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2018 Asian of the Year

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South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s insistence on inviting and meeting with the North Korean delegation at the Olympic Games slowed down tensions on the Korean Penisula and opened room for negotiations. afp

2018 Asian of the Year

In a a few decades, when people look back on 2018, perhaps they will only remember one or two major headlines.

In the field of diplomacy, they may remember the meeting between US 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 2017, the headlines that were taking place in and around the Korean Peninsula highlighted a region that was on edge.

Trump had antagonised Pyongyang with a series of tweets including comparing his rocket size to Kim, calling him a ‘little rocket man’ and threatening nuclear destruction of North Korea.

Pyongyang responded by calling Trump a “dotard” and questioning his mental stability.

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

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

Rapid de-escalation

The reason that Moon Jae-in is our person of the year is because he single-handedly disarmed the powder keg that had been primed.

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

His insistence on inviting and meeting with the North Korean delegation at the Olympic Games slowed down tensions and opened room for negotiations.

His administration, at his insistence, worked tirelessly to assuage any paranoia the North had. It finally culminated in a historic meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas at the demilitarised zone.

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

The good will between the two leaders seem genuine too with Moon later returning the favour by becoming the first South Korean president to visit Pyongyang since Roh Moo-hyun a decade before.

Preserving Alliances

That is not to say that 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 to the whole affair knowing that Trump’s vanity meant that he had to take centre stage and that the US president would demand full credit for the de-escalation of tensions.

When US media hyperbolised about a possible Nobel peace prize for Trump, there was only encouragement from Seoul.

Person of the year

While it should be mentioned that Moon has a complicated legacy at home, his poll numbers have fallen on the back of several unpopular economic and energy policies. It should not in any way tarnish the legacy that he has built up in 2018.

Moon wins Asia News Network’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.

Moon wins it because he reminds us that patient non-zero-sum diplomacy still has a place in this world. In an age where leaders are increasingly boisterous, vainglorious and quick to act, that is perhaps more important than ever.

Cod Satrusayang is Managing Editor at Asia News Network

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