The Case of Moon Jae-in

The fact that North Korea assumes such center stage in the conduct of South Korea’s foreign and security policies is hardly surprising. Seventy years since the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the two Koreas remain locked in confrontation. Despite multiple political and diplomatic initiatives since the early 1990s, all of the principal actors in the North Korean nuclear saga have failed to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, and once it did so in 2006, there has been no tangible progress in denuclearization, much less in rolling back Pyongyang’s growing nuclear arsenal.

For the Moon Jae-in government all roads lead to Pyongyang. Convinced that an irreversible reset must be put into place between the two Koreas during his single five-year term (2017-2022), Moon has placed the highest priority in forging a “permanent peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula. The Blue House remains confident that Moon’s unparalleled détente with Kim Jong-un will usher in a new era in inter-Korean and US-North Korea relations. While such a prognosis remains possible, Kim probably feels that he could get a better deal if he waits until Trump gets a second term. If Trump loses in 2020, Kim will wait to deal with a new US administration. Rebuffed by Trump in Hanoi in February 2019, Kim is unlikely to repeat losing face with a US president. Much more consequential for Kim is the fact that so long as China remains stalwart in its support for North Korea and offers tacit acceptance, for now, that a nuclearized North Korea is preferable than a reunified peninsula under the auspices of the Republic of Korea (ROK), there is virtually zero possibility of President Xi Jinping cutting off life support for the Kim regime.

The Moon administration has pushed inter-Korean détente to the forefront of its policy agenda. More than any other leftist or progressive government that came into power since democratization in 1987, it has advocated making unparalleled progress with North Korea as the centerpiece of its national security agenda. While Moon Jae-in has also encouraged a New Southern Policy or strengthening ties with ASEAN as a major foreign policy initiative, virtually every aspect of his foreign policy has centered on pushing South-North reconciliation to new heights. In the process, Moon has elevated Kim Jong-un not only as a trusted partner in the forging of a “new era” on the Korean Peninsula, together with Trump he has provided Kim greater political legitimacy than Kim could have ever hoped for since his rise to power in 2011.

The logic of “guaranteeing” the security of the Kim regime

The prevailing logic in Moon’s North Korea policy is to guarantee North Korea’s security so that Kim will be compelled to denuclearize. In his foreign address as president in Berlin on July 6, 2017, Moon stated that if the Kim Jong-un regime “stopped its provocations and showed its determination to denuclearize, my Administration would lead the way in helping the North receive support and cooperation from the international community.”1 Moon’s speech outlined three main points: 1) a simultaneous process of improving US-North Korea and North Korea-Japan relations, replacing the 1953 armistice with a permanent peace treaty, and putting into place a new inter-Korean economic cooperative framework; (2) making the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics an “Olympics of Peace” with the participation of North Korea; and 3) halting mutual acts of hostility.2 Similar statements have been made by presidents on the left although the degree to which previous administrations emphasized the centrality of forging an irreversible peace regime, for instance, differed widely.

Moon also conveyed two main messages to Kim: first, he promised that “we do not wish for North Korea’s collapse, and will not work toward any kind of unification through absorption. Neither will we pursue an artificial unification,”3 and furthermore, that he would “pursue the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that guarantees the security of the North Korean regime.”4 Previous progressive presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun also disavowed the possibility of unification through absorption or the German model. But it was particularly poignant that a South Korean president vowed that he would “guarantee the security of the North Korean regime.” How can the leader of North Korea’s principal adversary “guarantee” the security of the regime? Understanding the prevailing logic behind this statement sheds important insights into the mindset of the Moon government’s approach to North Korea.

Given North Korea’s fundamental rejection of unification through absorption unless it is the South that will be absorbed into the North, one can understand the rationale behind Moon’s outright rejection of this particular policy. That said, just because one chooses not to exercise a particular policy option, does not mean that that such an option is absolutely impossible given the many forces at play that could lead to a North Korean collapse. What the Moon administration has done since May 2017, however, is to ensure that Seoul will do everything in its power to bolster Kim’s security. In this context, the following dimensions have to be examined.

