|U.S. President Donald Trump, right, walks with North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un during a break in talks at the second US-North Korea summit at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi on Feb. 28. The summit collapsed, damaging South Korean President Moon Jae-in's peace effort. AFP-Yonhap|
By Oh Young-jin
The biggest loser in the no-deal Hanoi summit between North Korea's Kim Jong-un and U.S.'s Donald Trump was neither of the two but South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
It means his reconciliatory North Korea policy is in trouble and may be doomed with no second chances as Trump appears to be leaning to the usual insider Washington regimen with his presidency to be boxed in by a looming partisan tussle over his impeachment for colluding with Russia.
If Moon's policy fails, it will not be an isolated case ― Korea's recent history shows Moon is part of the rule as most of his predecessors had fared as badly, if not worse.
Despite accusations of being a remote-controlled puppet president, Park Geun-hye, now impeached and tried while in prison for corruption, among other charges, had her own reciprocity-based "Trustpolitik," but this North Korea policy faltered as soon as it started.
Lee Myung-bak, now out on bail while being tried for corruption, did not even have anything worthy of a North Korea policy. His conservative presidency came on the heels of the latter half of 10-year liberal rule, led by the late President Roh Moo-hyun.
Therefore, Lee opted for the reflective "anything but…" approach. During Lee's rule, inter-Korean relations plunged to a low, a bellicose North Korea being confrontational as well.
Roh by and large inherited much of his predecessor Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine" policy of promoting rapport with the North, but one difference was that Roh adopted Prof. Moon Chung-in's suggestion of making Korea an honest broker to help mediate between the U.S. China and Japan and achieve a regional peace.
Prof. Moon is now special adviser to President Moon, who worked as Roh's chief of staff.
Roh's dream foundered and did not materialize because the U.S., Korea's key ally, took offense at Seoul's attempt to get out of its orbit, and China had yet to grow big enough to cope with the U.S. and emerge as an alternative. China has not yet filled the bigger shoes.
Roh and Kim worked with Kim Jong-il, who crowned his son and current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as his successor during his dying days.
The North then looked like a basket case following its leader's death.
Kim and Roh could afford to draw a broader picture, thinking of absorbing the North when it collapsed under its own weight.
President Moon depends on Prof. Moon for his North Korea policy, but his version is more realistic than Roh's from the realization that the South is not big or clever enough to become an effective mediator among the big guns.
It is also different from Kim Dae-jung's seminal idea for a reconciliatory formula primarily because of the emergence of its vibrant new leader, Kim Jong-un. The young Kim brought his country closer to being a nuclear weapon state by conducting tests defiantly, even at the risk of inviting a preemptive U.S. strike.
Kim has proved confident and audacious enough to upstage Trump or China's Xi Jinping, the supposed main actors in the global arena.
Kim's performance has dwarfed President Moon, who was satisfied with his supporting role. But by many signs, Moon got what he wanted at least for the time being: peace on the Korean Peninsula. Moon clarified peace as his goal at whatever cost.
Indeed, before the Hanoi fiasco, Moon was touted as a candidate to win the Nobel Peace Prize together with Kim and Trump. Now Kim and Trump may have a third summit, but the chance of a breakthrough does not look as high as in Hanoi (remember the hype preceding it) and in Singapore, the site of their first summit.
Now what do Moon, his liberal predecessors Roh or Kim, as well as conservative Lee and Park, have in common in the unsuccessful formula for the North?
They have all striven for a kind of qualified peace that is a little bit more secure.
We keep falling short of even that goal, reminding one of a long jumper who cannot live up to his potential because he sets his goal too low.
Peace is too low to be a national goal. Rather, we should be bold in goal setting and make national unification between South and North Korea our new clear and present goal.
We are not united about unification for fear it would cost us dearly and hurt our standard of living. Overcoming it would give us a sense of purpose as a nation.
Politicians are divided over how to deal with the North ― the progressives want to get friendly, while the conservatives prefer a stick-first policy.
The division on methodology can be overridden by unification, an unrivaled unifying cause.
We should let the world know that unification is what we want and work toward that goal ― enticing help and clearing obstacles ― so the world realizes that a unified Korea is in everyone's interests.
It is a process by which we can take ownership of our fate. Perhaps that way, we may land a step short, but still gain a more stable peace.
Oh Young-jin (email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org) is digital managing editor of The Korea Times.