In the evening of June 11, a few hundred people gathered across the street from the St. Regis Hotel in Singapore. Many were holding up cameras. Some were posing with selfie sticks. Others, fresh-faced and groomed despite the sweltering heat, positioned themselves with a view of the hotel behind them, facing camera crews. These were TV reporters, and I could hear one rehearsing “I am reporting live from....” in Korean. Someone asked me to move a bit because they needed a place for the reporters to do their stand-ups. They would be going live soon, broadcasting directly from here, though “here” was a glass-covered skyscraper, one of the most luxurious hotels in Singapore.
About 20 motorcycles were parked in a line in front of the entrance, suggesting the presence of bodyguards for a VIP, who in this case would be Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a global political celebrity perhaps second only to Donald Trump, who was also in town, for a summit, the first of its kind between the two leaders. The media had staked out promising spots such as the St. Regis, like paparazzi angling for a rare shot, on the chance that Kim, who was staying there, would show up and do something noteworthy.
More than 3,000 reporters had flown in from around the world to cover the U.S.–North Korea summit, so many journalists that at times we were literally stumbling over one another. Most of us were settled in the media center in the cavernous three-story F1 Pit Building, where we watched events unfold from TV screens that hung from the ceiling. We saw Kim Jong-un arrive, we saw Trump arrive. We saw the two men shake hands, we saw them sign a vaguely worded document that shared much in common with similarly vague agreements between the two governments in 1994 and 2007, both of which unraveled. As if to make up for the lack of any real news, Trump gave an hourlong press conference, during which he released a Hollywood-trailer-style video featuring himself and Kim Jong-un looking heroic, with a slogan: “Two men, two leaders, one destiny.”
There had been much confusion in the lead-up to the summit, questions about its structure and goals, and doubt as to whether it would take place at all. Trump canceled the whole thing in late May, only to declare it back on eight days later. Despite the confusion, everyone seemed to agree that something big was afoot, an international something that perhaps might even result in a Nobel Peace Prize for the U.S. president; after the first inter-Korean meeting in 2000, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung took one home.
During a cabinet meeting in late April, Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s current president, half-casually remarked, “It’s President Trump who should receive the Nobel Prize. We only need to take peace.” This comment, which had everything to do with Moon’s own efforts to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula and very little to do with Donald Trump, was largely misinterpreted by the foreign media as an endorsement of the American president for the prize, and by extension, the belligerent brinksmanship that may or may not have brought North Korea’s Kim to the negotiating table.
The leader of the liberal Democratic Party, Moon had only taken office in May 2017, after the events of the 45-day Candlelight Revolution the year before, during which millions of South Koreans had attended protests against the corruption of conservative President Park Geun-hye. In December 2016, Park was impeached, and she was removed from office three months later. She is currently serving a 33-year prison sentence for corruption, illegal use of state funds, and violating election laws; Moon became president after an emergency election.
Moon was born in a war refugee camp in 1953 to parents who had fled the northern province of Hamgyong. He was jailed twice as a student for participating in protests against the dictatorships of president Park Chung-hee (father of Park Guen-hye), who staged a military coup in 1961 and ruled South Korea until his assassination in 1979, and Chun Doo-hwan, who took over in 1980. After his release from prison, Moon founded a human rights law firm with Roh Moo-hyun, who also went on to become president, in 2003. In 2004, while serving as a presidential secretary, Moon accompanied his mother to reunite with her sister at North Korea’s Mount Geumgang resort, as a part of Roh’s Sunshine Policy of engagement with the North. (The Sunshine Policy was an economic and intergovernmental policy, unilaterally initiated by South Korea in 1998; it was formally abandoned and declared a failure by the South Korean Ministry of Unification in 2010, after conservative Lee Myung-bak came to power.) During his presidential campaign, Moon vowed that if elected, his first tour out of the country would not be to the United States, as was traditional, but to North Korea. (His first trip, in June 2017, ended up being to Washington, D.C.) He had already met with Kim Jong-un twice before Trump’s summit in Singapore, in April and May.
I grew bored waiting for Kim to appear that night, and finally, around 9 p.m., after watching some of the TV folks, I returned to the media center to see if there was any news I might have missed. I wasn’t hopeful. I was convinced that little progress toward peace on the Korean Peninsula would be made in Singapore by Trump and Kim. But that didn’t mean there would be no progress.
