Moon Chung-in on Vox

Last night, February 26, I went to Twitter to rip Vox.com and Vox reporter Alex Ward for a story they had posted quoting Moon Chung-in, a senior adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, that a pending deal it described between President Trump and Kim Jong Un in Hanoi was a “bad deal for the United States.”

“A top adviser of a critical ally in the US-North Korea talks just trashed the general outline of what Trump and Kim may sign in two days,” Ward wrote.

I had been in the audience at the Korea Economic Institute for Chung’s talk, and vehemently rejected Vox’s claim, which the reporter had later confirmed with Moon. I concluded that Ward had misunderstood Chung’s statement, which I heard as him paraphrasing Vox’s characterization of the deal shaping up in Vietnam. Here’s why.

Kathleen Stephens, the CEO of KEI, had started her discussion with Moon by pointing out an article about the US-DPRK negotiations that had appeared Tuesday morning,

Moon Chung-in: Which media made that kind of report?

KS: Which media? Let me quote my source here. Uh…Vox.

Moon: Good deal for North Korea. Bad deal for the United States. If that kind of deal is made in Hanoi, next day will say that “Winner: North Korea. Loser: United States.” Okay? And shameful diplomacy.

It’s easy to see from that why I thought Moon was paraphrasing what was in Ward’s report, in which he had characterized the deal he outlined as good for Kim but not so good for the United States. I made that conclusion because, in the rest of Moon’s remarks, he described the making of a deal in Hanoi – in which the DPRK would shut down its massive nuclear site at Yongbyon, with inspections, in return for sanctions relief from the United States – as a“good deal.

I was also disappointed because, last September, I had complimented Ward as an “enterprising reporter” for breaking an important story about how Trump had angered North Korea by reneging on a promise to join Kim and Moon in a declaration ending the Korean War. Plus I had consulted with Korean reporters who were there and had read a tweet from Joel Wit of 38 North calling the Vox report “completely inaccurate.” I really thought Vox had blown it.

It turns out the story is a little more complicated. After discussing the issue at length with Vox foreign editor Jennifer Williams (who contacted me after my tweets), I’ve concluded that the initial story was factually correct but a bit overblown. Moon Chung-in apparently agreed; in a long response to Vox, he did not question his quotes but said that Vox had “sensationalized” his remarks.

“I simply criticized the hypothetical outline of the deal which Kathy Stephens described,” Moon told Vox. “Kathy Stephens asked me the question citing your article in Vox: ‘what is your opinion on the proposed deal (reported in Vox) on the exchange of suspending nuclear production facilities for peace declaration, exchange of liaison office, and relaxation of sanctions?’ (Kathy did not mention ‘closing down’ in her question.)

“I answered ‘if President Trump makes such deal, it is bad for the U.S., and good for North Korea. President Trump should get more than that. He should get a verified dismantling of nuclear facilities in Yongbyon and the like, as specified in article five of the Pyongyang Declaration.’ When I got out of the auditorium, you asked me a similar question, and I answered ‘President Trump can get more than that (suspension).’”

Moon added several points to Vox. The full text is below, courtesy of Vox.

1) I was shocked by the title of your article. I did not slam the Trump administration. I simply criticized the hypothetical outline of the deal which Kathy Stephens described.

2) I told ‘bad deal is no deal, one of two leaders bursting out of negotiation room,’ and ‘big deal is a verified dismantling of Yongbyon nuclear facilities.’

3) Kathy Stephens asked me the question citing your article in Vox: ‘what is your opinion on the proposed deal (reported in Vox) on the exchange of suspending nuclear production facilities for peace declaration, exchange of liaison office, and relaxation of sanctions?’ (Kathy did not mention ‘closing down’ in her question.) I answered “if President Trump makes such deal, it is bad for the U.S., and good for North Korea.” President Trump should get more than that. He should get a verified dismantling of nuclear facilities in Yongbyon and the like, as specified in article five of the Pyongyang Declaration.” When I got out of the auditorium, you asked me a similar question, and I answered “President Trump can get more than that (suspension).”

4) I see three problems in your article. First, you seem to believe that the proposed outline is real. Second, Kathy mentioned ‘stopping nuclear production activities,’ not closing down as in your article in her answer. Our government cannot accept the idea of exchanging a simple freeze of nuclear activities for such hefty incentives as peace declaration, liaison office, and relaxation of sanction. Third, your article is sensationalizing my remarks for political purpose. I never criticize the Trump administration. I was only criticizing the hypothetical outline, especially idea of freeze. If Kathy mentioned ‘closing down,’ my answer should have been different.

Chung is no stranger to controversy. About a year ago, he told an interviewer that US troops in South Korea should be withdrawn after a denuclearization and peace deal is reached. In his talk yesterday, Moon recalled that, after he said that, he received a stern call from President Moon’s chief of staff informing him that the US-South Korea alliance is between “two sovereign states” and had nothing to do with a US-DPRK denuclearization and peace agreement. So he had learned his lesson well about getting too far in front of official policy. It’s too bad that the misunderstanding yesterday caused more headaches for a man who has been a great explainer of South Korea’s views to Washington.