The fundamental proposition that Moon or his government can guarantee the security of Kim regime has to be assessed not only from the perspective of policy plausibility but in the context of ensuing security repercussions. For example, while it’s nearly impossible to imagine that Kim Jong-un would ever consider giving up his nuclear weapons or other WMD assets, what he could lure out of a South Korean as well as an American government that places the highest priority on denuclearizing North Korea are steps to significantly weaken the ROK’s defense capabilities and concomitant promise that the US would draw down its military commitment to South Korea including gradually removing the US nuclear umbrella. If Kim argues that he would be willing to pursue “genuine” denuclearization if the ROK and the US take reciprocal steps to disavow “hostile” policies towards North Korea, it is not entirely impossible to imagine that the current political leadership in Seoul and Washington could agree to such a roadmap.

For the Moon government, signing a permanent peace treaty would be a cornerstone of ensuring an irreversible peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. The near-obsession with building a peace regime is not new. The South Korean left have argued for decades that bringing about genuine peace on the peninsula must begin with the signing of a permanent peace treaty followed by arms control between the two Koreas. The critical roadblock for ensuring genuine peace on the peninsula is the continued stationing of US forces and the “imposition” of a US nuclear umbrella.

Hence, in order for real reconciliation to move forward between the two Koreas, it is paramount to remove all US forces from South Korea and to also discontinue the US nuclear umbrella since this is an existential threat to North Korea. Indeed, South Korea’s left justifies North Korea’s nuclear weapons program because they regard it as a defensive responsive to a hostile United States bent on pressuring North Korea with overwhelmingly powerful nuclear weapons. What makes this scenario more plausible, at least in bits and pieces, is the fundamentally erratic nature of Trump’s North Korea policy and his deeply imbedded mistrust of US allies.

It is from such a perspective that there is a “strategic alignment” between Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump, and Moon Jae-in. All three leaders are seeking to reset security conditions on the Korean Peninsula that cater to their core interests. But what Trump has done since he entered office in January 2017 is to blur the raison d’etre of the US-ROK alliance, which has been instrumental in maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula since the end of the Korean War in 1953. And because the critical external factor that keeps North Korea afloat is Chinese support, whatever steps the Moon government has taken to cajole Kim Jong-un back to the negotiating table is only secondary to what China can offer. In the process, as China’s leverage continues to grow towards the two Koreas on account of Beijing’s ongoing support for Pyongyang, amid weakening of the ROK-US alliance due to Trump’s unpredictable Korea policy and the Moon administration’s own tilt towards China, the ROK’s key leverage flowing from its alliance with the United States is also likely to decline.

Therefore, the net result of policies designed to bolster the security of Kim’s regime is going to be threefold: 1) continued politicization of South Korea’s security posture toward North Korea or downplaying the multiple threats emanating from the North; 2) opportunity costs associated with delaying, reducing, or canceling major bilateral military exercises between the ROK and the United States such as weakened interoperability; and 3) providing Kim Jong-un with the upper hand since the Moon government continues to believe that it must remain silent on key issues deemed sensitive to Pyongyang such as pressuring North Korea on human rights.

For its part, the Moon government disagrees with such assessments. They assert that South Korea’s defense budget has continued to grow since it came into power. In October 2019, Moon said that the defense budget would grow by 9.3 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. It is slated to be $42 billion in 2020 with the highest year-on-year increase among the OECD.5 As part of its Mid-term Defense Program (2020-2024), the South Korean Ministry of Defense (MND) said that it plans to provide $85 billion for future force modernization and procurement costs or an average increase of 10.3 percent per year during this period.6

The Moon government emphasizes that inter-Korean détente depends on a strong ROK defense posture, and the MND noted that “in consideration of recent uncertainties in security circumstances…, the government has increased investment in the strengthening of defense capabilities to allow our military proactively to respond to security threats from all directions.”7 But a major part of South Korea’s increased defense budget stems from the growing military manpower deficit South Korea faces owing to one of the most rapidly aging and declining populations in the world.

