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On 100th day in office, South Korean president tries to ease nation’s war tensions

South Korean President Moon Jae-in holds a news conference at the Blue House presidential residence to celebrate his 100th day in office.
(Yonhap News Agency)

South Korea’s new president came to office in May after an unprecedented political corruption scandal, promising a clean administration and a fresh approach to dealing with North Korea.

The president, Moon Jae-in, might well avoid the ethical pitfalls that haunted previous South Korean leaders, but the latter part of his pledge hasn’t exactly gone as planned.

For the record:

12:24 a.m. Aug. 24, 2019An earlier version of this article stated that North Korea has conducted two underground nuclear tests since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011. It has carried out three such tests since then.

Moon, who’s seen Pyongyang violate international resolutions on his short watch by launching several ballistic missiles, found himself on Thursday reassuring fellow South Koreans that armed conflict isn’t imminent.

“I want our citizens to feel safe and trust that there will not be a war,” said Moon at a news conference to mark his 100th day in office. “It is not true that we are instigating war and making the citizens feel anxious.”

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His assertion came a week after bellicose exchanges between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un threatened to push Washington and Pyongyang into battle.

The tensions escalated after Trump promised to unleash “fire and fury” in response to nuclear threats from the North. State media also threatened that Pyongyang would launch missiles over Japan — as it would South Korea, another worried United States ally — and close to the U.S. territory of Guam. That tiny western Pacific island is strategically important for American air forces.

The threats, for now, have eased. But for Moon — a progressive who also wanted to seek myriad domestic economic changes after a decade of conservative-party rule — the North Korean problem remains a focus.

The president’s milestone day in office comes amid soaring domestic popularity never reached by his predecessor, the disgraced Park Geun-hye, who remains jailed on corruption charges. Moon won a snap election in May to replace her.

Park, the daughter of a former dictator, was impeached and removed from office amid an influence-peddling scandal that ensnared the democratic nation’s most important conglomerate, Samsung Group, and led to charges against numerous officials.

The scandal led to a series of massive street protests in which millions of Koreans called for Park’s ouster. It propelled Moon, a jovial former lawmaker and top presidential aide in his youth, to the presidency.

Moon’s ascendancy and popularity, however, haven’t helped him improve relations with North Korea, which analysts believe possesses numerous nuclear weapons and is rapidly improving its ability to deliver them around Asia and to the U.S. mainland with missiles.

Pyongyang recently tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles capable in theory of reaching the continental U.S., a technical milestone that has long worried security officials.

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Moon, 64, came to office hoping to prompt more diplomacy with the North, pledging a softer approach than his predecessor and a renewed effort at cross-border exchanges.

But the North’s behavior has in many ways forced Moon to harden, even if only rhetorically, his positions. One prominent example is a controversial U.S. antimissile system installed in South Korea in the final days of the Park administration.

The system, known as THAAD, has angered China, which disapproves of its strategic location, and some South Koreans, who worry about its efficacy and diplomatic cost.

Moon at first seemed skeptical, calling for legislative and environment review of the system deployed installed on a former golf resort to protect parts of South Korea from the North’s midrange missiles.

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He has since backed it.

Moon, who during his campaign said he wouldn’t be afraid to say “no” to Washington, said Thursday that the United States and South Korea “fundamentally” don’t have different positions. He also pledged to continue to seek dialogue with the North over time, despite any short-term setbacks.

Moon said his country supports U.S. efforts to impose strong economic sanctions on the North, which has conducted three underground nuclear tests and scores of missile launches since Kim — the grandson of the North’s communist patriarch, Kim Il Sung — took power in 2011. And the South Korean leader said there is sufficient communication and consultation between Washington and Seoul, security partners since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

More than 23,000 U.S. troops, for example, are stationed here — including thousands close enough to the North Korean border to live, as Seoul does, under threat of conventional weapons such as artillery.

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But Moon this week has appeared to emphasize a new sliver of daylight in the alliance by insisting that Washington cannot launch military action — an unlikely but still useful bargaining chip for the United States nonetheless — without his nation’s consent.

“No matter what options President Trump uses against North Korea, we were promised that those options will be discussed with and approved by South Korea in advance,” he told reporters.

The top U.S. military official, Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said as much during a recent Asia trip, according to the Washington Post.

Bong Young-shik, a research fellow with the Institute for North Korean Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, said Moon’s statement undermines one strategic card that the United States could use to pressure North Korea.

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“Emphasizing that point may help ameliorate the South Korean public’s anxiety and concern for a military showdown on the peninsula,” he said. “The credibility of the pressure promised by the United States is greatly undermined by President Moon’s remarks.”

While he grapples with a nuclear North Korea, a problem that has stumped other world leaders for a generation, Moon’s approval rating hovers around 80%, according to two recent public opinion polls. That’s nearly 30 percentage points higher than Park’s during the comparable period in her presidency, in May 2013.

“That is really, really high in comparison to any other president,” said Kim Jiyoon, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

Moon, a former lawmaker, lawyer and presidential aide, perhaps benefits from the contrast with Park, whose autocratic and aloof style distanced her from the people even before the scandal, Kim said.

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Moon, in contrast, has made his presidential complex more accessible, asked South Koreans to share their ideas and criticisms in a prominent public forum — and even posed for an occasional selfie with ordinary citizens, who only began taking part in democratic presidential elections in the late 1980s.

“A lot of people were so unhappy with the previous president,” said Kim, who specializes in public opinion. “She was totally out of touch, aloof, and didn’t really care what people thought.”

“He is trying to show that he is ripping off all those authoritarian elements of the presidency in Korea, and that is really well received by the people,” she said.

Whether Moon can parlay his domestic fortunes into success in dealings with the North remains to be seen, however.

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Stiles is a special correspondent.

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