“We do not wish for North Korea’s collapse, we will not pursue reunification by absorption in any form, nor will we pursue artificial reunification,” Moon had said during a July 2017 speech.
Without stating it directly, Moon had declared a new policy with regard to North Korea, one that differed significantly from the Sunshine Policy, which had a stated purpose of reuniting families and the two countries. Moon had also renounced the direction of conservative South Korean governments, which had long refused to acknowledge North Korea as a sovereign nation—the only reunification they would accept was absorption. (Their favored model was that of reunified Germany, in which East was swallowed by West.) Conservatives had for years argued that the only means to achieve that outcome was by pressuring North Korea economically until it collapsed.
Yet those conservative governments were gone, and Moon and the liberals held sway. So, the real shift in policy advanced by Moon related less to regime change in the North and more to a peace process that would allow Kim Jong-un to stay in power. Moon’s vision of peace was really one of containment, ensuring that North Korea and Kim Jong-un could no longer threaten the South.
Peace without reunification is a very different thing than what had come before. Yet it was an idea that seemed to have found its moment in South Korea, which had been long split along reunion or confrontation lines. Virtually no one on the left in South Korea to whom I have spoken in recent years has expressed any real desire for reunification, though few people are willing to admit it publicly. Younger people generally dismiss reunification outright. Older South Koreans will only say that reunification should happen, and yet inevitably add “in due time” or “at some point in the future.”
So, lost in the chaos that Trump had created, and the vagaries of the summit and its outcome, was a new and frankly bold change in the kind of treatment North Korea could expect from one of the two nations with which it is still formally at war. In that light, my trip to Singapore was something of a farce—at one point so little was going on that reporters began interviewing other reporters so that they’d have something to report. It seemed to me that the real talks were not taking place between Kim Jong-un and Trump at all, but between Moon and the people of South Korea.
Such is how I found myself, a few weeks before Singapore, standing in line outside a café bar called Bunker 1 in the business district of central Seoul’s Chungjeong-ro neighborhood. Above the entrance hung a large poster for That Day, The Sea, a smash hit documentary about the 2014 sinking of the Sewol ferry, which killed 304 passengers, most of them high school students. The film was produced by 49-year-old Kim Ou-joon, a well-known publisher, podcast host, and media personality. Bunker 1 serves as headquarters for Ddanzi Ilbo, a digital media company that Kim founded in 1998.
With his ’80s glam-rocker’s teased hair, mustache, and goatee, Kim looked more like an artist than a media powerhouse. He is the creator and former host of one of the world’s most downloaded political podcasts, Naneun Ggomsudah, which roughly translates as “I Am a Petty-Minded Creep.” The title is a sarcastic reference to conservative President Lee Myung-bak, who served from 2008 to 2013. Lee, like the conservative successor Moon replaced, was indicted on multiple corruption charges. In October, the 76-year-old former president was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
I had come to Bunker 1 to watch the live broadcast of Kim’s newest podcast, Dasvuida. (Translation: “I Will Show You DAS,” a play on the iconic Star Wars villain Darth Vader, and DAS, an auto-parts company embroiled in a federal investigation, whose actual ownership is murky, but which allegedly is controlled by Lee Myung-bak.) By 6:30 p.m., the bar was packed with several hundred people. The crowd had gathered for Kim and his cohost, another extremely popular media figure, 45-year-old Choo Chin-woo, South Korea’s foremost investigative journalist. When the two finally appeared, everyone cheered loudly, pressed toward the bar’s stage, and beseeched the two journalists to pose with them for selfies.To understand the influence that Kim Ou-joon has in South Korea, it’s important to put his podcast in context. Under Lee Myung-bak, the heads of the major broadcast and news organizations were replaced by close associates of the president and corporate bureaucrats with explicitly pro-government stances, essentially turning the mainstream press into a propaganda machine. In 2012, thousands of journalists from MBC, KBS, YTN, and other major media outlets went on strike in protest. Many would eventually resign or were transferred to lesser roles where they were unable to report. It was also around this time that the government took a hand in setting up new, pro-government cable TV stations called jonghap pyunsung. Naneun Ggomsudah offered a crucial alternative for the public, exposing the corruption of their political, religious, and economic leaders. In 2012, it was shuttered during a federal investigation into charges of defaming political figures.
