South Korea did well in 2017. The year began with insecurity over the impeachment of then-president Park Geun-hye. Her removal from office in March caused a short, but intense, election campaign that resulted in an overwhelming victory for Moon Jae-in in May. The spring saw rapidly rising tensions between the US and North Korea over the North’s nuclear weapons program. In the past, a political vacuum and war worries would have had a strong impact on the South Korean economy, but economic growth picked up and the won strengthened.
The public has rewarded President Moon for providing political and economic stability. He began his term with an 80 percent approval rating and ended the year at 69 percent. The stretch of high approval ratings is now the highest of any Korean president in history. President Moon’s Democratic Party is far more popular than any other party and stands to do well in the local elections scheduled for this April.
The real test of President Moon’s leadership will come in 2018 as tensions between the US and North Korea continue to flare. How he deals with this will have profound implications for Korea’s future. To navigate through the difficulties, Moon should look beyond the daily media grind and take the long-view based on quality information.
As in other democracies, the media in South Korea have internal biases. The biases are particularly strong when the US and North Korea area involved. Conservative media strongly support the current military alliance between South Korea and the US and are generally “pro-American.” Progressive media, by contrast, are critical of the US and, by extension, the military alliance with it. They are generally “anti-American.” Other countries, such as Japan and Germany, that have close relations and military alliances with the US have a similar division in their media.
The problem with media bias is that it can lead to sloppy reporting and low-quality information. An uncontrolled bias makes it difficult to filter information objectively, which can lead to a distorted understanding of reality. The media’s failure to notice Donald Trump’s strength in 2016 US presidential election is a textbook example of how bias led to sloppy reporting.
One of the keywords in 2017 was “Korea passing,” which refers to the US taking the initiative in dealing with North Korea and discussing strategy more with China and Japan than with South Korea. Conservative media use “Korea passing” to criticize President Moon’s interaction with China, while progressive media use it as evidence that the US does not care about South Korea.
Worrying about “Korea passing” is a distraction. South Korea has a close bilateral relationship centering on trade with China. Like any nation, the US puts its interests first, but a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula is a strong mutual interest with South Korea, among many others. With a mutual defense treaty that includes 30,000 US military personnel stationed in Korea, there can be no “Korea passing.”
Another keyword in 2017 was “Trump.” Since his inauguration in January, President Trump has dominated the news with his tweets and contortions. As during the 2016 campaign, the media reported every word, but did not provide much understanding of what was going on. For much of the year, the media portrayed him as an ineffective buffoon who might not survive his term.
In reality, Donald Trump has turned out to be an effective president who, barring some shocking revelation or health issue, will survive his term and might be competitive to win a second. He picks battles that offer him political gain with limited risk. Much of the tweeting is an ego-driven distraction that allows him to control the political narrative.
President Moon should thus expect to deal with President Trump until the end of first term in January 2021. He should remember that, at heart, Trump is a real estate mogul who has a high tolerance for ambiguity, but who also avoids risk. Should tensions not produce change in the North Korea, Trump will blame China and maintain tensions in the hope that they might work later. War is too risky.
The secret to President Moon’s success last year was his focus on a peaceful resolution without abandoning the goal of denuclearization and the military alliance with the US. He should keep this focus to navigate through the tensions this year. He should ignore Trump’s tweets and media chatter about “Korea passing.” And he should draw strength from knowing that history rewards good judgment amid adversity.
By Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Ed.