By 2022, South Korea’s active military is going to decline to 500,000 from a current total of approximately 600,000: “The reductions could compromise South Korea’s defense readiness at a time when the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has conducted a series of short-range weapons tests this year that threaten Seoul, military and security experts say. During the recent diplomacy with Pyongyang, both Seoul and Washington have agreed to cancel or pare back joint military exercises.”8 Hence, it is important to keep in mind that South Korea’s sustained defense modernization is being driven primarily by irreversible demographic trends although, politically, the Moon government has opted to significantly downplay the range of threats flowing from North Korea.

The 2018 Defense White Paper which was the first one issued in the Moon administration, noted that, “in general, North Korea is expected to maintain inter-Korean cooperation and exchanges to create an external environment favorable to its economic development… North Korea will likely create an atmosphere for the active implementation of the agreements made between the two sides by highlighting the ‘Panmunjom Declaration’ and the ‘Pyongyang Joint Declaration.’ Pyongyang is also expected to seek stronger cooperation in civilian sectors to build stable inter-Korean relations on both the state and civilian levels.”9 In May 2019, Moon told senior US and ROK officers that “the solidarity of the (South Korean)-U.S. alliance and close coordination between our two countries was clearly evident during our joint response to North Korea’s recent launches” and that “by offering a calm and moderate message with one voice … the two countries have maintained the momentum of talks.”10 It can be inferred from such official South Korean statements that priority is put on sustaining inter-Korean dialogue and South-North détente despite North Korea’s unchanging military posture.

Donald Trump’s erratic Korea policy

Right after his June 2018 summit with Kim in Singapore, Trump famously tweeted “Just landed—a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea. Meeting with Kim Jong Un was an interesting and very positive experience. North Korea has great potential for the future!”11 Not only was such a statement factually untrue, Trump argued during the 2016 presidential campaign that the joint US-ROK exercises or war games were expensive, dangerous, and unnecessary. Trump is the only US president who characterized these military exercises as too costly and “very provocative,” something with which his own Department of Defense did not agree.12 While Trump has not called directly on South Korea or Japan to develop its own nuclear deterrent, claiming that the US nuclear umbrella is too expensive to maintain, he alluded to such a possibility in 2016. For whatever reason, Trump was convinced that key US allies such as South Korea, Japan, Germany, and Saudi Arabia, for example, were rent seekers that forced the US to assume the lion’s share of the defense burden.

In a CNN interview in March 2016, Anderson Cooper asked Trump if his previous statements on the possibility of Japan and South Korea going nuclear did not contradict his views on being against nuclear proliferation. Trump argued that “We are supporting them, militarily, and pay us a fraction, a fraction of what they should be paying us and of the cost. We are supporting Japan. Most people didn’t even know that. Most people didn’t know that we are taking care of Japan’s military needs,” reemphasizing his point that key allies were not assuming their fair share of defense costs.13 In a convoluted back and forth, Trump was intimating that it would be far less costly to the United States if rich allies like Japan, South Korea, and even Saudi Arabia could have nuclear weapons to protect themselves:

COOPER:  So if you said, Japan, yes, it’s fine, you get nuclear weapons, South Korea, you as well, and Saudi Arabia says we want them, too?
TRUMP:  Can I be honest with you? It’s going to happen, anyway. It’s going to happen anyway. It’s only a question of time. They’re going to start having them or we have to get rid of them entirely. But you have so many countries already, China, Pakistan, you have so many countries, Russia, you have so many countries right now that have them.
Now, wouldn’t you rather in a certain sense have Japan have nuclear weapons when North Korea has nuclear weapons? And they do have them. They absolutely have them. They can’t—they have no carrier system yet but they will very soon. Wouldn’t you rather have Japan, perhaps, they’re over there, they’re very close, they’re very fearful of North Korea, and we’re supposed to protect.
COOPER:  So you’re saying you don’t want more nuclear weapons in the world but you’re OK with Japan and South Korea having nuclear weapons?
TRUMP:  I don’t want more nuclear weapons. I think that—you know, when I hear Obama get up and say the biggest threat to the world today is global warming, I say, is this guy kidding?

