsequently revoked a military intelligence-sharing agreement. The cycle of threats and retaliation has only intensified since.

Moon seeks a delicate—perhaps impossible—balance: he wants to mend ties with Japan, but only to the extent that is: (1) necessary to avoid the most devastating fallout in their trade and security ties; and (2) still tolerable to the public that demands an ever-stronger posture on history issues. Ever since his inauguration, Moon has—at least officially—pursued a “two-track” strategy toward Japan, in which history-related issues are dealt with separately from non-history issues in the economic and security domains. While sound in theory, implementing the “two-track” approach has proved immensely difficult in practice: the mounting mistrust between the two countries over a lack of resolution on history issues has driven an intractable wedge between them on practical matters of cooperation. The latest diplomatic row is revealing in this regard.

Indeed, underlying the specter of trade reprisals is a far more enduring conflict between Seoul and Tokyo over their history—in particular, the recurrent disputes surrounding wartime forced labor and “comfort women.” In fall 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese firms to pay damages to the victims of their forced labor during the colonial era. Crucially, it ruled that previous (government-to-government) deals on historical injustices do not invalidate individual victims’ rights to pursue redress. Tokyo vehemently protested the verdict, asserting that the normalization treaty in 1965 had “completely and finally” resolved questions of reparations.16 The two countries have since remained deadlocked on the issue: Seoul rejected Tokyo’s demands for third-party arbitration while Tokyo dismissed Seoul’s proposal to establish a joint compensation fund through voluntary contributions.17 Though Tokyo has repeatedly denied that its trade measures are in retaliation for history-related disputes, Abe’s reference to broken “trust” implies their intimate link.18  

The feud over “comfort women” has been even more intractable. Shortly after his inauguration, Moon ordered a special investigation into the “comfort women” agreement that his impeached predecessor Park Geun-hye had struck with Abe in 2015. Following the review, Moon declared that the deal was “seriously flawed” and could not “settle” the long-standing dispute. Although, officially, Moon opted not to renegotiate or revise the deal, he announced his intention to shutter the joint foundation that was established as part of the agreement to compensate surviving victims and bereaved families.19 The decision prompted strong objections from Japan, which asserted the deal had “finally and irreversibly” resolved the issue. After months of escalation, in what seemed like a retribution against Tokyo’s trade measures, Seoul moved to unilaterally and formally dissolve the foundation. The disputes over history have become more intertwined with the trade row as a consequence.

Further complicating the matter for Moon is the public’s hardened attitude toward Japan—one he helped crucially to curate. During his election campaign, he rallied the public around a bid to reexamine the country’s forced reconciliation with Japan. From promoting a country-wide installation of “comfort women” statues to replacing 500,000 Japanese trees with indigenous Korean ones in Taebaek national park, Moon has made small but significant gestures to rekindle the country’s woes against Japan.20 In a recent March 1 speech commemorating the Korean independence movement, he also declared that “wiping out the vestiges of pro-Japanese collaborators is a long-overdue undertaking.”21 A staggering 80 percent of South Koreans agreed.22 In this manner, Moon’s harsh rhetoric has both fueled and mirrored the growing public resentment toward Japan’s postcolonial impenitence. 

Anti-Japanism is a settled phenomenon in today’s South Korea. According to one survey, more than 50 percent of South Koreans claim they never considered Japan a “friendly nation” and more than 80 percent dislike Abe (as opposed to the 3 percent that like him).23 Another recent study found that 75 percent of South Koreans distrusted Japanese people; 82 percent believed bilateral relations were bad; and 87 percent believed Japan has yet to apologize sincerely for the “comfort women” issue.24 As the trade row intensified, such negative public sentiments have begun to materialize in a campaign to boycott Japan-made goods and services.25 Retailers have stopped selling Japanese beer and cigarettes; travelers have voluntarily canceled planned trips to Japan; and sales of Japanese cars have dropped markedly. In a more violent protest, two men set themselves on fire outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul and died as a result. Bilateral disputes have galvanized anti-Japanese sentiments and movements across the country.    

