On Foreign Coverage of Moon Jae-in — B.R. Myers

In November 2019, shortly after making the scandal-ridden Cho Kuk his Justice Minister, Moon Jae-in was described in the sub-heading of an Asia Times article by Andrew Salmon as “Mr Clean, Mr Nice Guy.” (The headline: “Defying Darkness, Moon Shines On.”) In 2020 Salmon called the president “probably the nicest fellow ever to inhabit the Blue House,” and a “people person …. always ready to pose for a selfie with a fan.” A week or so ago the correspondent referred in another Moon article to “Mr Nice Guy,” the appellation doing additional service as a sub-heading.

And why not, eh? Heaven knows the partisanship on the other side of the discussion is just as obtrusive. (May I call a halt to “Bad Moon Rising/Falling” headlines?) The interesting thing is that the above type of cheerleading is more common in the foreign press than in the Hankyoreh, the de facto organ of the ruling Minjoo Party. I don’t necessarily mean talk of “Mr Nice Guy,” but the tendency of even experienced journalists like Salmon — the author, by the way, of an excellent book on the Korean War — to praise Moon on naive, moralizing, emotionalist or (to use a more neutral word) apolitical grounds. My readers will recall the Economist article last year that stated matter-of-factly, as if the point were self-evident, that he “wants to take politics out of prosecutions.”

I see here a confirmation of what Hannah Arendt and others have noted in very different contexts: outsiders are often more willing to take a leader’s cant at face value than his followers are. Having a longer and deeper acquaintance with him, and sharing as they do his ideology, the latter know better when — and for what strategic reasons — he’s putting on an act. (James Mattis is quoted in Bob Woodward’s book Rage as saying that Trump’s supporters “somehow believe in him without believing what he says.”)

Another factor at work: Your Western news junkie focuses on the collective dealings of governments and oppositions, and knows the biographies (potted ones at best) of only a few people at the top of the ladder. This conduces to the attachment of great hope and faith to “new” leaders, even when they’ve been none too gloriously active in politics for decades already. The South Korean political buff, on the other hand, takes a genealogical view, showing a strong interest in the backgrounds of dozens of people. “If you want to understand politics here,” I was told a few years ago, “you have to know the family registers” (kyebo). This is meant literally and figuratively. Journalists here can tell you off the cuff which university and even which high school a politician went to, who was a year above or below him, who his in-laws are, when he went to prison and for what, which faction he belonged to before switching to the current one, and so on. They cannot unlearn all this — which they would have to do to attain to the untroubled, guileless simplicity of Western Moon-puffery.

Neither, of course, can South Korean journalists omit all reference to unfavorable things about Moon, these being too well-known to the local public. They must be spun instead. The nationalist-left reader is looking for that spin: for arguments with which to defend the president against critical family-members, co-workers, his own creeping doubts. The average Western reader’s need for phatic punditry, and the illusion of understanding a foreign political culture in a matter of minutes, is more easily satisfied — can only be satisfied — with one-sided information dished out on a “need to know” principle. Mr Clean in power in South Korea? There’s hope for the region yet, I wish we had a leader like that, etc. “He liked his newspaper,” Tolstoy writes in Anna Karenina, “for the slight haze it produced in his brain.”

To make the most obvious correction first: A “people person” Moon isn’t. In a not unsympathetic profile piece in 2011 the Weekly Chosun singled out his introversion, with corroborative quotes from the man himself, as the main hindrance to his political aspirations. In recent years left-leaning TV pundits have lamented the  similarity between his personality and Park Geunhye’s, and urged him to stop hunkering down with yes-men like she did.

Introversion is no bar to niceness (or to selfies with fans). Most South Korean progressives, however, would reflexively say that the nicest occupant of the Blue House wasn’t Moon but Roh Moo Hyun. I remember how scathingly the former was described in some left-wing circles before becoming a president the whole camp had to rally around. (See for example the account of his “candlelight opportunism” in a book put out in early 2017 by Kim Uk, a very readable writer on the Jeolla left.) 

Negative comment can be found, for example, on how Moon 1) refused to assist his friend Roh’s presidential campaign, then seated himself front and center when Blue House jobs were being handed out, 2) promised to relinquish leadership of his party if Jeolla didn’t support it in parliamentary elections, and then shrugged off his pledge as the “result of various strategic judgments,” 3) wrote a thank-you note to the children who drowned in the Sewol sinking, their deaths having boosted his cause as — he seems to have assumed — they would have wanted, 4) tried to interest Park Geun-hye in retiring with honor, lest impeachment result in an inopportune constitutional reform, then jumped on the candlelight bandwagon, finally presenting his election to the presidency (with 41% of the vote) as the triumph of the popular will.

The front of the satirical leaflet (2019) that President Moon sued a young citizen for disseminating. Top right: “Are you prepared to go with me to a strong, prosperous and socialist country?” The term is a North Korean slogan. Note also the Kim Il Sung badge.

Since taking power, Moon has appointed numerous people to top posts in the face of public anger at their records of corruption, pushed for bans on the heterodox discussion of modern history, suggested that adoptive parents exchange their kids for different ones if they don’t like the ones they got, and taken legal action against a young man who distributed satirical leaflets about him; the suit was dropped over a year later after criticism from the right and left.

