The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Interview with Moon Jae-in, set to become South Korea’s next president

South Koreans are choosing between Democratic Party of Korea candidate Moon Jae-In and People's Party candidate Ahn Cheol-soo on May 9 (Video: Reuters)

The Washington Post's Anna Fifield and Yoonjung Seo sat down with Moon Jae-in, the Democratic Party candidate and clear front-runner to become South Korea's next president in a snap election to be held on May 9. Here is a transcript of the interview, translated from Korean.

WASHINGTON POST: Let's start with THAAD. The U.S. has brought in the THAAD system very quickly and ahead of schedule. Do you view this as the Americans interfering with the election?

MOON: I don’t believe the U.S. has the intention, but I do have reservations. It is not desirable for the South Korean government to deploy THAAD hastily at this politically sensitive time with the presidential election, without going through the democratic process, an environmental assessment or a public hearing.

One of the biggest problems with this THAAD deployment decision was that it lacked democratic procedure, and it has resulted in a wide division of the nation and aggravated foreign relations. If the South Korean government were to push this issue further, it would only make matters worse, and it would be more difficult to find a solution to this problem. I hope the U.S. government will fully consider these issues.

If the same were to happen in the U.S., would this have happened just by the administration’s unilateral decision without democratic procedure, ratification or agreement by Congress? If South Korea can have more time to process this matter democratically, the U.S. would gain a higher level of trust from South Koreans and therefore the alliance between the two nations would become even stronger.

If this matter can be reviewed by the next administration, the new government would look for a reasonable solution based on the alliance between South Korea and the U.S. that can secure the national interest as well as a national consensus.

South Korea and the U.S. share common interests with regard to the North Korean nuclear issue, so I promise that South Korea will fully consult with the U.S. on the deployment of THAAD.

WP: In the policy document you released at the weekend, you said that nothing is more dangerous than letting another country decide for you. Is that an indication that you want to rebalance the alliance? Do you feel that the U.S. has too much say over what happens in South Korea?

MOON: The answer is no. I believe the alliance between the two nations is the most important foundation for our diplomacy and national security. South Korea was able to build its national security thanks to the U.S., and the two nations will work together on the North Korean nuclear issue. However, I believe we need to be able to take the lead on matters in the Korean Peninsula as the country directly involved.

I do not see it as desirable for South Korea to take the back seat and watch discussions between the U.S. and China and dialogues between North Korea and the U.S. I believe South Korea taking the initiative would eventually strengthen our bilateral alliance with the U.S.

However, when I say ‘take the initiative,’ I do not mean that South Korea will approach or unilaterally open talks with North Korea without fully consulting the U.S. beforehand.

WP: You said in an interview last December that you would go to Pyongyang before you would go to Washington as a sign of the importance of the North Korean issue. Do you still stand by that today?

MOON: First of all, that news report is absolutely not true. I intended to say that, if it would help resolve the nuclear issue, I could go to North Korea after sufficient prior discussions with the U.S. and Japan.

I do not know when I will be able to have talks with the North on scrapping its nuclear program, but if I become the president I believe I need to meet with President Trump first to discuss the issue in depth and reach an agreement with him on the measures to abolish North Korea’s nuclear program.

With that agreement we can, on the one hand, put pressure on and attempt to persuade North Korea and on the other hand, seek cooperation from China, so we can try to resolve the nuclear issue with the U.S. In that process, I could sit down with Kim Jong Un, but I will not meet him for the sake of meeting him. I will meet Kim Jong Un when preconditions of resolving the nuclear issue are assured.

I think I am on the same page as President Trump. President Trump judged the Obama administration’s policy of strategic patience as a failure with regard to North Korea, so he has stressed the need for a change in North Korean policy.

WP: I didn't come here today expecting you to agree with Trump!

MOON: Trump talks about strenuous pressure, sanctions and even the possibility of a pre-emptive strike, but I believe his ultimate goal is to bring North Korea back to negotiations for the nuclear program. In that respect, I share the same opinion as President Trump. Both the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations completely failed in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. I agree with President Trump’s method of applying sanctions and pressure to North Korea to bring them out to negotiate. If that happens, I would meet with Kim Jong Un to secure the s nuclear program.

I believe President Trump is more reasonable than he is generally perceived. President Trump uses strong rhetoric toward North Korea but, during the election campaign, he also said he could talk over a burger with Kim Jong Un. I am for that kind of pragmatic approach to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.

We need to take a staged approach to resolve this problem. The first stage is for North Korea to not engage in any further nuclear provocations such as additional nuclear tests.

The second stage is preventing the North from advancing its nuclear capability any further.

Finally, the third stage is for North Korea to completely scrap its program. I think President Trump would agree with these measures.

WP: What would you say in your first call or meeting with President Trump, especially regarding how to deal with North Korea?

MOON: I suppose he’ll congratulate me for being elected to the presidency, so I would thank him for that. I would tell him that I would like to meet with him at the earliest possible opportunity to discuss measures for scrapping North Korea’s nuclear program so that North Korea completely gives up its nuclear ambitions.

WP: What do you say to the people in Washington, sitting there and thinking back to the Roh Moo-hyun era and looking at you as a liberal, soft-on-North-Korea politician. What is your message to them?

MOON: When we reflect on the Roh Moo-hyun administration, South Korea decided to dispatch troops to Iraq and sealed the Korea-U. S., which broadened the bilateral alliance from a military alliance to an economic alliance.

Also, the six-party talks reached an agreement for completely abolishing the North Korean nuclear program under the close cooperation between South Korea and the U.S.

Although the agreement has not been properly implemented since the Lee Myung-bak administration, I would like to stress that our two nations reached an agreement on the North Korean nuclear issue during the Roh administration. Therefore, I would like to stress that the Roh administration brought South Korea and the U.S. closer in that era, contrary to the general perception in Washington.