By Choi Sung-jin
The damage stretched beyond the structure's construction cost of 17.4 billion won ($14.5 million). It was the death knell for Moon's three-year effort to bring about reconciliation of the two Koreas and reconnect their severed ties.
A week after that, a mustachioed U.S. neocon added insult to injury.
Exposing behind-the-scenes diplomatic episodes during his service as the national security adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, John Bolton did not just criticize Moon's inter-Korean policy but disparaged it.
The two incidents occurred as the Koreas commemorated the 70th anniversary of their fratricidal war, which started June 25, 1950. Technically, they are still at war because the truce signed July 27, 1953, suspended the conflict, not ending it.
These events have made South Koreans ponder this peninsula's past, present and future, and what the two Koreas mean to each other. The North's destruction of the office turned the relationship between Koreas back to 2017 or before the first inter-Korean summit of June 2000. Bolton's exposure provided fodder for hawks here to call for a shift from cooperation to confrontation.
I don't know whether or not Bolton is a liar, as his former boss claims. Like most inter-Korean well-wishers, I would love to hate this Cold War-era warrior who professed ― confidently and proudly ― he had tried to thwart any attempts for detente or dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington. If anyone believes Bolton could do it singlehandedly as he bragged, however, they are either incredibly naive or as simpleminded as the author himself. Bolton was just an errand boy of the U.S. right-wingers.
More pitiable than them are the conservatives in this country. These rightists lament that President Moon puts up with insults from the North but takes no issue with a foreigner's description of their President as "schizophrenic." They also take, too readily, Bolton's allegation that Moon pursued inter-Korean rapprochement, and even created a diplomatic tension with Tokyo, for domestic political gain. Political leaders from across the ideological spectrum seek starkly different policies, including foreign policy. How do these politicians not realize partisan squabbles stop at the border?
The former White House official said President Trump agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un mostly, if not entirely, for photo ops to boost his re-election chances. And Bolton says he kept Kim from deceiving his boss in Vietnam in February 2019.
In refuting this, Trump accused Bolton of destroying the Hanoi deal by putting forth the "Libyan model" that calls for denuclearization first and discussing rewards later. If Bolton is right, Kim tried to dupe Trump by just dismantling his Yongbyon nuclear facilities and seeking the lifting of most of the international sanctions. But Kim knows better than to think he could deceive the entire U.S. establishment. If Trump is right, the tail was wagging the dog within the White House at the time.
Considering it was Trump who brought in Bolton knowing the latter too well, the self-styled master of the deal might have wanted to use his hawkish aide as a scapegoat in case he changed mind but didn't want that to be known. Anything is possible in the political world, especially in Trump's, where the ends justify all means.
Any decent media outlets here should have rebuked the glaring mutiny and lack of coherence within the U.S. foreign policy team. Instead, the so-called mainstream media here called for the inspection of the administration based on Bolton's allegations. Ideology seems to be far thicker than blood.
Pyongyang has no excuse for blowing up the symbol of inter-Korean unity and harmony. However frustrated and desperate it had come to be, the act was insane ― and stupid. If Kim and his coterie had thought such a provocation would make Seoul, let alone Washington, move to its liking, nothing could be further from reality. Nor the vulgar, abusive language by its propaganda machine, most recently in the name of Kim's sister and seeming heir-apparent, would help at all except for venting the anger for the domestic audience.
Now is the time for President Moon and his national security team to take a calmer and longer-term approach. Like in everything, haste makes waste in the inter-Korean relationship. To the relief of many, Pyongyang seems to be taking a breather either because it cringed at the sight of the U.S. strategic assets unfolding here or because Kim Jong-un has read Bolton's memoir and belatedly learned ― paradoxically ― how hard Moon tried between him and Trump braving all the criticisms from within and without.
No one can say for sure whether and when the North will abandon its nuclear weapons. It is also true, however, no U.S. leaders have put forth a full guarantee of security and peace regime in exchange for denuclearization, step by step and action for action. We also know the North's nuclear program started in the early 1990s after the socialist bloc collapsed, and Moscow and Beijing normalized ties with Seoul; but Washington and Tokyo refused to do so, in part at the request of the then Roh Tae-woo administration, a general-turned-president.
Seoul's role should be to persuade Washington to restart the process in return for phased denuclearization instead of waiting for the U.S. "permitting benefits," which won't come for lack of interest, willingness or capacity. That was the most significant, if not the only, lesson South Koreans should learn from Bolton's book.
Blind adherence to ideological allies would make at least one country happy ― Japan, which wants Korea divided forever and never wants to see the latter emerge as a global player, as seen by its ongoing opposition to Seoul's attendance at a "G7 plus four" meeting. Some might say all this comes from outdated and narrow-minded nationalism. Centuries after the birth of nation-states, nationalism is now resurging, not waning.
There will be more explosions (clashes) and exposures (obstructions) in the way to attaining lasting peace and prosperity on this divided peninsula. However, there is only one direction in which the two Koreas should go ― forward.
Choi Sung-jin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Korea Times columnist.