Such a breathless reception for two middle-aged media figures might seem odd to an American audience. But Choo’s exposé of Lee Myung-bak’s financial corruption badly damaged his presidency, and his investigation of Park Geun-hye and her unofficial adviser Choi Soon-shil contributed to Park’s impeachment and the emergency election that brought Moon to power. In a way, these two journalists were nearly as responsible for Moon’s approach to peace as Moon himself.
The night’s program was supposed to focus on the upcoming National Assembly election, but North Korea kept coming up. Among Kim and Choo’s guests that night was Lee Jae-jung, a former unification minister during the Roh Moo-hyun administration. Lee had been a strong proponent of the Sunshine Policy and was now running for reelection as superintendent of education of Gyeonggi province. Strangely, many of his remarks were in praise of Kim Jong-un: “Kim Jong-un seems totally different from his father, whom I did meet”; “Look how he was this time. When our envoy went, he and his wife even walked our envoy out to the parking lot.”
A North Korean defector-turned-journalist named Kang Mi-jin also commended North Korea. Giant root vegetables burst from the ground near Mount Baekdu in the North, she said. When she first fled, she could not believe people ate such small vegetables as they did in the South. Back home—a country in which a late 1990s famine claimed as many as three million lives—people threw out such paltry specimens. The malgup mushroom, a South Korean delicacy, was so unimpressive that she recently asked her mother, who also defected, “Mom, didn’t we use these as kindling to make fire?” It was hard to imagine why she would have left such a land of plenty, but the audience seemed to accept her skewed logic; they broke into applause.
When the subject came up of who should receive credit for Singapore and whatever agreement emerged from it, Kim Ou-joon put it simply: “Who cares if Trump’s not fit to be the U.S. president? That’s the American people’s business. For us, without Trump, the summit wouldn’t be possible.”
Singapore wasn’t what Kim Ou-joon wanted to discuss when I returned to Bunker 1 a few days later. He was sitting at one of the outdoor tables, his cell phone in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He was far more interested in a different summit: the April 27 meeting between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un, at the military demarcation line, or DMZ, that has separated the countries since 1953. This, he said, was “far more important than Singapore.” Kim Jong-un was the first North Korean leader to step over the line to the South, and the occasion aired on live TV. Kim was described as “mannerly and courteous” and a man of “self-assurance.” According to Kim Ou-joon, “In just a matter of seconds, the South Korean public perception went from Kim the madman to a well-brought-up man from a decent family.”
These were things, he said, that Koreans notice but Americans would not have picked up on. I agreed with him. There are nuances you catch only if you are from within a culture, but I am Korean, and I didn’t see what he was talking about. Kim Jong-un wasn’t from a “decent” family but a homicidal one, and no gentle mannerisms he put on for TV would change that fact. Besides, what difference did it make? Who cared if he seemed nice? Did that change his treatment of his own people, or the threat of his nuclear weapons program? He insisted it mattered.
“From that moment on, we no longer saw him as an enemy,” Kim Ou-joon explained. “There was a fundamental shift among South Koreans. It wasn’t just hope for peace. It went from distrust to trust. Because we saw it with our own eyes, it’s difficult for that perception to change—that was the key. In one moment, Kim Jong-un’s approval ratings jumped from 20 percent to nearly 80 percent.”
When I asked about Kim Jong-un’s 2013 execution of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, and the murder of his brother, Kim Jong-nam, who in February 2017 was assassinated at Kuala Lumpur International Airport when two hired killers smeared a lethal nerve agent called VX on his face, he said that every country had its own rules for establishing political order by eliminating a rival. “It’s not right to judge it according to the American way.”
This was his response to all my questions about human rights: North Korea had its own ways, its own logic; the only ones bringing up human rights at this juncture were South Korea’s extreme conservatives, because it fit with their agenda to demonize North Korea. Besides, the United States had its own ethical and moral shortcomings with which to reckon. “Imagine if other countries brought up the white American policemen’s murder of black people, or of its gun violence, every time there were to be political negotiations?”
