• Eyrin Kyriakidi

“From Dissident to President”: Assessing President Moon Jae-in’s Term - Part 2: Foreign Affairs


Former President Moon Jae-in found himself at the helm of South Korea through extraordinary circumstances. The corruption scandal surrounding his predecessor had made the nation uneasy, while almost ten years of conservative rule in the country strained the relations between the North and the South. The victory of Moon was not a matter of luck but of promises: stability, dialogue, and openness, both at home and abroad.

The first part of this series indicated that throughout his presidency, in terms of domestic policy Moon followed in the footsteps of past Presidents and decision-makers. For the most part, the following analysis argues that the same is true for his policies on foreign affairs. This second and final part of the series on President Moon’s term will attempt to examine what his campaign pledges in terms of foreign affairs were, as well as if and how he managed to fulfil them.

As South Korea becomes an established middle power (Robertson, 2021), its alliances and positioning in international affairs have only fallen under constant scrutiny. Most notably, the North Korean issue, the alliance with the United States of America, and the relations with Japan and China seem to dominate the discourse around South Korea’s international relations. Traditionally, the Democratic Party, which backs Moon, has advocated for cooperation with North Korea and a strong alliance between South Korea and the United States (더불어민주당 [Democratic Party], n.d.). In the same vein, the promises of Moon seemed to echo the party line.

The North Korean front

President Moon Jae-in was the Chief of Staff of the former Democratic President Roh Moo-hyun (2003 – 2007) and has remained an avid supporter of the Sunshine Policy, advocating for increased cooperation between North and South. On a more personal note, Moon’s parents hailed from North Korea (Sit & Hancocks, 2017), potentially making this topic close to home. On the North Korean front, President Moon promised three things: to dismantle the North Korean nuclear arsenal through the Six-Party Talks format, to engage with the North by reopening the Mount Kumgang tourism zone and the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and to foster reunions between families who were separated because of the Korean War (Noland and Boydston, 2017; Park, 2017; Seo, 2017).

As North Korea continues to expand its nuclear arsenal (CFR, 2022), Moon Jae-in did not deliver on this promise. It could be assumed that despite him potentially hoping to improve inter-Korean relations, he never expected to fully deliver: hollow promises of denuclearisation and reunification are commonplace among South Korean politicians. Furthermore, even though countries such as China proclaimed they were willing to resume the Six-Party Talks (Tokola, 2022), no such summit was held.

However, 2018 was still a year of remarkable progress for inter-Korean relations. Firstly, both Koreas marched under a common flag during the February 2018 Winter Olympics, held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Secondly, Kim Yo-jong, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s sister, travelled to South Korea to watch part of the Winter Olympics next to President Moon (Kelly, 2018). Thirdly, the leaders of the North and the South met face to face for the first time in eleven years. More specifically, President Moon and Supreme Leader Kim participated in three meetings: the first one took place on the South Korean side of Panmunjeom (known as the Truce Village) on April 27, 2018, marking the first time since 1953 that a North Korean leader sets foot in the South (Lee, 2018). Then they met again on the North Korean side of Panmunjeom a month later, on May 26 (Kim & Waldrop, 2018), and finally, President Moon travelled to Pyongyang on September 18 of the same year (Cho & Lee, 2018). In the same vein, there were steps taken toward the reduction of military personnel in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) and mutual disarmament in the area. (Miller, 2018; Shin, 2018). Finally, a brief reunion between family members separated by the Korean War was organised in August 2018 (BBC, 2018). Family reunions are a delicate subject since most of the applicants on the South Korean side are elders, some well into their 90s (Choe, 2018a). Nonetheless, that was the sole reunion of families under the Moon administration.

The congeniality of 2018 vanished in the following years. President Moon’s plans to reopen the Mount Kumgang tourism zone and the Kaesong Industrial Complex, both located in North Korea but built and operated through South Korean investments, fell through. In October 2019, Kim Jong-un found the facilities in Mount Kumgang to be “shabby” and “unpleasant looking”, and mandated that they be replaced by new buildings more aligned with the North Korean aesthetic (Park H.-n., 2019; Shelton, 2019). Whether that happened because of stagnation on behalf of the South or the North’s decision to exploit tourist locations, the outcome left little ground for reconciliation. In April 2022, a few weeks before the end of Moon’s term, the North Korean regime blew up part of the Mount Kumgang facilities (Zitser, 2022). The Kaesong Industrial Complex had a similar fate. While in 2018, the two countries opened a liaison office in the region (Kim H.-j. , 2018), the North Korean authorities demolished the very same building in 2020 in response to the South’s allowing defectors and NGOs to distribute anti-regime leaflets and flash drives (BBC, 2020; Berlinger, Kwon, & Seo, 2020).

