On Saturday evening in Seoul, images of President Moon Jae-in of South Korea embracing North Korea’s Kim Jong-un lit up tens of millions of smartphones. The Presidential Blue House announced that Mr. Moon had just met with Mr. Kim on the northern side of the border — their second encounter in a month. At a press briefing Sunday morning, Mr. Moon explained that Pyongyang had made the request, via the inter-Korean hotline, to speak “informally.”
It was a bold recovery for Mr. Moon, who had been perceived as a tragic middleman since President Trump canceled a planned summit with North Korea last week. That cancellation, made just hours after Mr. Moon left the White House, was received as a national and personal insult. Kim Hong-kook, a journalist and professor at Kyonggi University, described it as a “Trumpian power play” that could weaken Mr. Moon.
South Koreans were thus astonished by Saturday’s secret meeting, which the local press admiringly referred to as “shock theater.” Mr. Moon returned from the North with a message aimed at Washington: “There’s no question that Chairman Kim is willing to denuclearize. But if he does, he wants assurances that the United States will respect North Korea’s sovereignty,” he said.
There are signals that Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim — now with open urging from the South — may go through with their June 12 summit after all.
It is difficult to overstate how incredible it is for the Koreas to meet on an impromptu basis, or how much this all weighs upon Mr. Moon. A former student activist and human-rights lawyer, he was elected last year in a burst of idealism, following the mass “Candlelight Movement” that ousted the conservative President Park Geun-hye. Mr. Moon has since done something novel in Korean politics: He has tried to transcend the country’s postwar ideological divide.
Like most on the South Korean left, Mr. Moon is critical of the country’s mega-conglomerates, and he aligns himself with the poor and working class. He sympathizes with Korean victims of Japanese colonial military rule and Korea’s own military dictatorships, as well.
But he is more Barack Obama than Bernie Sanders. He does not use anti-American rhetoric and is unwilling, or unable, to question the vast American military presence on the peninsula. He believes that Koreans should be at the helm of a Korean peace but has been quick to praise Mr. Trump and endorse talks that would include all three countries.
Mr. Moon began this work in February, at the Winter Olympics, held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Using the spirit and spectacle of the Games, he connected the two Koreas, and, in a preliminary way, North Korea and the United States. As Bridget Coggins, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told me, “It was schmaltzy and over the top, and not so significant, but somehow still with perfect optics.”
His political talents and elegant carriage, however, do not guarantee broad, continued support. “President Moon’s approach to leadership is to humble himself and give credit to his negotiating partners, for the sake of democracy and peace,” Kim Hong-kook, of Kyonggi University, explained. “But even if he were to succeed with negotiations between the South, North, and the United States, his political success could be undermined by resistance from Korean conservatives.”
In other words, even if Mr. Moon does everything right, Ms. Park’s loyalists will be out to get him. And as he works more closely with Pyongyang, Mr. Moon risks being dismissed as anti-American, or “red.” Yet as a leader brought to power through popular revolution, Mr. Moon must also fulfill his promises at home. His government just raised the minimum wage to the equivalent of $7.00 per hour, and is cracking down on real-estate speculation and violations of tenants’ rights. A staggering corruption probe continues to implicate former presidents and powerful businessmen, and the Constitutional Court may soon decriminalize abortion.
Mr. Moon will have to pace this progress carefully. In South Korea, any kind of ambitious social reform is inevitably seen as too close to communism, too close to North Korean-ness, an enemy condition. As the child of refugees who fled the North during the Korean War, Mr. Moon wants to dispel that fear for good. Peace with North Korea is a prerequisite for progress in the South, and everywhere else besides.
E. Tammy Kim (@etammykim) is a journalist and essayist.