I mustn’t over-correct. All I’m driving at is that this is no Gandhi or Mandela but a politician, a vain and calculating power-person like the rest of them. Not that his base wanted a saint for president. It wanted someone who would purge the political class of “accumulated evils,” read: conservatives likely to obstruct the creation of a new peninsula. The vision of a society purified of this or that group of people (be they “reds” or “pro-Japanese”) is inherently anti-democratic, but even those who look back approvingly on the purge of 2017-2019, which lost all legitimacy and momentum when the Cho Kuk scandal-cluster emerged, will admit that a nicer president would have lacked the stomach for it. Roh Moo Hyun? He would have pardoned Park years ago.

I have already adduced a few explanations for the peculiar quality of foreign observers’ praise for Moon, but the most important one, in my opinion, is their aversion to discussing his ideology. This although it can be very easily reconstructed from his frequent talk of mentors as well as from a study of his holiday speeches (1 March and 15 August), which make the same simple points over and over.

Because foreign correspondents can’t or won’t talk about Korean nationalism, yet cannot assume their readers’ awareness of it like local journalists do, they must explain Moon’s central preoccupation in pacifist or humanitarian terms instead, or with reference to his personal wonderfulness. His tolerance of North Korean abuse and provocations is set down to his being too nice for his own good, when ideology affords a much more credible explanation — particularly in view of his lawsuits against South Korean critics. All this redounds to the advantage of his image overseas, where the countervailing facts are unknown.

Here the praise for Moon is implicit:

For the US, North Korea is at best a secondary concern. Yet for Moon and future South Korean presidents, there is no more important foreign policy issue than North Korea. Entire families remain separated by the 38th Parallel. Both countries face the prospect of violent skirmishes and all out confrontation at any time. (Dan DePetris, NK News, 20 May 2021.)

We’re to infer that a key driver of Moon’s interest in inter-Korean relations is his desire to bring together separated families. It isn’t. The urgency went out of the reunion process when both governments realized that these brutally short and final get-togethers do nothing for the North’s popularity in the South. Nor has the general public paid much attention since the first few rounds of reunions. The number of people awaiting a turn to participate is shrinking fast. As for the return of abducted South Koreans, Moon has shown no more inclination to discuss it at summits than Kim Dae Jung or Roh Moo Hyun did. Meanwhile Tokyo’s unrelenting effort to get abducted Japanese out of the North baffles the nationalist left here. Nationalism is a concern with the nation’s stature on the world stage, not the welfare of individual citizens. 

Yet Moon and his camp know that the plight of divided families tugs at the hearts of Americans like no other Korean issue — as well it should, considering our country’s role in dividing the peninsula. The hope of many here is that by projecting great impatience for family reunions, and talking up a need for related outlays and projects, Uncle Sam can be pressured into relaxing restrictions that now prevent bigger forms of inter-Korean cooperation. A relevant quote from Yi Gi-beom, the chairman of a North-sympathetic NGO, in the Hankyoreh:

If people are to go back and forth between North and South … [there] have to be medical facilities to deal with COVID, with emergency situations. There has to be the possibility of rail and highway travel between North and South. If one proceeds from the problem of family reunions, at a time when North-South travel has come to a complete halt, can’t it become an opportunity to expand things to inter-Korean relations as a whole? Because the issue of family reunions brings with it a moral justification for the Biden government, which emphasizes humanitarianism and human rights, it can receive a magnificent appraisal as a first step of his North Korea policy.”

In the NK News article excerpted further above the American writer implicitly attributes to Moon a fear of “all-out confrontation at any time.” Yes, but between which states? It was traditionally the rightists who warned against the threat of another civil war, and the nationalist left which — refusing for decades to acknowledge who started the first one — dismissed all such talk as scaremongering. Moon, it will be remembered, was among those who refused to accept even the North’s responsibility for the Cheonan sinking in 2010.

He had to change that particular tune to get elected, but there’s no reason to believe he now perceives a real and present threat to the South. His almost comically serene declaration in 2017 that no military action can take place on the peninsula without his consent shows that the prospect of North Korean aggression is outside his field of vision; it’s an American strike on the North that he and his camp are determined to prevent. As I’ve written here already, Moon’s brain trust makes plain that a central goal of the envisioned “peace system” (the official euphemism for confederation and economic union) is to guarantee the North’s security from American attack — before it gives up its nuclear weapons.

Confederation may seal a lasting peace, but it may have the opposite effect, as the cautionary example of Yemen’s transition to unification suggests. In any case we are not dealing here with a principled, absolute peace-mindedness. Moon seems keen on pounding the racial tom-tom, rehearsing the defense of Dokdo (that kind of military exercise is always all right), and letting close associates dispense belligerent anti-Japanese rhetoric at times of tension — like Cho Kuk’s invocation of the “Bamboo-Spear Song” in August 2019. I repeat: What actuates Moon Jae-in’s preoccupation with the North is Korean nationalism and not humanitarianism or pacifism, let alone exceptional niceness. Judging from Joe Biden’s pledge of support for the Panmunjom Declaration of 2018, in which Moon and Kim Jong Un renewed the commitment to confederation signed in 2000, foreign journalists aren’t the only ones who fail to understand this.

Source: sthelepress.com

On Foreign Coverage of Moon Jae-in — B.R. Myers