During his New Year’s address Tuesday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said two Koreas should make efforts to create the conditions for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to visit South Korea as soon as possible. He stressed the need to resume the inter-Korean projects of Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mt. Kumgang tourism by saying there are things that can be done through inter-Korean cooperation to establish peace on the Korean Peninsula. The words President Moon used the most in his speech were in connection with inter-Korean relations, including the use of “peace” for 17 times and “two Koreas” for 14 times.
Although President Moon repeatedly asked Kim Jong Un to make a reciprocal visit, it is questionable if this is the right time to concentrate on making his visit happen. During the 9.19 inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang back in 2018, the North Korean leader had promised to make a reciprocal visit to South Korea within the year. But the breakdown of the Hanoi summit between the U.S. and North Korea on Feb. 28, 2019 kept Kim from making the visit. Kim is holding the reins tight by encouraging offensive measures and self-rehabilitation at the latest Workers’ Party meeting that lasted four days. It is North Korea’s typical brinkmanship, where it ramps up pressure against the U.S. while ignoring South Korea. An absence of a realistic diagnosis on North Korea’s tactics can lead to “illusion of security.”
Furthermore, President Moon did not mention anything about denuclearization in his New Year’s address. It is like putting the cart before the horse since denuclearization should be a prerequisite for improving inter-Korean relations. Pushing for inter-Korean economic cooperation projects without making an effort toward denuclearization could weaken the international efforts to sanction North Korea.
It is also questionable if President Moon has a good understanding of the economy. Moon praised the economic outcome of last year but it is doubtful how many people or economists would agree with him. It is estimated that South Korea’s economic growth has either barely reached 2% or fell to the 1% mark. The numbers are the worst since the oil shock in 1980, the Asian financial crisis in 1998, and the global financial crisis in 2009. South Korea’s exports fell by 10.3% last year, the biggest drop in 10 years. The president said the nation recorded a trade surplus for 11th straight year but last year’s trade surplus of 39.2 billion dollars was actually a “recession trade surplus” as it was a 44% drop from the previous year. It is a misinterpretation of economic indicators to claim that temporary jobs created by tax money amount to recovery in employment, when in reality, the number of quality jobs created by private companies is decreasing.
It will be difficult to recover from recession if the government highlights only positive aspects of the economy, being mindful of the election less than 100 days away. Businesses want the government to help them feel the effect of government’s regulatory reform and policies for innovative growth. The government should face the problem squarely and boldly replace the control tower of the economy if necessary. The public will not be able to perceive changes if the government settles for the status quo.