As published in The Register Guard on June 23rd, 2018.
“Surely this will go down in history as an epochal event,” Jeong Yeoung-su, the honorary chairman of the Korean Chamber of Commerce in Singapore stated, “if it succeeds.”
Jeong was reminiscing about his personal witness to the events and the people associated with the June 12 meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to discuss North Korea’s denuclearization and establishing peace in the Korean peninsula.
Jeong’s hope is shared by 50 million other South Koreans who are currently relishing an atmosphere of peace after 70 years of hostile confrontations with the North. Buoyed, they gave President Moon Jai-in and his Democratic Party a sweeping victory in a nationwide local election and parliamentary by-elections held on the day following the Singapore summit.
They did so even though Moon’s economic policies have been a dismal failure, with the worst unemployment crisis in many decades and the nation’s economic growth at a standstill.
In Seoul alone, the ruling party won 24 of 25 local districts. Nationwide, it won 14 out of 17 mayoral and gubernatorial posts. In the by-elections, it garnered 11 of 12 parliamentary seats.
For the conservative Liberty Korea Party and the center-right Bareunmirae Party, the election outcome was catastrophic. They even lost the posh Gangnam district in Seoul, the traditional bastion of conservative voters, as well as voters in their 50s and the 60s nationwide who had long been their reliable supporters.
Plunged in crisis and despair, their leaders have resigned and are considering disbanding their parties altogether.
The conservative voice has thus been all but silenced, giving President Moon an unhindered path in his push for peace and reconciliation with the North. His government has already begun to discuss turning the demilitarized zone into an international peace park for the study of a natural environment left undisturbed for seven decades and economic and cultural cooperation with the North. It is also beginning a dialogue with Russian about establishing an East Asian Economic Co-Prosperity Zone including North and South Korea, northeast China and Russian Siberia connected through oil, gas, electric and railway grids.
Even as the South Koreans are hopeful for a better future, they are also worried, silently and profoundly, for many reasons.
One, they do not know what really lies behind the smiling face of Kim Jong-un. They have known him only as a ruthless dictator who has executed hundreds of his political opponents, including his uncle and brother, and still holds thousands of his people in hard-labor gulags.
Two, they know that the ruling Workers Party of North Korea has never given up its ultimate goal of bringing Seoul under its control and turning the entire peninsula into a communist state. Kim is the head of that party.
Three, President Trump has turned things upside down by praising Kim Jong-un, with envy and admiration, as “a smart guy,” a “very talented man” and “a man of great personality” who “loves his people.”
Suddenly, evil has become good, and ruthless dictatorship a smart thing. For South Koreans, America has always been a nation of freedom, liberty, democracy and decency — and as such their role model. A fatal blow is being inflicted on that perception, and South Koreans are asking, “What’s next?”
Four, Moon’s government is controlled completely by the well-organized leftist and pro-North Korean hardcore activists. Since they seized power a year ago in the midst of people’s rebellion against the corrupt regime of jailed former president, Park Geun-hye, the pro-North Korean government has said absolutely nothing to expose the evils of the North’s ruthless dictatorship, including its endless abuse of human rights.
Five, the National Intelligence Service (South Korea’s equivalent to the CIA), whose primary responsibility has long been to be vigilant in watching and checking North Korean agents and their subversive activities in the South, has been rendered inactive.
Six, President Trump has said he would end the joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises and even hinted at reducing the U.S. military presence in South Korea, a critical component of the U.S.-South Korea alliance and a powerful warning against the North’s invasion dreams. Concerned people are asking whether Trump knows what he is doing, not only in terms of the South Korean security but also in regard to America’s own security in the Pacific.
Seven, the biggest influence on Kim Jong-un’s decision-making is neither Moon nor Trump, but Xi Jinping of China, who wishes for the Korean Peninsula to become a unified socialist state under one-party rule, practicing a state-controlled form of capitalism like China’s. As with Moon and Trump, he wants the peninsula denuclearized. For Xi, however, a denuclearized peninsula means a peninsula without the U.S. military presence.
Eight, in the recent nationwide local elections, Moon’ government took control of the nation’s public education system by winning 14 out of 17 education superintendent posts, which determine all matters relating to the national education system. Korean children will now be taught to follow the ways of the Moon government.
Nine, the South Korean media and the public opinions are now largely under the control of the ruling government. Vigorous public debates on critical issues are rarely seen or heard.
Ten, with the demise of the conservative political forces, anti-communist and anti-North Korean, there is no longer an effective voice in South Korea to air any of these concerns.
President Moon has helped avert an impending nuclear war in the Korean Peninsula by initiating a peace process. President Trump has enhanced the latter with his bold decisions. The people of South Korea, with high stakes in the international game of politics, are hopeful — but at the same time, deeply worried.
Song Nai Rhee is academic vice president and dean emeritus of Northwest Christian University and courtesy research associate in the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Oregon.