FOR good or ill, the fact that Donald Trump has agreed to meet Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s dictator, is thanks in large part to the president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in. It was he who seized the hand proffered by Mr Kim early this year and used the Winter Olympics to cement goodwill. Mr Moon’s announcement of a summit with Mr Kim next month—only the third top-level meeting between the two Koreas and the first since 2007—was news enough when it broke. A hotline will also be established between the leaders of two countries that have exchanged more munitions than words in recent years.
Mr Trump’s bombshell put those accomplishments in the shade. But it would not have happened had Mr Moon’s envoys not returned from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, with an assurance from Mr Kim that he would put his nuclear weapons on the table. That is just what America has always demanded as a precondition for talks.
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Not even Mr Moon’s friends—and certainly not his detractors—predicted his agility. At home, to be sure, the wind appeared to be at his back following his election last May. He came to power on the crest of popular protests that had led to the impeachment for influence-peddling of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye. To many South Koreans he represented a fresh start. For the young especially, Mr Moon’s optimism, his squeaky-clean reputation and his intention to heal economic divisions promised much. But his talk about reaching out to the North Koreans had appeared naive, even dangerously ideological.
South Korea’s allies were wary. Mr Moon, who emerged from the pro-democracy student movement of the 1970s, cut his political teeth with the late president Roh Moo-hyun, an advocate of a “sunshine” policy towards North Korea. Some sunshiners were inclined to see the best in the North’s brutal rulers. A few even saw the North’s Stalinist state as more legitimate than South Korea’s young democracy, tainted as it was by the original sin of American-backed dictatorship (Ms Park’s late father was the longest-serving of the strongmen).
The sunshine policy sought to warm relations with the North in part by secretly transferring hundreds of millions of dollars to the Kims. It failed on its own terms, in that relations soon became chilly again. Worse, the money, in effect, helped pay for the North Korean nukes that are now at the heart of the peninsula’s crisis.
In Tokyo those close to Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, spoke of Mr Moon with undisguised scorn. He was, they said, a nationalist of the worst sort, a weaselly leftie. Proof was his desire to reopen agreements reached between Ms Park and Mr Abe on the contentious issue of South Korean women forced into prostitution by imperial Japan. But the really serious issue, as seen from Tokyo, was the North Korean threat. It is over Japan, not South Korea, that North Korean missiles have flown. Mr Abe has been the strongest backer of Mr Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” towards the North. The likeliest wrecker of such a policy—because he would cosy up to the North—was Mr Moon.
American hawks also mistrusted Mr Moon. He has struggled to find a personal chemistry with Mr Trump, too—unlike the golfing Mr Abe. Yet Mr Moon has defied expectations. As North Korea raised tensions with frequent missile tests last summer, he dropped his hug-the-North language. He firmly backed sanctions at the UN championed by America. He stood his ground in the face of bullying by China, which organised boycotts of South Korean firms in an effort to coerce Mr Moon into sending home American anti-missile batteries that it does not like. He revived an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan and, though he complained of the sex-slave issue, appears not to want to reopen it. The reward for much of this was embodied in the extraordinary sight at the White House last week of a representative of another country—Mr Moon’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong—announcing Mr Trump’s agreement to a summit. Not bad for a pinko peacenik.
For now, Mr Moon will grow only more indispensable, not only because his summit with Mr Kim will lay the ground and set the tone for Mr Trump’s, if it happens. Crucially, the Americans are handicapped in preparing for negotiations in that they have few channels of communication into Pyongyang. Like it or not, they must rely on South Korea to do much of the talking for them.
Sunshine and rain
Mr Moon’s real challenges are still to come. The sceptics are surely right that Mr Kim, like his father and grandfather before him, aims to drive a wedge not only between South Korea and its American and Japanese allies, but also into South Korean politics, which is still riven between conservatives and progressives.
On the first, Mr Moon is trying his hardest to soothe. He dispatched his intelligence chief to Tokyo this week to persuade Mr Abe that South Korean and Japanese interests remain aligned. Reports from the Japanese side suggest that Mr Abe, deeply alarmed by all the summitry, came away reassured. He will nevertheless head to Washington next month to convince Mr Trump that Japan cannot accept letting North Korea keep its current arsenal, even if it promises to shelve its intercontinental missiles. He may also warn of the risk of sensitive military intelligence flowing from Mr Moon’s camp to Pyongyang as ties warm.
As for South Korea’s divisions regarding the North, perhaps passions are ebbing. The young who voted in numbers for Mr Moon have few of the uncritical hopes their parents held for the sunshine policy. In a recent poll over 80% of those in their 20s wanted engagement, but 74% said they mistrusted the North. When a professor asked his students during a recent lecture whether they thought North and South Korea would be reunified during their lifetime, only the foreigners put up their hands. South Korean scepticism may prove an antidote to Moonshine.