All presidential candidates say things they regret on the campaign trail but Trump’s highly inconsistent comments on allies having nuclear weapons, his fierce opposition to joint US-ROK exercises as war games that he deemed too expensive and dangerous, and incessant pressure on South Korea (and Japan) to significantly increase their host nation support defense costs all combined to send extremely mixed messages to Kim Jong-un. Sitting in Pyongyang, Kim would have been pleasantly surprised at a US president who publicly attacked joint exercises as being a potential threat to North Korea.

More significantly, Trump’s widely unpredictable and cavalier remarks and stances on South Korean security probably convinced Kim that he could reach a significant deal with the United States or sign an ambiguous denuclearization agreement in exchange for a series of US commitments to downgrade its defense commitment to South Korea. While this has not happened, Trump’s off-the-cuff decisions on critical national security issues meant that long-standing mechanisms designed to bolster the defense and deterrence capabilities of key allies could be turned upside down. According to Guy Snodgrass, who served as Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ director of communications and chief speechwriter, Mattis and the DOD were caught off guard by Trump on many occasions.

At a game-changing summit in Singapore with Kim Jong-un, Trump declared an end to the “war games” between the US and South Korea. Responding to a question regarding security assurances the US exchanged for promises of North Korean denuclearization, Trump said, “We will be stopping the war games, which will save us a tremendous amount of money.” It was an alarming, and seemingly ad hoc, decision. He caught the Pentagon flat-footed.14

Throughout the second half of 2019, North Korea said that it would not kowtow to US demands. At the end of December, Kim called on his military and diplomats to shore up “offensive measures” to protect the country’s sovereignty although he did not specify what measures.15 Although pundits argued that Kim was likely to conduct another nuclear or ICBM test to further pressure the US, he has, for now, opted to take a stealth approach.

In part, Kim understands Trump’s psychology of wanting a major breakthrough with North Korea to burnish his foreign policy credentials in the critical November 2020 re-election. In early January 2020, National Security Council Advisor Robert O’Brien said that “we’ve reached out to the North Koreans and let them know that we would like to continue the negotiations in Stockholm that were last undertaken in early October” and also stated that “we’ve been letting them know, through various channels, that we would like to get those back on track.”16

There is always a possibility of a third full US-North Korea summit (they met briefly in Panmunjom in June 2019) in the spring or summer of 2020 in order to enhance Trump’s foreign policy credentials. If Trump meets Kim, especially before the April 2020 South Korean National Assembly elections, it would provide a major political boost to Moon and the ruling Democratic Party by re-emphasizing the importance of normalizing ties between the United States and North Korea. Moreover, if Kim really wanted to provide Moon with a major windfall, he would agree to a pathbreaking visit to Seoul in spring 2020. Combined with a Trump-Kim summit and the first South-North summit to be held in Seoul, Moon will get a major and irreversible political boost.

Whether such a scenario actually materializes by April 2020 remains uncertain. From Kim’s perspective, if he gets another summit with Trump with the promise of a tangible agreement, he is unlikely to provide Moon with a formal visit to Seoul. Given that it is in North Korea’s interest to deal directly with the United States and marginalize South Korea, it depends how badly Trump wants a meeting with Kim. But based on Trump’s previous statements and actions toward North Korea, he is much more interested in short-term political and psychological gains to augment his image, disorient his political opponents, and push aside concerns about giving in too much to Kim Jong-un. So long as Trump walks away with a “major victory” by concluding a nuclear freeze agreement with Kim—regardless of how vague the actual roadmap may be—his political goals will have been fulfilled regardless of the longer-term implications for the ROK-US alliance or US force posture in East Asia.

