Moon Jae-in’s Speech at the UN General Assembly



Before piling on President Moon, let’s be honest: he is in an absolutely impossible position. Squeezed between Kim Jong Un, President Trump, Prime Minister Abe, his supporters, and an invigorated opposition that smells blood over security issues, he has approximately zero room for maneuver. If his UN speech had a “kumbaya” air, it nonetheless reflected not only his core political values and instincts but the political forces that brought him to the Blue House.

Trump’s speech was a dystopian ode to hard-edged sovereignty and national interests. Moon’s, by contrast, was a tribute to multilateralism. The speech invoked sovereignty as well, but in a completely different way than Trump’s. Moon’s presidency is the direct result of an extraordinary assertion of popular will. As he put it eloquently, “the Administration was launched by the participation and aspirations of the people and their awareness that they are the rightful owners of the nation.”

On North Korea, however, the speech showed the constraints under which Moon is laboring. While thanking the international community for cooperation with respect to sanctions, he emphasized repeatedly the objective of peace. He returned as both conservative and liberal presidents have to the opportunity costs North Korea pays and the possibilities for a regional economic architecture, a long-standing liberal dream.

Spoiled by my study of international relations, I am more of the “si vis pacem, para bellum” school; that if you want peace, prepare for war. I would have preferred a more robust statement of the “no provocation” component of Kim Dae Jung’s sunshine policy and greater indication of a readiness to stand firm. But it was the closing part of the speech that was the saddest, with its heartfelt invocation of the spirit of the Olympics and lengthy invitation to make PyeongChang an opening. I worry—as South Korean security forces no doubt do—that the Olympics is a gaping window of vulnerability that the North Koreans will exploit. Getting them on board is above all an insurance policy. Yet with biting sanctions about to take effect and Trump showing an uncanny ability to escalate the war of words, does anyone really believe we are headed toward a resolution of this standoff any time soon? It is the unlikelihood of such a happy outcome that ultimately made Moon’s speech so disspiriting.

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