Politicians in the ruling Together Democratic Party (TDP) have also joined the “No Japan” bandwagon. In the national assembly, TDP lawmaker Choi Jae-sung suggested restricting travel to Tokyo and called for a boycott of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.26 Another TDP lawmaker Lee In-Young depicted Japan’s actions as a “declaration of an all-out war” and pledged to win the “economic war.” At the municipal level in Seoul, 52 district offices formed an association to implement various “No Japan” measures, including boycotting Japanese goods and halting exchanges with Japanese authorities. The ruling party’s in-house think tank also released a report, which intimated that disputes with Japan could be favorable for the party’s chances in the upcoming legislative election.27 This suggested that progressive politicians were reinforcing “No Japan” sentiments for electoral advantage.  

Given the domestic political mood at both the popular and elite levels, Moon’s hardline political strategy toward Japan is unsurprising. In a televised speech on August 2, Moon declared, “We will never lose to Japan again. We can beat Japan.”28 Following Tokyo’s decision to remove South Korea from the “white list” of countries that receive preferential treatment on trade, South Korea announced a similar measure to downgrade Japan’s status as a trusted trading partner.29 More recently, Seoul decided to scrap a military pact called the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which would have otherwise automatically renewed on August 24.30 The GSOMIA facilitates trilateral information-sharing between Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo; it is seen as a crucial framework for managing North Korean nuclear and missile threats.31 As Tokyo moved to add more restrictions on trade, Seoul’s response—in rhetoric and policy—has hardened in equal measure.

Still, Moon’s attempts to mobilize international opposition to Japan’s moves have been largely unsuccessful. Seoul aired its complaints during the General Council meeting at the World Trade Organization (WTO) and accused Tokyo of introducing measures that are “purely strategically planned to gain the upper hand in the diplomatic rows.”32 But no other member took to the floor, signaling an unwillingness to meddle in the dispute. During the ASEAN summit in Bangkok, Seoul also raised concerns about “recent developments relating to the trade tensions between major trading partners” in an attempt to lump its own spat with the wider US-China trade war.33 For Seoul, defending free and fair trade in the face of Japan’s trade measures fit effectively with the “ASEAN spirit”; yet, it appeared unlikely that ASEAN members would intervene when the dispute, in their view, has little direct impact on their own economic interests.34 By and large, the international community refused to point fingers at Japan.

Of greater concern for Seoul is Washington’s disinterest in the dispute. Following Moon’s request for an intervention, Trump publicly announced that he is willing to help ease the rising political and economic tensions between Japan and South Korea—if both parties agreed. Shortly thereafter, John Bolton arrived in Asia, drawing much speculation that he had come to defuse tensions between the two US allies; yet, he made no mention of the trade spat and discussed instead security cooperation on Iran and military burden-sharing. Such inattentiveness from Washington marks a significant departure from its hands-on approach in the past: Washington had acted—carefully and at times decisively—to prevent the friction between its two allies from flaring for fear of jeopardizing trilateral cooperation in the region.35 Trump’s refusal to press them today is, thus, a telling sign that a good relationship between Seoul and Tokyo is less important to the US, which has deprioritized its commitment to multilateralism in the region.

Seoul is also internally divided on who to blame and how to respond to Japan. While both conservatives and progressives portrayed Japan’s actions as disproportionate, conservatives have been far more critical of the Moon administration for failing to respond effectively or, in harsher accounts, for “triggering” Tokyo’s trade measures.36 They dismiss the claim that Seoul is pursuing “strategic non-response” as a rhetorical ruse for what is, in fact, a lack of a plan; in their view, Moon ignored the warning signs, let frictions fester, and prompted the very conflict that has now spiraled out of control.37 The progressives, however, refute the accusation that Seoul is in any measure responsible for the worsening bilateral relations. From their perspective, shifting the blame to Seoul is both illogical and counterproductive: Japan is using the ruling of an independent judiciary as a pretext for punitive trade measures; and condoning this “anti-democratic” tactic as a reasonable diplomatic response only helps Abe, who is purely motivated by domestic politics.

