If President Trump’s anticipated summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un actually takes place on June 12, perhaps no one will deserve more credit than a person who prefers not to take credit: President Moon Jae-in of South Korea.
The former humans rights lawyer, whose parents were refugees from North Korea, has spent much of his first year in office using the soft diplomacy of warmth and praise to bring out the best intentions of both Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump. He describes his approach as “walking calmly but passionately” toward the goal of peace, falling not for hasty optimism or pessimism.
He also relies on humility to raise others up.
Even though Mr. Moon is the prime facilitator of the planned summit, he suggests Trump take the Nobel Peace Prize if peace comes to the Koreas. And he deftly used the Winter Olympics in South Korea to invite – and also pay for – North Korean athletes to attend. That generosity led to a successful North-South summit in April in which Kim was the first North Korean leader to set foot in the South. The two men appeared to get along.
Last year, when Kim and Trump were using threats and bombast against each other, Moon quietly advocated dialogue and reconciliation. He worked well with China and Japan to bring those big neighbors on board for the summit. “I am willing to go anywhere for the peace of the Korean Peninsula,” he promised last May after taking office.
Moon also knows when soft diplomacy needs a touch of hard power. When North Korea fired a test missile last year, he asked the United States to counter with a missile exercise. He also called for greater sanctions on North Korea.
But he relies more on the power of the carrot than the stick, more in applying balm than bombast. After decades of trying to end the North’s nuclear ambitions, South Korea perhaps has finally learned how to use the right mix of soft and hard diplomacy.
More than anything else, Moon has turned Trump from a hawk on North Korea to a seeker of a peace deal. Trump now speaks of investing resources to “make North Korea great.” To reach this point, Moon has relied on acts of trust and contrition to create what may become a self-reinforcing loop of virtue.
If the summit takes places and leads to further diplomacy, Moon deserves much of the credit. But he may not accept it.