The growing China factor and plateauing of US influence

To the extent that Kim is highly dependent on his Chinese patron for economic and political support, the most important external link that serves to bolster Kim’s regime is Chinese assistance. Beijing’s paramount interests on the Korean Peninsula are twofold: 1) preventing instability as long as possible given the consequences of a collapsing North Korea with hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming into China; and 2) ensuring that a unified Korea does not encroach upon China’s core national security and economic interests such as the abrogation of the US-ROK alliance, withdrawal of all US forces from the Korean Peninsula, removing the US nuclear umbrella, and making sure that it remains nuclear-free. “While the Chinese certainly would prefer that North Korea not have nuclear weapons, their greatest fear is regime collapse.”17

Writing for the Lowy Institute, Wang Chenjun and Richard McGregor outlined four main reasons behind China’s support for North Korea. First, China has long advocated a “three nos” principle vis-à-vis the Korean Peninsula: “no war, no instability, no nukes and it has long been involved in measures to scale back any threat of military escalation on the peninsula.”18 Second, since China wants to take over Taiwan without military conflict, a North Korean collapse could complicate the cross-strait problem since “the outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula in 1950 helped Mao Zedong from invading Taiwan, which he had been preparing to do since the year before [1949].”19 The reasoning is that any prolonged instability in North Korea not only could seep into China, but more importantly, prevent China from entertaining possible military options toward Taiwan. Indeed, while it remains unknown to what extent the United States would actually support Taiwan in case of a major cross-strait crisis, Washington may opt to bolster Taiwanese security.

Third, notwithstanding South Korea’s growing economic and political ties with China and Beijing’s increasing leverage toward the ROK, China does not trust South Korea, which remains a key US ally. “At the minimum, China would demand a neutral Korea. A unified peninsula drifting into the United States’ arms would break the strategic balance in the region – from Beijing’s perspective. Hence, a divided Peninsula still remains optimal for Chinese interests at the moment.”20 And fourth, given the expanding dimensions of US-China competition, it remains in China’s interests to make sure that South Korea is decoupled from the United States. “Caught in the middle, Korea is historically a strategically plaything in a great power competition. While working under a multilateral framework, China’s primary strategic concern is to keep the peninsula out of US hands.”21 Although South Koreans will surely disagree with how Wang and McGregor describe Korea in the context of China’s weltanschauung, what China covets most is that the Korean Peninsula not fall under a foreign power that could endanger China’s core interests.

The ongoing US-China trade wars, which were instigated by Trump, have served to turn attention away from China’s relentless military modernization drive and a much more assertive posture in Northeast Asia. According to the DIA’s China Military Power, China’s military power is destined to grow. Even as PLA capabilities have improved and units have begun to operate farther from the Chinese mainland, Beijing has continued to emphasize what it perceives as a “period of stra­tegic opportunity” during which it can pursue development without a major military conflict. In line with this perception, Beijing has imple­mented an approach to external engagement that seeks to enhance China’s reach and power through activities calculated to fall below the threshold of alarming the international com­munity about China’s rise or provoking the United States, its allies and partners, or others in the Asia-Pacific region into military conflict or an anti-China coalition. This is particularly evident in China’s pursuit of its territorial and maritime sovereignty claims in the South and East China seas.22

Trump’s dangerous outreach to Kim combined with Moon’s relentless détente with North Korea has coincided with China’s sustained increase in power projection capabilities. Indeed, one of the most negative side effects arising from a bad nuclear deal between Trump and Kim is that it could lead to a gradual reduction in US forces and shifting strategic priorities such as limiting the introduction of US strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula such as bombers and aircraft carriers on an ad-hoc basis. If such a trend were to materialize, China would gain critical dividends since these steps would have the unintended consequence of reducing US strategic leverage in and around the Korean Peninsula. These developments could take place when China is rapidly catching up with the United States in AI and next-generation military technologies such as hypersonic missiles and long-range drones that could enable it to achieve technological parity with the United States.

The United States is by no means out of this competition, and, given the effort, easily can come out on top. Under any circumstances, however, it seems a sure bet that AI and the autonomous operations they will enable will have a wide-ranging impact and potentially spark a new military-technical revolution. It is clear the Chinese are intent on being an aggressive first mover in this new warfighting regime and hope to exploit it in order to surpass the US military as the most powerful on earth.23

Looking ahead to the 2020s

By the time Moon leaves office in May 2022, Kim Jong-un’s strategic leverage will have increased to a level far beyond when Moon’s term began. This is because Moon’s term coincided with the beginning of Trump’s first term—the most consequential US president vis-à-vis South Korean security. No prior US president (not even Jimmy Carter who wanted to gradually withdraw US ground forces from South Korea until he listened to new intelligence assessments) has pursued such inconsistent and capricious policies towards the two Koreas. Convinced of his intellectual prowess and his negotiating genius, Trump has long believed that he alone can remake history where other US presidents failed.