The disagreement over who to blame leads to two very different instructions for how to respond, particularly in relation to engaging the United States in the dispute. Conservative critics urge against any form of tit-for-tat retribution and support a diplomatic resolution mediated by Washington. At the same time, they warn that Washington’s intervention may not be favorable to Seoul; after all, Tokyo has followed Washington far more closely on key strategic issues—the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept, sanctions on North Korea, and Huawei—while Seoul has remained reluctant to support them.38 To gain leverage through Washington in any diplomatic negotiation with Tokyo, they prescribe that Moon should bolster the alliance, for instance, by joining the US maritime operations in the Strait of Hormuz.39 By contrast, progressive voices portray Tokyo’s moves as reflecting Washington’s attitude toward trade—Abe is emulating Trump’s tactic of using trade as a bargaining chip in diplomatic battles.40 In this view, Washington’s intervention is unlikely to be helpful as it is an advocate—and in fact the architect—of contemporary “trade retaliationism.” For Seoul’s progressives, the only sustainable solution to the dispute is, therefore, to diversify South Korea’s trade partnerships and grow economically independent from Japan.

The prospects of reconciliation are diminishing. There were, admittedly, some gestures of restraint from both sides. After Japan temporarily lifted the export ban of a key chemical, Moon struck a conciliatory tone in his Independence Day speech: “If Japan chooses the path of dialogue and cooperation, we will gladly join hands.”41 But the pacifying mood was short-lived. In fact, whether their dispute can meaningfully—and not just rhetorically—de-escalate appears increasingly questionable. On August 21, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono met his South Korean counterpart Kang on the sidelines of the trilateral summit between Japan, South Korea, and China; they agreed to remain engaged in dialogue but no substantive progress was made. Then the following day, Seoul announced its decision to scrap GSOMIA, citing an “issue of trust.”42 Tokyo called the decision “extremely regrettable” and vowed to lodge a firm protest. New rounds of reprisals loom large.   

US-China trade war

As South Korea’s economic and security relationship with Japan hangs precariously on balance, adding to the fears of their diplomatic collapse are the broader, inauspicious forces in play—the US-China trade war. It has escalated severely over the course of 2019, resulting in significant strains on the South Korean economy. An outsized part of South Korea’s exports entails supplying intermediate goods to China, which then assembles final goods for sale elsewhere including, most notably, the United States; this means South Korea suffers directly from any disruptions in the US-China trade. Beyond the economic costs, a conflict between Washington and Beijing creates complex diplomatic challenges for Seoul—in particular, their rivalry bodes poorly for Moon’s signature policy of inter-Korean reconciliation. As the US-China trade war deepens, Seoul is cornered into making a sharper, yet impossible, choice between Washington and Beijing. Moon’s “balanced diplomacy” is rendered, in many ways, abortive as a result.

Moon’s “balanced diplomacy” means, broadly, drawing closer to Beijing while preserving Seoul’s alliance with Washington.43 In a 2017 interview, Moon stated, “The relationship with China has become more important not only in terms of economic cooperation, but also for strategic cooperation for the peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue. That is why I am pursuing a balanced diplomacy with the US as well as China.”44 These remarks point to two important motivations behind his newly-devised foreign policy framework. First, it is inspired by a desire to pursue dialogue with the North, for which Beijing’s strategic cooperation—alongside Washington’s—is imperative. Second and equally important, it is informed by Seoul’s experience of Beijing under the Park administration, when the deployment of a US antimissile system led Beijing to retaliate economically and diplomatically. Though such motivations are reasonable, because Seoul’s relations with Washington and Beijing are pitched in zero-sum terms, Moon’s ability to implement “balanced diplomacy” is contingent on whether they are willing and able to accommodate his balancing acts—and given alliance commitments, Washington’s tolerance is especially critical.