This, he said, was why U.S. foreign policy on North Korea always failed. “In America’s perception, it’s always Good versus Evil, them being right and others wrong.” He mentioned Trump’s cancellation of the summit. “Since it was Trump who canceled, Americans saw it as a ‘deal making.’ If North Korea had done it, then it would have been desperate strategy.” He drew on his cigarette when he said this, and seemed emotional. “America simply won’t acknowledge that other countries have agency.”
This opinion was seconded by Choo Chin-woo, whom I met at his office that same week. He had a lean profile and angular features, and exuded the cool, chic haughtiness of a K-pop star. “There really isn’t much we as South Koreans can do,” he said. “America has always had the upper hand. Without the will of the American president, this moment with North Korea simply could not happen. Even if we, North Korea and South Korea, want to talk with each other, it cannot happen without American approval. Thus the tragedy of a small nation.”
Choo said that the dynamics of modern Korean history were set by the division between North and South, which he called “the seed of corruption and injustice.” The elites in both Koreas, as well as the South Korean mainstream media, had long benefited from the split. “They’ve lived off it, blocking reconciliation between the Koreas. The conservatives, and the surrounding countries, too—China, Japan, Russia, and especially the United States, their Defense Department, their arms dealer, those who made money off it.” He said, however, that he was the wrong person to ask questions about what kind of leaders Trump or Kim Jong-un were in their own countries. His main interest was exposing corruption within South Korea.
I encountered this attitude among many South Korean liberals. It is a sort of South Korea First mindset, which initially reminded me of Trump and his MAGA message. But the left and right in South Korea are not the same as America’s liberals and conservatives. Here, the presiding issue remains the divided Korea. Choo insisted that if Park Geun-hye’s conservative administration had still been in power, the Singapore summit would never have been possible. The same went for the levels of support for Moon in South Korea: It was an essential factor in getting Trump and Kim to Singapore.
That support was mobilized into action after the Sewol ferry disaster. It was later revealed that the sinking, and the botched rescue efforts, were the result of corruption involving the ferry owners, the insurance companies, and the Coast Guard and Navy. In July, a South Korean court ruled that the government was liable. It was also not lost on South Koreans that many of the dead were teenagers from low-income families in Ansan, an industrial city in Gyeonggi province; some questioned if the government would have acted quicker had the kids come from elite Seoul schools. The realization that this was not just an unfortunate accident struck a deep emotional chord in South Koreans, comparable to what Americans felt after Hurricane Katrina. It exposed a pervasive rottenness under the surface of the country’s infrastructure and governance.
“Information often comes from data, which in South Korea has inevitably been manipulated by the conservative media,” said Lee Sang-ho, a reporter best known for the “Samsung X-File,” an investigation that exposed the giant company’s use of bribes to influence the 1997 presidential election. “With Sewol, though, all that changed.” The nation watched in horror as their children died, and they saw that their government did nothing to rescue them even when they could have. The president went missing during the immediate hours after the disaster without offering any explanation, and the mainstream conservative media misreported a supposedly successful rescue mission, while the independent media broadcast live from the scene. Because people saw the truth with their own eyes, and because the information was incontrovertible, it gave power to the people who provided it.
“People would not be fooled,” Lee said to me at the screening of his latest film, The Blacklist, a sequel to the earlier documentary he’d done about the Sewol disaster. Lee said that conservative leaders had always used the mainstream media to exploit the division between North and South, in order to accrue personal power and wealth. The specter of national security, disseminated through the press, would stifle calls for reform in unrelated sectors of the government. “No reform, from education to labor laws, was possible, because the reformers challenging the establishment would be reframed, maligned, and banished as communists,” he added.
Junguk Gyojikwon Nodong Johap, the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union, was a good example, he said. Some of its members had been barred from teaching because they were considered anti-government and pro-North Korea. In 2013, the Park Geun-hye administration banned the union altogether, stripping it of government subsidies and the right to collectively bargain. “Unless the fundamental perception of North Korea as the enemy is eradicated, no reform is possible, “ Lee said.
