S. Korea’s President defuses tensions with the north

North and South Korean teams are to match together under the “Korean Unification Flag” at the XXIIIWinter Olympics opening ceremony in PyeongChang, South Korea, on Feb. 9.

The Korean Unification Flag, designed to represent all of Korea with a blue silhouette of the Peninsula in the center against a white background, made its first appearance in 1991 when the two Koreas formed a unified team to contest at the world table tennis championship in Japan.

Between 1998 and 2008, North and South Korean athletes had used the unification flag to march together at several major sport events, including the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics, 2004 Athens Summer Olympics, and 2006 Torin Winter Olympics. Then in 2007, a huge unification flag was raised at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, when President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea walked into North Korea for a summit with Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il.

Since 2008, however, the unification flag has not been seen again, when the inter-Korean relations continued to deteriorate and Pyongyang accelerated its nuclear and missile developments.

The raising of the Korean Unification Flag at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics is not only a symbolic marker of reconciliation between the two Koreas, but also a major diplomatic breakthrough for South Korean President Moon Jae-in in his bid to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula.

As soon as sworn in as South Korea’s 19th president, Moon had made clear that his administration would pursue a more accommodating policy toward North Korea.

Moon’s North Korea policy, writes Rudiger Frank at the University of Vienna, “represents a mix of several of his predecessors’ approaches, which were regarded largely as either too soft or too tough.” The new North Korea strategy “does not offer unconditional cooperation to Pyongyang, but it also does not signal an intention to colonize North Korea. Moon worked hard to emphasize the importance of the alliance with the United States and explicitly mentioned complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of the North’s nuclear weapons program. But he also clearly stressed the need for Korea to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to inter-Korean relations and an eventual unification, echoing the term ‘by our nation itself,’ which is so popular in North Korea.”

Moon has made it abundantly clear that South Korea will not surrender the future of the Peninsula to any outside forces.

In a nationally televised address, President Moon declared, “Only the Republic of Korea can make the decision for military action on the Korean Peninsula. Without the consent of the Republic of Korea, no country can determine to take military action. The people worked together to rebuild the country from the Korean War, and we cannot lose everything again because of a war. I can confidently say there will not be a war again on the Korean Peninsula.”

President Moon has also repeatedly expressed his willingness “to respect and accept North Korea as it is.” To make sure his message is not missed, says Frank, Moon “explicitly stated that he neither wishes for North Korea to collapse nor that he will work toward any kind of unification through absorption, and offered to meet Chairman Kim Jong-un ‘at any time at any place’.”

President Moon Jae-in, however, is not “soft” on North Korea. “When North Korea tested a long-range missile in July,” writes Nathan Park of Foreign Policy, “Seoul responded with a ‘decapitation’ missile drill designed to show Kim that his leadership would be eliminated if he deployed his arsenal. When North Korea fired an intermediate-range missile over Japan in August, Seoul responded with a bomber drill with bunker busters, making the same point as before. In September, Moon and Trump agreed to amend the guidelines preventing South Korea from developing its own ballistic missiles beyond a certain payload-meaning South Korean missiles will be able to penetrate and destroy North Korea’s underground facilities.”

Moon has also handled the United States and China with aplomb. “All of Moon’s meetings with Trump have concluded on positive notes,” noted Park, “most notably Trump’s Seoul visit in November. Moon also normalized relations with China with remarkable alacrity… With his diplomatic successes, coupled with a strong domestic showing, Moon’s approval rating in the most recent poll is a sky-high 77 percent, making him the most popular leader in the free world.”

“The secret to President Moon’s success,” concluded Robert Fouser at Seoul National University, “is his focus on a peaceful resolution without abandoning the goal of denuclearization.” After months of gathering war clouds, President Moon Jae-in is bringing a ray of peace to the Korean Peninsula.

Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College’s China Program.