Moon’s “balanced diplomacy” was more successful in 2017, precisely because Washington had allowed some space for Seoul to move closer to Beijing. Following a months-long clash over Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) that involved harsh Chinese sanctions on South Korea, the two had finally reached a truce toward the year’s end. To assuage Beijing’s concerns, Seoul announced the “three nos” in which it pledged: (1) not to deploy additional THAAD batteries; (2) not to participate in the integrated US missile defense network; and (3) not to join a trilateral military alliance with Japan and the United States.45 Though some pushback was noticeable, Washington remained largely supportive of the rapprochement between Beijing and Seoul: then National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster stated that he did not think “South Korea would give up its sovereignty in those three areas” but, by and large, welcomed Beijing’s decision to lift sanctions against Seoul and resume dialogue.46 Washington could have reined in Seoul for placing undue limits on future security options for the alliance—but it chose not to.

In 2019, Washington has less patience. As its trade war with Beijing heightens, Washington has begun to pressure and, increasingly, threaten Seoul to decouple from Beijing. An important case in point is Washington’s anti-Huawei campaign. In a veiled warning against Seoul, the top US official for the region Randall Schriver stated, “The United States doesn’t want to see a situation arise where we don’t have confidence in sharing sensitive information with our ally and information being safeguarded.”47 He was hinting that Seoul could lose access to US intelligence-gathering capabilities if it decided to adopt Huawei’s 5G technology. While, so far, Moon has deferred decision-making to the local companies—allowing at least one telecom firm LG Uplus to tap into Huawei’s services—this may become harder if and when Washington decides to intervene more resolutely.

What occurred during and after the G20 summit in Osaka demonstrates the intractable dilemma that Moon finds himself in. During their bilateral meeting, Xi stated, “China-ROK cooperation should be completely and mutually beneficial with win-win outcomes, and should therefore not be affected by external pressure.”48 While warning implicitly against Washington’s “pressure,” Xi raised the THAAD issue again, presumably, to remind Moon of what havoc Beijing could unleash on Seoul if it posed any harm. In addition, Xi discussed the results of his latest summit with Kim. Many believe this was intended to underscore Beijing’s political sway over Pyongyang and the importance of Beijing’s role in Moon’s prevailing diplomatic agenda—inter-Korean reconciliation. The message was as subtle as it was powerful: Moon must resist Washington’s pressures or endure overwhelming economic and diplomatic costs that Beijing will inflict in retribution.

Amid these clashing pressures from Washington and Beijing, Moon voiced support for Trump’s “free and open Indo-pacific” concept. During their post-G20 bilateral summit, he announced that he would “put forth harmonious cooperation between Korea’s New Southern Policy and the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy.”49 This was the first time that Moon had publicly acknowledged and endorsed the strategy since its introduction in 2017. Given the timing, many saw it as an attempt to appease Washington.50 At the same time, however, Seoul rejected Washington’ request to participate in a maritime operation to check Beijing in the South China Sea.51 This suggested that Seoul seeks to avoid any radical shifts in its balancing acts between Washington and Beijing; instead, it chooses to adopt more symbolic gestures in the hopes that they sufficiently appease one and fall short of provoking the other.  

As sustaining “balanced diplomacy” has become harder in the context of a deepening US-China trade war, Seoul is, for once, united in its push for a longer-term diversification strategy—the New Southern Policy. At the heart of this policy is strengthening Seoul’s ties with Southeast Asian countries to curb Seoul’s reliance on the United States and China. The policy has gained traction from both conservatives and progressives, who agree that recurring trade frictions between Washington and Beijing are symptomatic of a broader and likely durable competition; accordingly, they also acknowledge the need for Seoul to reduce its exposure to external tensions. Yet, their motivations for supporting the New Southern Policy—and diversification as a strategy in general—are somewhat different. Conservatives, in particular, want Seoul to be freed from China’s economic grasp (to be able to reinforce South Korea’s alliance with the US) and see diversification as a primarily economic agenda. Meanwhile, progressives see it as a wider project to bolster Seoul’s independence—not just from China but, equally crucially, the United States. Though Seoul’s diversification strategy appears as a rare bipartisan enterprise, underlying it are two conflicting visions of South Korea’s future, defined by varying degrees of proximity to Washington.  