While peace in the Peninsula is a priority for all South Korean governments, mending relations with the North is, undoubtedly, a Gordian knot. Despite President Moon’s efforts, and perhaps partially because of the failed Trump-Kim summits (Collins & Terry, 2019), all 2018 breakthroughs seem to have vanished. Nonetheless, this turn of events appears to be mostly due to circumstances outside of President Moon’s power, therefore it would be difficult to hold him accountable for the outcome.

Japan: Trade versus History

The relations between Japan and South Korea are the definition of the East Asian Paradox: habitually excellent commercial ties, yet predominantly poor political relations (Shin D.-i. , 2016). President Moon promised to not only deliver a “principled response” to Japan regarding their disagreements on historical issues but to renegotiate the 2015 deal, signed by his predecessor, concerning Korean “comfort women”; women who were taken from Korea by Imperial Japan during the occupation period, to be used as sex slaves in army brothels (Rossi, 2017; Seo, 2017). The 2015 deal, criticised by President Moon for excluding the “victims and the public”, demanded a Japanese apology towards the victims and a 1-billion-yen (approximately 7 million euros) donation from the Japanese State to the Korean one. The Japanese government delivered on their promises, according to government officials, and consequently rejected revisiting the agreement (Lee & Shin, 2017; Arrington, 2018).

As neither country conceded, bilateral relations deteriorated. Consecutive court rulings in South Korea ordered not only Japanese companies responsible for exploiting forced labour during the Japanese occupation period, but also the Japanese government, to compensate forced labour and sexual slavery victims, freezing the companies’ South Korea-based assets when they refused to comply (BBC, 2018; Choe, 2018b; Choe & Gladstone, 2018; Choe, 2021; DW, 2021). In response, Japan imposed trade restrictions on South Korea (Reuters, 2019) which led to the latter withdrawing from the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) it had with Japan (Shim, 2019). The consecutive failures in the trade and defence sectors led to President Moon falling short of two more campaign pledges: to work on a bilateral trade deal with Japan and to work with Japan and China to create a safer environment in Northeast Asia (Seo, 2017). As relations with Japan soured on all fronts, not a single campaign pledge on the matter was fulfilled. On the contrary, it seems that the Moon presidency was a rather unsuccessful one for the resolution of long-standing disputes with Japan.

The United States and China: The Cost of Neutrality

While the United States is South Korea’s most important defence partner, China has risen to become South Korea’s number one export recipient. In 2020, South Korea exported approximately 124 billion euros worth of products to China, whereas China’s exports reached approximately 104 billion euros to South Korea (OEC, n.d.). Walking on such a thin line, President Moon made a series of pledges. Firstly, he recognised the need for a continuation of the defence and trade pacts between South Korea and the United States (Seo, 2017), yet promised to achieve a relationship of “equals” between the two countries and to recover the wartime operational control (OPCON) of the South Korean forces (Rossi, 2017). The United States has maintained the OPCON of South Korean forces since 1950, which has been seen as an issue of sovereignty for South Korea (Nordin, 2020). President Moon initiated talks regarding the transfer of OPCON, however, there were no results during his term (Work, 2022). Additionally, the Moon administration was called to increase the amount it spent on the maintenance of US troops on South Korean soil. More specifically, in 2019 and 2021, the Moon administration agreed to pay an 8.2% and a 13.9% increase respectively (Choe, 2019; Shin & Stewart, 2021). Given that the South Korean government tried to avoid increasing its contribution to the alliance, it could be assumed that the outcome is not what President Moon envisioned as a “relationship of equals”.

