Jong Yeon-Je / REUTERS South Korean President Moon Jae-In speaks during a press conference marking his first 100 days in office at the presidential house in Seoul, August 2017. 

Has Moon Jae-In's Catholicism Influenced His Diplomacy?

His Approach Mirrors That of Pope Francis

Earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump took to Twitter to criticize the South Korean leadership for “appeasement” of North Korea. In a dig at South Korean President Moon Jae-in days earlier, Trump likewise cautioned that “Talking is not the Answer!” in reference to Moon’s preference for negotiations with Pyongyang. It is possible that the South Korean president is so focused on talks not only out of electoral commitments, but also because of religious conviction. Moon is a practicing Catholic, and although religious identity is not always an appropriate prism for assessing political decision-making, it may be relevant in this case.

In his four years as pontiff, Pope Francis has been emphatic about the right and wrong ways to settle international conflicts. It is unlikely that any believer could escape the implications of his “diplomacy of encounter,” which prioritizes dialogue and physical meetings between opposing parties to promote mutual knowledge, trust, and a focus on the common good. The diplomacy of encounter has reaped rewards: Francis just concluded a tour of Colombia to shepherd through a peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that the Church helped broker. Several key Christian tenets were crucial to securing the accord, among them avoiding vengeance, developing a sense of unity, and practicing radical forgiveness. (When he visited South Korea three years ago, Francis called forgiveness “the door which leads to reconciliation.”) This approach was employed by the Holy See in 2014 when it hosted American and Cuban negotiators in Rome to risk a new diplomatic accord after an 18-month impasse. In South Korea, Moon’s policies are well aligned with the diplomacy of encounter, specifically with what Catholic theologians term a “just peace,” an alternative to St. Thomas Aquinas’ famous formulation of “just war” that is more consistent with the Gospels’ advocacy of non-violence. Authentic encounter serves to humanize rivals in the other’s eyes, inspiring opponents to forge agreements that forgo retribution. A just peace has remarks in which he nixed any deployment of nuclear weapons in his country can also be understood as coming from a Catholic framework.

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