What occurred in the brief span of two months—June to August 2019—left Seoul in a paralyzing disarray. After years of estrangement, Xi Jinping traveled to Pyongyang and gave Kim a much-needed diplomatic boost; and yet, Xi refused to visit Seoul to meet Moon. Not long after, Trump shook hands with Kim in Panmunjom with great fanfare; but they barely acknowledged Moon’s presence or his role in facilitating the meeting. Kim, in fact, openly denounced Moon and vowed against any further North-South talks. Meanwhile, Abe declined to meet Moon at the G20 summit in Osaka and, promptly afterwards, surprised him with debilitating export controls. All of this happened on the heels of an escalating US-China trade war and mounting pressures on Seoul to choose sides. No comparable series of blows to South Korean diplomacy has occurred in its recent history—there is little indication of a path forward.

These diplomatic challenges have one theme in common: Seoul’s growing defenselessness. Despite its desire to be a shaper of its own fate, Seoul finds itself overwhelmed by the larger and increasingly unpredictable forces in play: Washington and Beijing are constantly pivoting in an attempt to gain bargaining leverage vis-à-vis each other—the result is a geopolitical whiplash for Seoul as it confronts ever-regressing relations with Pyongyang and Tokyo. Further aggravating the situation is the internal division in Seoul over what can and should be done in response. A sense of diplomatic defeat and isolation is becoming more palpable each day.

1. Andrei Lankov, “The master mediator: why Moon Jae-in deserves much more credit than he gets,” NK News, June 26, 2019,

2. “Remarks on DPRK at Stanford University,” January 31, 2019,

3. Simon Denyer, “Satellite images suggest North Korea planned space launch even before Hanoi,” The Washington Post, March 9, 2019

4. “Pompeo tells Seoul nuclear progress must not lag better Korea ties,” Reuters, November 20, 2018,

5. Daniel Sneider, “Behind The Chaos Of Washington’s Korea Policy,” Tokyo Business Today, August 27, 2018,

6. Choe Sang-hun, “South Korea Backtracks on Easing Sanctions After Trump Comment,” The New York Times, October 11, 2018,

7. Tim Shorrock, “Washington’s Ire Shifts From Kim Jong-un to Moon Jae-in,” The Nation, October 19, 2018,

8. Victoria Kim, “Trump to arrive in Seoul as South Korea finds itself in a tough spot with North Korea,” Los Angeles Times, June 28, 2019,

9. “S. Korean president calls for 4th summit with Kim Jong Un,” The Asahi Shimbun, August 15, 2019,

10. Simon Denyer, “North Korea says missile test was ‘solemn warning to South Korean warmongers’,” The Washington Post, July 25, 2019,

11. “Summary of inter-Korean news this week,” Yonhap, July 26, 2019,

12. Andrew Salmon, “Dark side of the Moon: South Korea besieged,” Asia Times, July 29, 2019,

13. “[사설] ‘트럼프 대선’과 ‘김정은 핵보유’ 거래, 용납할 수 없다,” 조선일보, 2019년7월2일,

14. “[사설] ‘한반도 평화’ 이정표 세운 남북미 정상의 판문점 만남,” 한겨레, 2019년6월30일,

15. Scott Newman, “North Korea Calls Off Further Talks With South, Launches More Projectiles,” NPR, April 19, 2019,

16. Choe Sang-hun, “South Korean Court Orders Mitsubishi of Japan to Pay for Forced Wartime Labor,” The New York Times, November 29, 2018,

17. Kan Kimura, “South Korea’s Botched Handling of the Forced Labor Issue,” The Diplomat, July 9, 2019,

18. “Abe ties export restrictions to ‘trust,’ North Korea sanctions.” Joongang Daily, July 9, 2019,

19. “Seoul guts the ‘comfort women’ agreement,” The Japan Times, November 23, 2018,

20. James L. Schoff and Paul K. Lee, “Navigating Rocky Japan–South Korea Relations,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 25, 2019,

21. “Address by President Moon Jae-in on 100th March First Independence Movement Day,” March 1, 2019,

