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The global news media continue to devote rapt attention to the at times acrimonious, occasionally friendly, interchange between two flamboyant leaders, President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Center stage right now is the announcement that they will meet again in February.

Meanwhile, the effective disciplined leadership of low-key President Moon Jae-in of South Korea often is overlooked. The associated sustained positive contributions of South Korea to Asian and broader international relations likewise are not the stuff of blaring headlines or intense overwrought TV personalities.

However, at the start of 2019 that situation is changing, at least to a degree. The influential Asia News Network has named Moon “Person of the Year.”

South Korea’s chief executive quite rightly is praised for serving as initiator, broker and mediator between the U.S. and North Korea, which last year brought the two national leaders together. That accomplishment is too easily oversimplified and minimized.

At the end of 2017, Trump and Kim were trading crude and at times personal insults via the global media. Moon’s work behind the scenes not only restrained but also reversed that sad situation.

Moon insisted on meeting with the North Korea delegation to the 2018 Winter Olympics, held last February in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The group included Kim’s sister, an influential figure in the regime.

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

Moon 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.

During Moon’s youth, he was arrested and imprisoned because of activism against the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee. Reflecting that experience, he decided to pursue a career as a human rights lawyer. He also served in the South Korean army special forces and saw action in the Demilitarized Zone along the 38th Parallel.

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 the 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. South Korean 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. The sole incentive was strong commitment to the United States, dating from our vital support during and after the Korean War of 1950 to 1953.

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

North Korea greeted the inauguration of a new president in South Korea by launching yet another long-range missile four days later. The new Hwasong-12 missile reached a greater height than any of the other six tested that year. The missile reportedly could reach as far as Guam, U.S. territory where the U.S. maintains military facilities, according to aerospace engineer John Schilling, of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

Yet North Korea remains in desperate economic condition. The willingness of the population of that nature to endure destitution over the long term, while apparently still supporting the ruling regime, is remarkable. Current United Nations economic sanctions, however, are clearly hurting those at the top. There are tangible reasons to pursue rapprochement with the South — and the U.S.

Leaders in Washington, Beijing and elsewhere should encourage and reinforce Moon’s skillful initiatives. Seoul has the high ground not only in moral terms, but also in hard realities of economic and military strength. Above all, here the United States should let South Korea lead.

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


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