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The summit in Washington on April 11 between President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and President Donald Trump of the United States deserves much greater attention than has been received. South Korea has great and growing international influence, and plays a pivotal role on the Korean Peninsula.

Instead, the mass media has focused considerable emphasis on related Trump statements. In advance of the session with Moon, he said progress toward agreement with North Korea is still possible. He said something similar after the summit.

A summit meeting in February in Hanoi, Vietnam, between Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Trump ended abruptly with disappointment. The first meeting between Trump and Kim took place in Singapore in June 2018.

An important goal of the South Korea president in visiting Washington was to ensure that conversations between the communist North and the U.S. continue. Trump’s statements are encouraging in this regard. This result doubtless reflects in part skillful groundwork behind the scenes by South Korea’s diplomats and other government officials, working with their American counterparts.

Moon faces challenges but with considerable strengths. He took office on May 10, 2017, following a special election and in a time of uncertainty on both sides of the 38th parallel. South Korea had just experienced the ordeal of impeachment and removal from office of a sitting president, Park Geun-hye.

She is now in prison in Seoul after conviction on corruption charges, serving a 25-year sentence. The former president is the daughter of Gen. Park Chung-hee, who emerged from a military coup in the early 1960s to lead South Korea as dictator until his assassination in 1979.

Moon brings diverse, impressive and useful experience to the top post. His father was a refugee from North Korea. During Moon’s youth, he was arrested and spent some time in prison 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 Republic of Korea army special forces, and saw action in the Demilitarized Zone along the 38th parallel. Later, he was chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun. In the 2012 presidential election, he finished a close second to Park Geun-hye.

On May 14, 2017, North Korea greeted Moon’s inauguration with a launch test of another long-range missile. The Hwasong-12 missile reached a greater height than six others tested that year. The missile reportedly could reach as far as Guam, where the U.S. maintains military facilities.

Yet North Korea remains in desperate economic condition. At the same time, Choe Son-hui, head of the North Korea foreign ministry’s North America bureau, stated publicly and prominently that her government was interested in serious dialogue with the U.S.

South Korea’s president has devoted sustained attention to exploration of fresh communication with the North. His flexible stance contrasts with his two predecessors, Park and, earlier, Lee Myung-bak.

Moon’s impressive military experience signifies not only his personal abilities and skills, but also the wider close alliance relationship with the United States. Those ties were forged in the enormously intense, destructive Korean War.

The militaries of both nations collaborate closely, and this is particularly important for the army of each. During the Vietnam War, the Republic of Korea maintained approximately 50,000 troops in South Vietnam. The majority of these were combat troops, who earned a deserved reputation for effectiveness in carrying out operations. The only real incentive for this commitment was strong loyalty to the U.S., along with anti-communism.

Washington as well as Beijing, Tokyo and others should encourage the government of South Korea in diplomatic initiatives toward Pyongyang. Seoul has the high ground regarding Pyongyang not only in moral terms, but also in the hard realities of economic and military strength. In practical terms, this is now happening. The North Korea regime in Pyongyang now deals directly with both Washington and Seoul, a dramatic shift from earlier efforts to ignore South Korea.

In diplomacy, historically and currently, the greatest progress results from sustained effort.

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


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