This is a surprise. When he assumed office, many (myself included) anticipated domestic action. After all, Moon's professional experiences, from soldier to lawyer to politician, have been local, not international. He has no diplomatic background, no foreign languages.
Yet his local achievements have been minimal. He has been reversed on nuclear power, has flip-flopped on cryptocurrency and made zero progress on the big-ticket issue, conglomerate reform. The most significant national development his administration has overseen is a gloves-off judicial onslaught on former presidents.
Moon's rise has been far more spectacular in international affairs.
He has ― according to credible rumors ― promoted backdoor outreach to North Korea, resulting in Kim Jong-un's New Year broadcast. He has overseen a highly successful "Peace Olympics" during which he welcomed the first-ever member of the Kim monarchy to the South.
The results of Moon's Olympic politicking are myriad. North-South communications have been restored. Kim has offered Moon a summit, plus a nuclear and missile test moratorium. Kim has also ― via South Korean envoys ― mooted a first-ever summit with a U.S. president.
Donald Trump has approved all Moon's initiatives, delaying and downgrading military drills and accepting Kim's summit offer. This is remarkable. Usually, Washington sets the agenda and Seoul follows. Meanwhile, Trump is offering Moon better deals on trade and tariffs than Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Tokyo, caught wrong-footed, now looks like it wants to play the summit game, too. Beijing has remained quiet, but Moon has managed to get at least some of the most onerous anti-THAAD measures lifted. Even so, naysayers are legion.
Some insist that Pyongyang will outfox and overcome Seoul. (As if a nation with half the population and an economy one 40th the size represents a real risk in any sphere beyond military affairs.)
Some insist that Trump will be "played" by Kim. (As if a man with decades of negotiating experience will be suckered by a young man who has, as far as is known, never once undertaken a negotiation, and whose diplomatic experience is precisely nothing.)
Some insist that all talks with North Korea are time wasted. (In which case, why bother with negotiations ― or even sanctions designed to lead to negotiations? Better, surely, to simply start preparing the bombs and body bags for the inevitable carnage?)
Some insist that North Korea is flat-out untrustworthy. (This overlooks the fact that Washington did not fulfill its obligations toward Pyongyang under the 1994 "Agreed Framework." It also overlooks the fact that Pyongyang, far from being rewarded for honesty when it confessed to Tokyo that it had abducted Japanese citizens ― and returned a handful ― actually met with further ostracism.)
Many insist that North Korea will never denuclearize. (Given the fates of regimes which have abandoned strategic weapons ― Iraq, Libya and Ukraine ― one can understand the logic if so. Even then: Pyongyang can offer missile and nuclear freezes, international oversight of its atomic facilities, abandonment of some fissile materials, and more).
In sum: Most anti-negotiation voices seem focused on an ideal endgame (denuclearization) and overlook the very nature of a negotiation (a step-by-step interaction between parties, in which both sides make concessions, and a pragmatic outcome agreeable to both is eventually achieved.)
Most of the above, of course, is Trump's business. Moon's foremost task is getting the players to the table and laying the groundwork. And prudently ― perhaps anticipating a frosty Kim-Trump meeting ― Moon is already floating the idea of a subsequent trilateral summit.
In all this, Moon has astutely realized he is not simply playing the role of U.S. ally: He is playing the role of intermediary.
Why so? Because formerly, the Seoul-Washington alliance was exclusively about protecting South Korea from North Korea. Now that Pyongyang's missiles threaten Washington directly, the strategic calculus has shifted profoundly.
I suspect Moon is as horrified by the possibility of a renewed Korean War as is Kim. In this sense, Moon's adroit diplomatic plays deserve the thanks of all peninsula residents ― for if war comes, people on both sides of the DMZ face immense perils.
Andrew Salmon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Seoul-based reporter and author.