One near-term and another longer-term development, however, could have potentially far-reaching consequences for South Korean security. In the short-term and as assessed above, Trump will continue to try to convince Kim Jong-un of the benefits of signing a “breakthrough” nuclear agreement with him before the November 2020 US presidential election. Such a move would cement Kim’s political stature and also have the effect of leap frogging over South Korea and Moon Jae-in. To be sure, there are significant hurdles that could still prevent the signing of a rushed nuclear agreement such as brittle US domestic politics including Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate (although it is widely expected that he will not be ousted by the Republicans). But a new Trump-Kim deal could accelerate Moon’s desire to put into place an “irreversible peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula such as the signing of a peace treaty, a full reversion of wartime operational control (OPCON) to the ROK and possibly, a conventional arms reduction roadmap that could include a gradual reduction of the USFK.

A simultaneous development that is not tied with developments on the Korean Peninsula but could have enormous repercussions is the pace and breadth of the PLA’s power projection capabilities and military modernization. Just at a time when the US posture in East Asia has suffered owing to Trump’s knee-jerk Asia policy without a coherent strategy, China’s sustained military modernization means that China’s relative strategic position is going to be enhanced. This has major implications for South Korean security. Even in the best of circumstances, US influence in East Asia is going to plateau whereas China’s is going to grow.

For South Korea, putting almost all of its security eggs in the North Korea basket means that there will be no credible leverage against growing Chinese power in and around the Korean Peninsula. Together with a weakened ROK-US alliance and politicized threat assessment in South Korea, China’s expanding military shadow in Northeast Asia portends negative consequences for the ROK’s longer-term security posture.

1. “Address at the Korber Foundation, Germany,” Office of the President of the Republic of Korea, July 6, 2017,

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. “Defense Budget,”,

6. Josh Smith, “Buying a big stick: South Korea’s military spending has North Korea worried,” Reuters, September 11, 2019,

7. “S. Korea seeks to increase defense budget 7.4% next year,” The Korea Herald, August 29, 2019,

8. Dasl Yoon and Timothy W. Martin, “South Korea is Having Fewer Babies; Soon It Will Have Fewer Soldiers,” The Wall Street Journal, November 6, 2019,

9. 2018 Defense White Paper (Seoul: Ministry of National Defense, 2019), p. 24.

10. Kim Gameland and Yoo Kyong Chang, “Moon praises restraint in response to N. Korean missiles during meeting with top US commander,” Stars and Stripes, May 21, 2019,

11. Quoted in Eileen Sullivan, “Trump Says ‘There Is No Longer a Nuclear Threat’ After Kim Jong-un Meeting,” The New York Times, June 13, 2018,

12. Eric Schmitt, “Pentagon Suspends Major War Game With South Korea,” The New York Times, June 18, 2018,

13. “Full Rush Transcript: Donald Trump, CNN Milwaukee Republican Presidential Town Hall,” CNN, March 29, 2016,

14. Guy Snodgrass, Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2019), p. 231.

15. “Kim Jong-un vows ‘offensive measures’ to protect North Korea but flags economic concerns at party meeting,” South China Morning Post, December 30, 2019,

16. “White House says U.S. has asked North Korea to resume talks: Axios,” Reuters, January 13, 2020,

17. Eleanor Albert, “The China-North Korea Relationship,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 25, 2019,

18. Wang Chenjun and Richard McGregor, “Four reasons why China supports North Korea,” The Interpreter, March 4, 2019,

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

22. Defense Intelligence Agency, China Military Power: Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win (Washington, D.C.: Defense Intelligence Agency, 2019), p. 28.

23. Robert O. Work and Greg Grant, Beating the Americans at their Own Game: An Offset Strategy with Chinese Characteristics, (Washington, D.C.: Center for a New American Security, June 2019), p. 14.