[Column] Moon Jae-in’s defense doublethink

Posted on : 2024-06-17 17:22 KST Modified on : 2024-06-17 20:03 KST
While highlighting the need to install a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, the former president also took South Korea from the world’s No. 12 military power to No. 6
President Moon Jae-in sits aboard an FA-50 light attack aircraft before attending the commemorative ceremony for the 2021 Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Industry Exhibition at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province on Oct 20, 2021. (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in sits aboard an FA-50 light attack aircraft before attending the commemorative ceremony for the 2021 Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Industry Exhibition at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province on Oct 20, 2021. (Yonhap)

“From the Frontier to the Center,” a memoir by Moon Jae-in about his foreign affairs and national security experiences, includes a critique of South Korea’s progressives by the former president. 

He writes that their “ways of thinking [about national defense] are outdated and narrow.” Stressing the need for strong defense to “achieve peace” and to “forcefully pursue inter-Korean dialogue,” he criticizes the progressives’ discourse as “deeply lacking.”

As I read this passage, I found myself thinking of the term “doublethink.” Coined by George Orwell in his novel “1984,” the concept of doublethink is a way of thinking in which two opposing beliefs or ideas are held at the same time.

The content of Moon’s memoirs seems to fit this definition perfectly.

Moon recalls receiving a report early in his term stating that South Korea “held an overwhelming advantage [over North Korea] in terms of conventional firepower” and that “this was why North Korea was focusing so heavily on achieving asymmetric capabilities with nuclear weapons and missiles.” This represents an accurate perception and assessment of the situation.

At the same time, he writes that he “viewed a strong national defense as a means of encouraging dialogue” and “building strong national defense was essential” for dialogue-based problem-solving.

Referring to denuclearization as a “necessary prerequisite for peace on the Korean Peninsula,” he makes it clear that the aim of dialogue was denuclearization.

How did things turn out?

As of the year Moon’s administration took office in 2017, South and North Korea respectively ranked 12th and 18th in the world for conventional military strength. By the time he left office in 2022, the gap had widened, and the two sides respectively ranked 6th and 32nd. In effect, he had built the sort of “strong national defense” that he believed in.

What about his other convictions regarding inter-Korean dialogue and denuclearization?

Between December 2018 and the time Moon left office, there was not a single instance of official inter-Korean dialogue. It was the longest such dry spell since 1971. The window for denuclearization was essentially closed for the entire latter part of his term. 

Some may argue that this was the result of the February 2019 North Korea-US summit in Hanoi and its failure to produce a deal. Moon certainly does emphasize that analysis in his memoirs.

But the Moon administration made far too many doublethink-influenced missteps for blame to be assigned to that failure alone. 

As Moon underscores in his memoir, 2018 was the year of the Korean Peninsula peace process. At the same time, it was also a year that saw Moon ramping up efforts to realize another of his convictions — namely “strong national defense.”

The 2019 national defense budget set by the administration at the end of 2018 was 8.2% larger than the year before. It was the largest since 2008 and the largest in Moon’s entire term. In particular, spending on defense capability improvements was increased by 13.7%.

This spending served as a basis for speeding up the pursuit of the “Defense Reform 2.0” plan. At its core, this approach was geared toward swiftly ending a war by sending Army, Navy and Air Force multidimensional maneuver units into Pyongyang and other deep enemy locations in the event of an emergency.

Formulation of this military strategy was spearheaded by Song Young-moo, Moon’s first defense minister and one of the signatories to the inter-Korean military agreement signed on Sept. 19, 2018. Moon signed off on the strategy in January 2019.

These measures came at a time when the administration itself rated the prospects for peace and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula as the highest they’d ever been.

In the wake of the Hanoi summit collapse, the contradictions of doublethink snowballed. Joint military exercises with the US were resumed in March, and South Korea began working in earnest to adopt advanced weaponry, including F-35 stealth fighters. Meanwhile, Moon was stressing that “what is preserving peace in North Korea is not nuclear weaponry but dialogue and trust.”

The problems really began after a surprise meeting at Panmunjom by the inter-Korean and US leaders on June 30, 2019. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and then-US President Donald Trump reached a verbal agreement on two points: Trump promised to suspend joint South Korea-US exercises, and Kim answered by agreeing to take part in working-level dialogue with Washington.

But joint exercises went ahead that August, and the Moon administration clearly signaled its intent to further speed up armaments with a defense budget of over 290 trillion won (roughly US$210 billion) over five years.

It was around this time that North Korea began heaping invective on the Moon administration, which it said was fit to make “the boiled head of a cow provoke a side-splitting laughter.”

According to figures close to the administration, there was one game-changing development. When Moon declared in a December 2017 interview with the foreign press that he intended to postpone joint military exercises with the US, this represented a turning point toward averting the threat of war and ushering in a “top-down”-style peace process.

Apart from whether one agrees with this assessment, there is a question I would like to ask: If the postponement of the exercises was such a crucial variable that it altered the Kim Jong-un administration’s strategic determinations, why were they so slow to realize that the resumption of those exercises in 2019 had the potential to create a devastating crisis for the peace process and inter-Korean relations?

Progressives may well argue for stronger national defense. They may maintain that peace on the Korean Peninsula can coexist with strong national defense and that North Korea’s economic difficulties would have prevented it from choosing the arms race route.

But they should have also considered the scenario that Moon himself mentioned, namely that North Korea might focus more on nuclear weapons and missiles as the gap in inter-Korean military strength widened. They should have reflected on their own doublethink as it became apparent that the North was responding to the South’s joint military exercises and increased armament by committing itself to tactical nuclear weapons and short-range launch vehicles.

And they should have asked themselves whether their defense reforms should really center on bolstering capabilities not just for national defense but for armed unification in the event of an emergency.

At the very least, Moon’s memoirs should have included a suggestion that we work together to seek the kind of wisdom that might minimize the contradictions between “peace on the Korean Peninsula” and “strong national defense.”

By Cheong Wook-sik, director of the Hankyoreh Peace Institute and director of the Peace Network

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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