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South Korean leader's Liberation Day speech offered hopeful vision

Moon Jae-in worked to diminish tensions with Japan and North Korea

| South Korea
In South Korean President Moon Jae-in's Liberation Day speech, he called for a closer East Asian union   © Reuters

South Korean President Moon Jae-in defied expectations that he would use his August 15 Liberation Day speech to rally public support behind specific policies toward Japan or North Korea. Pyongyang's hostility toward further talks with Seoul and Tokyo's anti-trade measures have preoccupied domestic attention in the past few months.

Instead, he laid out a Korean vision of a more integrated East Asia in which Japan and North Korea would play key roles.

Headlines following the speech focused on Moon's expressed goal of achieving unification of the Korean Peninsula by 2045, but that in itself was not particularly new. Unification is part of both South and North Korea's constitutions, so it would be startling if the South Korean President and North Korean Supreme Leader did not make a reference now and then to it.

Even the specific date has been used before, particularly during 2015 when the Koreas commemorated the 70th anniversary of liberation from Japan after world war two. 2045 would also mark a century of the peninsula's division. Expect to hear that goal reiterated next year, the 75th anniversary of both liberation and postwar division.

What was more interesting in Moon's speech was his description of a future for East Asia in which sovereign Asian countries would coexist in a free market, "not led by a single state but instead a community where diverse cooperation blossoms among countries on an equal footing."

This aspiration goes against what is currently taking place in the region. Beyond trade tensions between Korea and Japan over the unresolved issue of reparations for laborers who were forced to work during world war two, China and the U.S. have placed tariffs on billions of dollars of each other's goods.

In a time when few leaders are advocating more economic integration, Moon's speech was full of references to the economic benefits of free trade and comparative advantage. This is deeply encouraging because it not only rejects the disaggregation of trade ties, but also reiterates Seoul's commitment to work toward resolving tensions with Japan and North Korea.

Moon's focus on economic integration sets aside current geopolitical tensions in the region. American audiences may have found it disconcerting that he made so few references to Korea's traditional ally, the U.S., which is currently demanding a reported $5 billion from Korea to keep its troops there in 2020.

The U.S. only appeared in the speech in reference to ongoing talks with North Korea, with Moon hoping that the Koreas and the U.S. make progress on denuclearization.

Moon made even fewer references to China, which only appeared twice in his speech, and both times simply grouped among other countries with which South Korea looked forward to cooperating.

Moon instead invested significant time emphasizing the benefits of economic cooperation, particularly with North Korea. He framed the peace process with North Korea as a vehicle that advanced South Korea's economic interests rather than focus on the political unification or the liberation of the North Korean people. His vision for the Korean Peninsula was almost reminiscent of the E.U. with a pooling of sovereignty.

He provided a list of areas where these benefits might be realized. Assisting in the economic development of North Korea would provide a project for South Korea's corporations. Being able to reduce military expenditures would free up revenues for more constructive use of South Korean tax dollars.

Creating a land bridge through North Korea would give South Korea direct access to Chinese, Russian, Central Asian and even European markets -- overcoming South Korea's current geopolitical situation of being virtually an island.

Moon spoke of the unified Korean market of 80 million workers and consumers moving Korea up the world rankings to become one of the world's six biggest economies. He portrayed economic integration as the solution "to problems we currently face, such as low growth, low birthrate and an aging society."

Positively, Moon's speech made frequent references to "traditionally friendly ties" between the peoples of Korea and Japan. He underscored that August 15 marked the liberation of not only countries which had been occupied by Japan, but also the Japanese people from "the yoke of imperialist oppression."

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, shaking hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un next to U.S. President Donald Trump, is hoping to unite the peninsula by 2045   © Reuters

There were a few mild references to South Korea's need to deal with Japan's current export restrictions, but they were heavily overshadowed by his emphasis on the need for cooperation between South Korea and Japan to achieve the kind of East Asian future Moon was describing.

In short, Moon's Korean vision for Asia is one in which economic integration of the peninsula empowers Korea to work, in cooperation with Japan, to chart a course independent of great power competition for the countries of the region to follow.

This is thoroughly in line with the U.S.'s traditional preference for sovereign states in contrast to Chinese and Russian spheres of influence. Yet there are several big hurdles impeding Moon's ambitions, including increasing polarization between the U.S. and China and Kim Jong Un's resistance to any real economic reform that might loosen his grip on North Korea.

Moon's call for regional integration runs counter to current trends, which made his speech refreshing as well as hopeful.

Mark Tokola is vice president of the Korea Economic Institute of America. He served in the U.S. Foreign Service for over 38 years, taking on positions that included deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassies in South Korea, Mongolia and Iceland.


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