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He then saw those deals discarded a year later, in 2008, by a newly elected president who sought closer ties with President George W. Bush, who had branded the North part of an “axis of evil.”
Now, as president of South Korea, Moon is keen not to repeat past failures as he stakes his own political career on brokering a deal between the unpredictable leaders of the United States, his nation’s protector, and North Korea, long its mortal foe.
As chief of staff during the Roh administration, from 2003 to 2008, Moon did not participate in the negotiations with the North, led at the time by Kim Jong Il, the father of the current leader, or join Roh’s overland visit to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. But he did help Roh organize those talks, held in October 2007.
He has clearly taken to heart what he sees as the lessons of that stillborn peace initiative.
One lesson was that advancing inter-Korean relations with generous offers of aid was a nonstarter so long as the United States remained locked in a standoff with the North over its nuclear weapons program.
Another was that any deal with North Korea must be struck and carried out early in the terms of the South Korean and U.S. presidents. This ensures that the agreement does not die with a change of governments and political ideologies in Seoul and Washington, as the 2007 agreement and other past deals did.
“When we look back, the most important thing is speed,” Moon told the current North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, during their meeting last week in the Demilitarized Zone, the fortified border separating the two Koreas.
During that meeting, Moon urged the North Korean to move quickly to make a deal with President Donald Trump during their talks, expected later this month or next month. “We have to learn lessons from the past,” Moon told Kim.
Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un attend a banquet on the Peace House at the truce village of Panmunjom
That need for speed is apparent in the fast pace of diplomacy that appears to be leading to a first-ever summit meeting between the leaders of the United States and North Korea, who just a few months ago appeared on the brink of war.
Moon, 65, has played a key role in bringing together Trump and Kim, who now appear likely to meet at Panmunjom, the same “truce village” in the Demilitarized Zone where Moon held his talks with Kim.
Such a meeting would be a triumph for Moon, who has experienced both highs and lows in his country’s relations with North Korea.
Moon was a conscripted member of an elite paratroop unit in 1976, when ax-wielding North Korean troops murdered two US Army officers while they pruned a poplar tree that blocked their view at Panmunjom. In “Operation Paul Bunyan,” Moon’s unit was sent in to finish chopping down the tree while the North Koreans stood back.
Until last week, Moon’s only visit to North Korea was in 2004, when he accompanied his mother on a government-arranged reunion to see her younger sister for the first time since the Korean War. Moon himself was born in a refugee camp during the war, after his parents fled their native North Korea on board a US Navy cargo ship.
His approach to handling the United States is one of Moon’s biggest departures from his predecessor, Roh, who committed suicide in 2009 amid corruption allegations surrounding his relatives.
Moon appears to have concluded that Roh doomed his own peace deal at least in part by failing to get Bush to back it. Instead, Roh, fiery and blunt, had vowed not to “kowtow to the Americans.”
Since taking office last year, Moon has shown himself more sophisticated and accommodating in managing relations with Washington.
He has closely consulted with the White House during the current rush of diplomacy. Moon has also been careful in public to credit Trump for making the current breakthroughs possible, saying that he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.
The need to bring in America also reflects hard-earned domestic political lessons. Moon saw Roh and Kim Dae-jung, the two presidents who championed what was called the Sunshine Policy of engagement with North Korea, fail as the North persisted in its weapons programs despite generous aid.
Both died heartbroken men, with their legacy dismantled by their conservative foes, who ridiculed them as naive and pro-North Korean.
“One thing South Korea has learned is that it cannot improve ties with North Korea without progress in denuclearizing North Korea,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. Otherwise, he said, any deal “would be like building a house of cards.”
During his meeting with Kim at Panmunjom, Moon’s highest priority appeared to be convincing the young North Korean dictator that he could create a better future by striking a deal with Washington to rebuild his country’s economy in exchange for giving up his nuclear arsenal.
Despite the spectacle of the two Korean leaders leisurely holding hands as they stepped across their nations’ border, Moon and his aides compared his mission to “walking on this ice,” and urged Kim to quickly sign and implement a deal while he and Trump were in office.
“I am still in the first year of my term,” Moon told Kim during their meeting. “I hope we can maintain this speed through my term.”
Moon’s rush for an early deal is rooted in past experiences.
In 1994, North Korea and the United States reached their first of many agreements on dismantling the North’s nuclear program, then in its very early stages. Washington offered energy aid and promises of normalizing diplomatic and economic relations, but the accord unraveled after the United States dragged its feet because it did not expect the North Korean government to survive long past the collapse of the Soviet Union.
North Korea also hedged its bets, secretly keeping a program to enrich uranium so it could one day build its own atomic bombs.
In 2000, President Kim Dae-jung, the initiator of the Sunshine Policy, flew to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong Il, ushering in a period of détente that seemed to promise an end to hostilities on the peninsula. Investment and trade flourished, and families separated by the war were allowed to hold reunions.
Kim Jong Il sent his trusted aide, Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, to the White House to ask President Bill Clinton to visit Pyongyang. However, Clinton decided he could not attempt so bold a diplomatic move at the end of his time in office, and instead sent his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright.
The new opening with Washington closed after Bush took office in 2001. North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006.
“After he stepped down, President Clinton visited Seoul and told President Kim Dae-jung how regrettable it was; he said if he had a little bit more time in office, he could have changed the course of the Korean Peninsula,” said Lim Dong-won, a former aide to Kim, who attended the meeting.
Roh, who replaced Kim Dae-jung, tried to keep the détente alive with his 2007 agreement on easing military tensions and increasing economic cooperation. But the deal, signed four months before Roh’s term ended, was quickly overturned by Roh’s conservative successor, Lee Myung-bak.
Lee was eager to align himself with Bush, who sought to isolate the North with sanctions in the hopes it would surrender its nuclear weapons program, a strategy continued by President Barack Obama.
So far, Moon’s gambit seems to be winning broad support within South Korea. Opinion polls show his approval ratings surging, with some nine out of 10 South Koreans viewing the DMZ meeting as a success.
Not all South Koreans are convinced, however.
Hong Joon-pyo, leader of the main conservative opposition Korean Liberty Party, likened Moon to former Prime Minister Arthur Neville Chamberlain of Britain, who he said fell into Hitler’s “trap of false peace.”
“After being cheated eight times, did he still think for a ninth time that North Korea would not cheat this time?” Hong said.