He pointed to the positive coverage North Korea received during February’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, attended as a special envoy, and she sat next to Moon in the presidential box at a North Korean concert in Seoul, which was broadcast live on TV. “That was an opening act for this friendly image-building,” Lee said. That event was followed by the inter-Korean summit, which aired, again, live on TV, further improving the image of Kim Jong-un. Singapore would only be another, relatively minor, step in this process, which would be followed by Moon’s eventual visit to Pyongyang, promised the day after he took office. (Moon traveled to North Korea on September 18; during the visit, Kim said he would reciprocate with his own visit to the South.) “Outsiders forget that the Moon administration is not a normal one,” Lee said, regarding the urgency with which Moon has pursued his agenda with the North. “It was born out of a revolution, which then has to fulfill people’s expectation, which runs very high.”
Kim Yeon-chul, the head of the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government-funded think tank in Seoul, told me that when Moon was part of the Roh Moo-hyun government, the official, liberal reunification strategy was one that had existed since 1989, and was mapped out in three steps: first, the reconciliation and cooperation phase, during which South Korea would build a peaceful relationship with North Korea; next, the two Koreas would form a transitional commonwealth, with two governments under one entity, perhaps along the lines of China’s relationship to Hong Kong; and finally, a long-term process that would result in unification as a single state.
This was no longer Moon’s definition of reunification. His government now appeared to view the commonwealth not as a transition but an end state. And to achieve that, the United States was necessary. “Nuclear North Korea is a direct result of a long-lasting Cold War,” Kim Yeon-chul said. “America approaches the problem solely as one of weapons— denuclearization—but in South Korea, we approach this from the vantage point of a relationship. If the relationship changes for the better, then the weapon will no longer be useful.”
Though conservatives’ power in government was much diminished, I remained curious to understand what they thought of Moon’s shift in policy toward the North. So, in late May, I accompanied Ha Tae-kyung, a National Assembly member representing the city of Busan for the center-right Righteous Future Party, to a campaign event for the upcoming local elections on the rooftop of a shopping mall on the edge of Seoul. The candidate was 32-year-old Harvard graduate Lee Jun-seok, nicknamed “Park Geun-hye’s kid” because he was a protégé of the impeached president.
As I climbed the steps to the roof, I could hear an announcer saying the words “Harvard” and “Kim Jong-un.” The Harvard pitch was no surprise—American educational credentials go a long way in South Korea, even now. But the mention of Kim Jong-un was baffling. The speaker said that Lee Jun-seok was only a year younger than Kim Jong-un, implying that their proximity in age suggested shared leadership traits.
The young candidate was rosy-cheeked, with smiling eyes, like the young northern leader, though a bit less chubby. But the logic of positively comparing a conservative candidate to South Korea’s murderous archenemy eluded me. Apparently the conservatives had a few things in common with Moon after all. I watched Ha busily work the room, shaking hands with the few hundred constituents who had gathered there. With Moon’s Democratic Party in control of the government, it was unlikely the young candidate would win his election.
Ha Tae-kyung is a rare politician in the South who has switched his political allegiance from left to right. Born in 1968, the same year as both Kim Ou-joon and Lee Sang-ho, he belongs to the “486 Generation”—born in the 1960s, still in his forties, attended college in the turbulent 1980s. As a physics major at Seoul National University, he was one of the leading democracy activists in Junguk Daehaksaeng Daepyoja Hyupeuhwae (commonly known by its acronym, JunDaeHyup), the National College Student Leader Association, perhaps the most famous youth resistance group, known for its anti-government protests, which resulted in the death and torture of some members, and its inflammatory pro-North Korean activities.
One of its members, a South Korean college student named Lim Su-kyung, traveled to Pyongyang in 1989, in violation of a national security law prohibiting visits to the North. Like a South Korean Hanoi Jane, she publicly praised the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, sparking a controversy in the South. (The North Korean government dubbed her the “Flower of Unification.”) When she returned home, she was sentenced to five years in prison. Im Jong-seok, one of JunDaeHyup’s leaders, served three and a half years for his role in arranging the trip. Ha was also arrested, in 1991, and charged with breaking a national security law. He served two years in prison.
Many former JunDaeHyup members later took on leadership roles in the Democratic Party—Lim Su-kyung was the party’s representative to the National Assembly until 2015—and some now hold senior positions in the Moon administration. Im Jong-seok is chief presidential secretary to Moon and was seated next to him during the inter-Korean summit in April.
