Moon Jae-in is Asia News Network’s Person of the Year

Visiting South Korean President Moon Jae-in (left) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waving to the crowd during a parade in Pyongyang in September. Mr Moon is the first South Korean president to visit Pyongyang since Mr Roh Moo-hyun a decade earlie
Visiting South Korean President Moon Jae-in (left) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waving to the crowd during a parade in Pyongyang in September. Mr Moon is the first South Korean president to visit Pyongyang since Mr Roh Moo-hyun a decade earlier. PHOTO: REUTERS

South Korean leader's persistence, patient diplomacy led to tensions de-escalating on the Korean peninsula

In a few decades, when people look back on this year, perhaps they will remember only one or two major headlines.

In the field of diplomacy, they may remember the meeting between United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. If this were to happen, it would be one of the biggest injustices of selective history and memory.

Because without South Korean President Moon Jae-in's insistence, persistence and patience, the Trump-Kim summit would never have happened. No Moon-Kim summit, no Trump-Kim summit.

A PERIOD OF TENSION

If we think back to the tail end of last year, the headlines that were being made in and around the Korean peninsula highlighted a region that was on edge.

Mr Trump had antagonised Pyongyang with a series of tweets, including comparing his rocket's size to Mr Kim's, calling the Chairman a ''little rocket man'' and threatening nuclear destruction of North Korea.

Pyongyang responded by calling Mr Trump a ''dotard'' and questioning his mental stability.

The world watched with anxiety as it moved a little closer to a nuclear conflict, with the doomsday clock inching towards midnight.

Remember how much panic there was in January in Hawaii when nuclear raid sirens went off accidentally? The world seemed to be teetering on the brink.

RAPID DE-ESCALATION

The reason Mr Moon is our ''Person of the Year'' is that he single-handedly disarmed the powder keg that had been primed.

He reached across the border when it was not popular or politically prudent to do so.

His insistence on inviting and meeting the North Korean delegation at the Olympic Games eased tensions and made room for negotiations.

His administration, at his insistence, worked tirelessly to assuage any paranoia the North had. All this finally culminated in a historic meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas at the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).

 
 
 

When they did meet in the DMZ, Mr Moon did not hesitate to accept Mr Kim's invitation to ''step over the line'' into North Korean territory, knowing full well that there were symbolic repercussions.

The goodwill between the two leaders seemed genuine too, with Mr Moon later returning the favour by becoming the first South Korean president to visit Pyongyang since Mr Roh Moo-hyun a decade earlier.

PRESERVING ALLIANCES

That is not to say that Mr Moon has turned his back on the US. The President has repeatedly maintained that the US has an important part to play in bringing peace to the Korean peninsula, even when it was not necessary for him to do so.

Seoul signed off on the Trump- Kim summit in Singapore and took a back seat, knowing that Mr Trump's vanity meant that he had to take centre stage and that the US President would demand full credit for the deescalation of tensions.

When US media hyperbolised about a possible Nobel Peace Prize for Mr Trump, there was only encouragement from Seoul.

PERSON OF THE YEAR

While it should be mentioned that Mr Moon has a complicated legacy at home, with his poll numbers having fallen on the back of several unpopular economic and energy policies, this should not in any way tarnish the legacy that he has built up this year.

The South Korean President wins ANN's Person of the Year not just because he single-handedly de-escalated tensions when they were at an all-time high on the peninsula, but also because he reminds us that patient, non-zero-sum diplomacy still has a place in this world.

In an age when leaders are increasingly boisterous, vainglorious and quick to act, that is perhaps more important than ever.

  •  The Straits Times is a member of the Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.
 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2018, with the headline 'Moon Jae-in is Asia News Network’s Person of the Year'. Print Edition | Subscribe