22.  “우리 국민, 3.1운동 하면 유관순(43.9%), 대한민국임시정부 하면 김구(31.4%)가 떠올라,” 2019년2월26일,

23. “The Japan-South Korea Joint Public Opinion Poll 2019,” The Genron NPO, June 12, 2019,

24. Julian Ryall, “3 in 4 Japanese distrust South Koreans – and the feeling’s mutual,” The South China Morning Post, June 12, 2019,

25. Song Jung-a, Edward White, and Kana Inagaki, “South Koreans vent anger with growing boycott of Japanese goods,” Financial Times, August 6, 2019,

26. Ock Hyun-joo, “[Feature] Koreans reject ‘No Japan’ campaign, focus on criticizing Abe,” The Korea Herald, August 13, 2019,

27. “‘반일 프레임’ 총선용이었다… ‘양정철 보고서’ 파문,” 뉴데일리, 2019년7월31일,

28. Mitsuru Obe and Kim Jaewon, “South Korea to retaliate over Japan’s ‘white list’ removal,” Nikkei Asian Review, August 2, 2019,

29. Choe Sang-hun, “South Korea Retaliates Against Japan in Trade and Diplomatic Rift,” The New York Times, August 12, 2019

30. “靑, 지소미아 파기 결정…한일 관계 다시 격랑 속으로,” 동아일보, 2019년8월22일,

31. Crystal Tai, “Anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea brews as ‘trade war’ escalates,” The South China Morning Post, July 24, 2019,

32. Tom Miles, “Japan and South Korea clash at WTO over trade row,” Reuters, July 24, 2019,

33. Masayuki Yuda, “Japan and South Korea ministers make no progress on export curbs row,” Nikkei Asian Review, August 1, 2019,

34. Park Chan-kyong, “South Korea looks to Asean for help in its ‘trade war’ with Japan,” The South China Morning Post, July 29, 2019,

35. Motoko Rich, Edward Wong and Choe Sang-Hun, “As Japan and South Korea Feud Intensifies, U.S. Seems Unwilling, or Unable, to Help,” The New York Times, August 4, 2019,

36. “[사설] ‘전략적 침묵’한다는 청와대, 무능 무책임일 뿐” 조선일보, 2019년7월4일,

37. “[사설] 기업에 “일본의 경제 보복, 사전에 몰랐냐”고 묻는 정부,” 중앙일보, 2019년7월4일,

38. “[사설] ‘韓·日 관여’ 운 뗀 트럼프, 우리 편 당길 지렛대 찾아야,” 조선일보, 2019년7월22일,

39. “[사설]韓日 분쟁에 어정쩡한 트럼프… 일희일비 말고 동맹강화 주력해야,” 동아일보, 2019년7월22일,

40. 안재승, “[유레카] 아베의 ‘보복무역주의’,” 한겨레, 2019년7월8일,

41. Choe Sang-hun, “South Korea Leader Appeals to Japan as Dispute Festers,” The New York Times, August 15, 2019,

42. Simon Denyer and Minjoo Kim, “South Korea axes pact on sharing military intelligence with Japan,” The Washington Post, August 22, 2019,

43. “[Editorial] Moon’s balanced diplomacy,” The Korea Herald, November 6, 2017,

44. “[Editorial] Moon’s balanced diplomacy.”

45. ““Balanced diplomacy” becomes fundamental to President Moon’s foreign policy,” Hankyoreh, November 6, 2017,

46. “McMaster: US “welcomes” news of South Korea-China agreement,” Hankyoreh, November 4, 2017,

47. John Power, “US pressure on Seoul over Huawei taps into fears of North Korea, The South China Morning Post, June 26, 2019,

48. “‘한국은 미국 말고 중국편 들라’···시진핑, 文 만나 우회압박” 중앙일보, 2019년6월27일,

49. “Moon signs onto Trump Indo-Pacific Strategy,” Joongang Daily, July 2, 2019,

Ankit Panda, “South Korea and the US Indo-Pacific Strategy: At an Arm’s Length?” The Diplomat, July 7, 2019

50. “Moon signs onto Trump Indo-Pacific Strategy.”