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Late last month, North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un issued an apology. In a letter, Kim expressed sincere regret for “disappointing” South Korea President Moon Jae-in.

Kim referred to the brutal murder of a South Korean civil servant by North Korea’s military. The victim was on an inspection boat near North Korean waters. Details of the incident remain uncertain.

What is clear is North Korea’s rulers want to avoid worsening historically complex, tense relations with South Korea. This reflects the leadership of Moon in his country and in international relations more widely.

At the end of 2018, the influential Asia News Network named Moon “Person of the Year.” South Korea’s chief executive deserves considerable credit for serving as initiator, broker and mediator between the U.S. and North Korea.

Moon’s work behind the scenes restrained and then reversed deteriorating relations between Kim and President Donald Trump. He insisted on meeting with the North Korean delegation to the Winter Olympics held in February 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, one example among others of efforts to mitigate tense relations with the communist neighbor.

Moon’s sustained work to overcome the division on the Korean Peninsula, and other bitter legacies of the Korean War of 1950 to 1953, reflects personal discipline and courage. The president has demonstrated these qualities throughout his career.

Activism in his youth against the dictator Park Chung-hee led to imprisonment. Reflecting that experience, he became a human rights lawyer. He also served in the Republic of Korea army special forces, and saw action in the Demilitarized Zone along the 38th Parallel.

Moon was sworn in May 10, 2017, right after the voters’ ballots were counted following a special presidential election. He received approximately 41% of the vote, short of a majority but 17% ahead of his nearest rival. From the very start, he has emphasized relations with North Korea.

He took office in a time of tension and uncertainty on both sides of the 38th Parallel, the border that divides Korea into north and south. South Korea had just experienced the ordeal of impeachment and removal from office of a sitting president, Park Geun-hye. North Korea greeted the inauguration of Moon by launching a long-range missile four days later.

Moon was chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun. He finished a close second to Park Geun-hye in the 2012 presidential election.

Military ties between South Korea and the United States are of vital importance but also often overlooked. Collaboration is particularly close and long-term between the armies of our two nations. During the long Vietnam War, South Korea maintained approximately 50,000 troops in South Vietnam.

A large percentage of that total were combat troops. Republic of Korea Army troops developed a deserved reputation for effectiveness in that brutal, vexing war. South Korea at the time had no substantial economic investment in South Vietnam. On the contrary, Japan, historically an opponent and rival of Korea, was already building substantial business investment and trade ties with South Vietnam. The unusually close, strong ties between South Korea and the U.S. should be in the forefront of military and strategic planning in Washington, regarding both northeast Asia and the wider Pacific region.

The sole incentive was strong commitment to the United States, dating from the Korean War. That war made the Cold War global, no longer focused only on divided Germany.

Media emphasize Moon’s declining popularity and domestic controversies, but that indicates functioning democracy. Seoul has the moral high ground, and a vastly stronger economy than Pyongyang.

North Korea’s rigidity masks weakness. United Nations sanctions are taking a significant toll, affecting the entire population, including leaders.

Moon pursues a steady, responsible course. His numerous critics have yet to propose a persuasive alternative approach.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”


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