After the campaign event, I waited with Ha for his train to Busan, and he told me about his political evolution. Soon after being released from prison, he had traveled to the North Korean border to do aid work. It was there that he met North Korean defectors and learned about the brutal realities in the North. (Later that day, Ha asked to take a selfie with me. He said he was impressed by a book I had written about living undercover in North Korea for six months, which he called “a suicide mission.”)
South Korea’s conservatives like to accuse some far-left members of Moon’s administration of hewing to a belief system known as jusapa, an acronym for a Korean term that translates as “the faction of the Juche ideology.” Juche is the political philosophy of Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea, and means “self-reliance.” It is known for its rather hyperbolic assertions of ideological self-importance, but it also holds appeal for the far-left in South Korea in its synthesis of Marxist-Leninist and Korean culture. This is an attractive concept for a country that has historically been either colonized or suppressed by stronger nations such as Japan, China, and the United States.
For the student leaders of the 486 Generation, to resist the South Korean dictatorship meant to politically and intellectually oppose the United States, which propped the dictatorship up, and to believe in a fictionally benign image of the North—akin to the 1930s American socialists who made excuses for Stalin until they learned the truth about the Soviet Union. “The liberals in South Korea have more in common with North Korea, in its ethno-nationalism and its socialist ideals, than with the American democracy that arose in South Korea,” Ha said. The levels of distrust between left and right are rooted in years-old, still-unresolved antipathies.
Most of all, conservatives do not trust Moon, and I spoke to many of them, some with more extreme views, during my time in Seoul. For them, Moon’s push for peaceful coexistence between the two Koreas as two sovereign nations is not only false, but untenable. “It’s all a show, a fancy peace show! Why would Kim Jong-un change? Why would he give up his power? Sing peace all you want, would peace come?” said Jeong Kyu-jae, a 61-year-old former columnist at the Korea Economic Daily who is now a broadcaster, podcaster, and pundit famous for his conservative views.
He pointed to earlier failed engagement efforts, most notably the opening in 2004 of the Kaesong industrial zone in North Korea. More than 100 South Korean companies invested in Kaesong during the Sunshine Policy, employing some 54,000 North Korean workers. South Korean liberals cite the project, which closed in 2016, as an example of a relatively successful effort to nudge North Korea toward a market economy. Jeong dismissed it as a “slave factory”—with workers who had no freedom to negotiate a labor contract, for either wages or working conditions—used to bolster the North Korean regime. “Kaesong was never a road to a market economy for the North, but a system for legitimizing slave labor.”
Shaking his head, he asked me, “What do you think the South Korean left hates the most?” The answer, he said, was chaebol, the large, family-run business conglomerates that have traditionally dominated the South Korean economy. He cited the “nut rage incident,” in which Korean Air heiress Cho Hyun-ah made international news in 2014 when she angrily delayed a flight for 20 minutes because she was not properly served nuts (on a plate, apparently). The left-wing media gleefully skewered the incident as gapjil (bossy bullying) gone amok. “But who do you think is the biggest chaebol on the Korean Peninsula?” He paused. “It’s Kim Jong-un! The third-generation heir and mass murderer all those on the left are embracing right now. Remember Hitler? All those young Germans were fanatic about him too.”
A few weeks later, as if to confirm this thought, South Korea’s Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon stepped off South Korea’s Air Force One in Kenya and praised Kim Jong-un as “a leader who thinks of the livelihoods of people as being more important than other things.”
Nam Si-uk, an 80-year-old former columnist at the conservative Dong-A Ilbo newspaper (and author of Korean Conservatism Studies and Korean Progressives Studies), explained to me why conservatives view Moon’s positions as a threat. For example, the Korean commonwealth ideal, which until recently Moon supported, wouldn’t be like China and Hong Kong. A better comparison was the partition of Vietnam after the fall of the French colonialists in 1954, only on a nuclear-armed peninsula. “If it were a true commonwealth, the South would have nothing to lose, since it has twice the population of the North,” Nam said. “But, what conservatives fear is that the North will try to infiltrate and convert the South ideologically. Meanwhile, we would lose the alliances that could help us if a war were to break out. And such a war would be considered a civil war, much like Vietnam.”