Lastly, on defence, while President Moon had promised a strong alliance with the US, he also pledged to reinforce his country’s internal defence mechanism, and to utilise the anti-ballistic missile Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system, only should North Korea continue carrying out nuclear tests (Seo, 2017). South Korea already spends 2.8% of its GDP on defence, less than only nine other countries on the planet, and has a growing defence industry (CRS, 2022). During the Moon presidency, South Korea developed a prototype K-21 fighter jet, invested heavily in artificial intelligence for military purposes, purchased military drones and started investing in anti-missile defence systems, such as THAAD, despite Chinese protests (Choon, 2021; Jeong, 2021). While it will take a considerable time before South Korea manages to reclaim full sovereignty over its defence (if ever), it appears that President Moon took tangible steps toward making the country self-reliant. This move could be interpreted either as a reaction to the increasing cost of maintaining the US troops or as a step towards guaranteeing good relations with the US, yet without provoking China, as Seoul developing its own capabilities could signify less interference from Washington.

Given South Korea’s financial ties with China, as well as that the latter is the only country with a direct line of communication with North Korea, President Moon pledged to improve Sino-Korean trade, as well as bilateral cooperation to defuse regional tensions with North Korea (Seo, 2017). When he assumed office, relations with China could be characterised as rocky, at best. At that time, the Chinese government was reacting negatively to THAAD due to alleged security concerns (McGuire, 2018). Yet the result was not simply political; Chinese tourism to South Korea decreased by half, from 8 to 4 million, affecting companies and enterprises all over the country (Stiles, 2018). As THAAD remained in the spotlight, the Chinese government continuously exerted economic pressure to express discontent with South Korea (Kim V., 2020). Once again, President Moon tried to maintain a balance between the US and China but managed to please no one. Abroad, China was displeased because of THAAD (Yoon, 2021), while the US was unable to understand the importance of the Sino-South Korean strategic partnership (Harris, Bard, & Lee, 2021). At home, reports suggested that the country lessened its dependence on China (Huo, 2020), while South Korean citizens increasingly distrusted the latter (Lee C. M., 2020). Yet as South Korea relies heavily on Chinese raw materials (Lester, 2021), and as China appears to be lifting the post-COVID19 South Korean economy (Global Times, 2022), calls for independence will fall on deaf ears.

President Moon’s pledges regarding Sino-Korean relations were once again not realised, be it due to obstacles in the international framework or the President’s lack of proclivity for foreign affairs. On the one hand, relations with North Korea worsened. On the other, ties with China are following the lines of yet another “East Asian Paradox”.


The Moon presidency showed that foreign affairs-related promises need to take into consideration the needs and desires of a country’s partners, otherwise, they are bound to lead to failure. Out of all President Moon’s foreign affairs campaign pledges, only one was realised in the long run: the improvement of his country’s domestic defence mechanism. However, as the aim of consecutive governments for decades, that process began well before his time.

Taking a closer look, it becomes evident that all of Moon’s pledges on foreign affairs were broad, almost generic, compared to the concrete declarations on the domestic front. It is indeed easier for a politician to orchestrate change within their own country, as things tend to be more stable in comparison to the international arena. President Moon promised to improve relations with all vital partners, make his country stronger, and reunite families. While it is difficult to imagine he was unaware of the negligible likelihood of realising those promises, it is perhaps a crucial lesson not only for South Korean politics but for political campaigns in general: the promise of stability is more powerful than its chances of being realised.

The overall assessment of President Moon Jae-in’s term should not be based on him not fulfilling campaign pledges but on perspective. He was called on to resolve issues that have weighed on the country for decades, situations that become more burdensome with time. For analysts and commentators, he orchestrated just a single event of family reunion; yet for those families, he gave them the chance to see parents, siblings, and children they had not seen in almost seventy years. For some, he led the relations between South Korea and Japan to an impasse; for others, he fought so that comfort women and forced labourers would find justice. Finally, tourism indeed suffered under the Chinese boycott of South Korea as a destination; but what would the criticism be had he abandoned THAAD and the alliance with the United States?

If there is a single conclusion to be drawn from this series, it is that even though President Moon was unable to deliver on most of his campaign pledges, his presidency cannot be judged in black or white, neither at home nor abroad. All his actions aimed to strike a balance between opposing sides, whether that was the chaebols and public sentiment or the United States and China in domestic and foreign affairs respectively. This balance, or history of compromises, depending on one’s perspective, will be remembered as his legacy.



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