Moon’s position, with two independent Koreas, could only be achieved if South Korea and the United States promised to secure the Kim Jong-un regime. “An impossibility,” said Nam. “How could anyone secure their regime? The more you pump them up economically, the more the people there will want freedom, and that freedom directly threatens the survival of the regime. Remember, Kim Jong-un’s regime isn’t an elected government but a monarchy dictatorship.” After a pause, Nam said definitively, “Moon’s vision is a fantasy.”
Most of all, Nam claimed that key members of Moon’s government still actually want total reunification, because they are fundamental ethno-nationalists and believe in one Korea. “It’s the young people, the students, who don’t want reunification, because they don’t want to give money to North Korea. But the core left does.” What conservatives fear, then, is the liberal vision of reunification, made on North Korea’s terms, which would bring South Korea closer to China and Russia, and ultimately break up South Korea’s alliance with the United States. In the end, the new battle between left and right was an old one: Soviet-style socialism versus American democracy. Never mind that the Soviet Union was no more, North Korea was isolated, and China, its sole partner, wasn’t exactly a communist paradise. Conservatives, trapped in their never-ending cycles of political recrimination, could only see Moon’s wish to make peace for South Korea as a feint to get rid of the United States.
“Alliance” is a word that Moon Chung-in, special policy adviser to President Moon, doesn’t like. I met him in his office in a government building around the corner from the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential residence. In May, he said, he had told a reporter from The Atlantic that alliances are “a very unnatural state” in international relations, and he added, “Ideally speaking, a country without alliances can be said to be more secure and stable.” Alliances, he explained, assume a common enemy, a common threat. If the common threat is gone, countries have two choices: either create a new threat, or “adjust your alliances.” Moon Chung-in did concede, however, that, “in the short to medium term, our alliances with the United States should be maintained.”
The interview outraged South Korean conservatives, who interpreted his remarks as the Moon administration declaring its intention to forsake its ties with the United States. An article in The Chosun Ilbo, the country’s leading conservative daily, blasted the comment with a headline, “Moon Chung-in, Again ... In the Long Run, Best Is to Get Rid of Korea-U.S. Alliance.” In 2017, when Moon Chung-in made a similar statement, Hong Jun-pyo, a former presidential candidate from Liberty Korea, the country’s biggest right-wing party, who is known as “Hong Trump” for his aggressive style, said, “Such a vulgar comment is not only shocking but also gives us the creeps,” and he suggested that Moon Chung-in move to North Korea. Ahn Cheol-soo, another former presidential candidate, and a leading figure in the Righteous Future Party, demanded Moon Chung-in be fired.
Moon Chung-in had also run into trouble a few months earlier during a speech in Washington, D.C., when he said that it would be difficult to justify the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea if there was ever a peace treaty with the North, a position he repeated in an April article he wrote for Foreign Affairs. “Many conservatives criticized me for saying that,” Moon Chung-in told me. “But my main concern was that there will be a debate in the United States” about whether, and how, its forces might withdraw, and that South Korea’s interests needed to be respected. Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. secretary of state, agreed with him, he said. “He told me himself that a debate about U.S. troops will be unavoidable and inevitable. But you see the reaction in South Korea!” Moon Chung-in said, shaking his head. “If the removal of troops becomes an issue, that will stand in the way of any peacemaking process. The reason for that is because of internal political resistance, and that’s between conservatives and liberals.”
The South Korean conservatives, he told me, still considered the only “authentic peace” to be unification by absorption, one in which North Korea surrendered or collapsed. “No such thing is possible,” Moon Chung-in said. “The difficult task in all this,” he added, “is how to persuade North Korea to make peace with South Korea while maintaining the alliance with America and keeping the U.S. troops in South Korea.” To achieve that, North Korea could not be demonized. President Moon’s approach to détente was a pragmatic one, he claimed, not the fruitless dream that conservatives condemned it as.
With that in mind, South Korea’s interest in the Singapore summit, then, had little to do with a comprehensive deal to resolve Moon Jae-in’s “difficult task.” Any agreement would effectively be meaningless, since neither Trump nor Kim could be trusted. What Moon Jae-in wanted was for Donald Trump to avoid damaging the progress he’d made at the DMZ, along with a little help promoting support for peace with the North in South Korea. That’s why Moon Jae-in said Trump could have his Nobel Peace Prize—as a pat on the back! And if Kim stopped violating his subject’s human rights, great, because it made it easier for Moon to sell peace to his citizens. But it wasn’t that important. (There is still no evidence that North Korea has suspended its nuclear weapons program, and in August, Trump canceled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned visit to Pyongyang; by September the trip was back on.)
When I brought up human rights, Moon Chung-in cut me short. “It’s for North Korea to decide. It’s their destiny. We tend to have some illusion that we can shape the political lives of North Korea. Look at America, and how many times they intervened in the name of human rights and democracy. They always failed!” He paused, as if reconsidering his words. He said that some Americans might argue that a free and democratic South Korea is a successful example of intervention. He disagreed. “It was the people of South Korea who achieved democracy.”
In June, the DMZ summit and Singapore would be cited as significant factors in the landslide electoral victories for Moon’s Democratic Party. They took eleven out of twelve available seats in the National Assembly, and 14 out of 17 major municipality chiefs. Lee Jun-seok, “Park Geun-hye’s kid,” lost badly. Liberals are now fully in control of South Korea. Moon’s approval rating reached 84 percent, an all-time high.
Before leaving for Singapore, I visited the Yongsan Garrison, an American military base in the middle of Seoul. At 617 acres, and at its peak home to 22,000 U.S. military and other personnel, it is alarmingly large for a foreign military base in a country’s capital. It was originally built in 1910 by the Japanese Imperial Army during the occupation of Korea; in 1945, control of it passed to the U.S. Eighth Army. For Seoul’s ten million citizens, it’s a place of mystery; South Koreans must be approved for entry.
Under a relocation agreement signed in 2003 by American and South Korean presidents George W. Bush and Roh Moo-Hyun, the U.S. Army is finally moving out of Seoul, to Camp Humphreys, 40 miles south, in the city of Pyeongtaek. The relocation was delayed for many years due to protests over the U.S. military presence, and the cost. (South Korea is responsible for 92 percent of the $10.7 billion budget for the move, on top of its annual payments of more than $800 million for the upkeep of U.S. troops in the country.)
On the day of my visit, many of the barracks were already empty. A young American college student who had grown up on the base showed me around. She was home for summer break and was sad that by the next time she returned, it would all be dismantled. “What are the chances of your childhood home being completely erased?” she said, while leading me through what looked like an American suburb.
One of the barracks had a sign that read YUJIN KATUSA SNACKBAR. What made me pause was the word KATUSA—Korean Augmentation to the United States Army, a branch of the South Korean forces attached to the U.S. military. Growing up in South Korea, I had heard it mentioned often, although it seemed to me always with a trace of shame. All South Korean young men must serve two years of mandatory military service. Those who are selected for KATUSA are usually from the top colleges, and are typically regarded with envy, since they get a chance to practice their English and be posted in Seoul. But there is also an uncomfortable aspect to it. South Koreans are keenly aware that a group of their best young men are serving the U.S. Army, a sad metaphor for modern Korean history.
The inclusion of KATUSA in the name meant that this was a Korean restaurant, and, sure enough, the menu displayed all Korean dishes, though some of it was fusion using the military supply of Spam and yellow Kraft cheese slices. The American student told me that the place is run by a halmoni (old woman) who had been there “forever.” Inside, I found a very small, wrinkled old woman clearing tables. When she sat down with a huge basket of soybean sprouts, I sat across from her and offered to help snap the tail off each sprout, as my mother does when making soup.
Her name was No Jung-nyu. She was born in 1938 and had run this place since the 1980s. Her two daughters, now in their forties, cooked in the kitchen, and her middle-aged son worked the counter. She told me how life was hard, especially after the war, but here at Yongsan Garrison, she had found a home. Americans were so friendly and good to her. “Very kind,” she said.
She was hoping to be relocated to Camp Humphreys. Because I came from America, she seemed to think I might have some pull. She was losing sleep at night worrying about the prospect of her future and her family’s livelihood. They would all be jobless if they do not get selected, she said, and they loved serving their American army customers. When I asked her how the selection for relocation was being made, she said she had no idea, but that it would be Americans who decided who would go to the new base. “It’s always Americans who control.”