South Korean President Moon Jae-in, top centre, watches the summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on TV screen before the start of a weekly Cabinet meeting at the presidential Blue House in Seoul. Picture: Bee Jae-man/Yonhap/AP
President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un may have been the alpha males in the perfectly choreographed historic handshake this week at the US-North Korea Summit in Singapore, but they were not the heroes of the show. The real hero is quiet, self-effacing and drove this process from behind. He pulled off the biggest diplomatic coup of modern times, which has in effect ended the Cold War after 70 years of brinkmanship. His name is President Moon Jae-in and, if we want to elevate someone to hero status, he is our guy.

Never has someone been more deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize and, one thing is for sure, without him in the driver’s seat in the Blue House (South Korea’s version of the White House), we may have been confronting the indescribable horror of a nuclear conflagration - it was really that close. Moon has been nothing but masterful since taking the presidency last year and has played what can only be described as a perfect game of chess.

However, it was not political opportunism that drove him to relentlessly pursue the cause of peace with North Korea, but his deep inner desire to bury the hatred and division of the past and reunite the country. What Moon wants more than anything, before he retires, is to take his 90-year-old grandmother back to her home town Hungnam, in North Korea. He is operating on borrowed time if that is his goal.

In the space of just one year, Moon has performed a series of seemingly impossible feats. He convinced Chairman Kim Jong Un to let North Korea participate in the Winter Olympics, which he dubbed the “Peace Olympics”, and wasted no time in sending several missions to Pyongyang for exploratory talks. Then came his moment of triumph - he crossed the Rubicon into North Korea at the demilitarised zone on April 27, South Africa's own freedom day. His approval ratings went through the roof.

Though for the seeds of peace to truly germinate, two things need to happen - North Korea must give up their nuclear weapons and US troops must leave South Korea. The fly in the ointment has always been the US and that has been Moon’s greatest challenge: How to manage a volatile and egotistical US president, who is in desperate need of a foreign policy victory to point to in his next electoral campaign, but who could turn the tables on the whole process on a dime. It was touch and go when both sides ratcheted up the rhetoric and the fate of the US-North Korea Summit seemed to have fallen flat. Moon, though, worked doggedly at his quiet diplomacy, brokering a last-minute summit with the North in order to ease tension and get the process back on track.

Like any masterful negotiator, Moon gave all the praise to the two protagonists and cleverly massaged Trump’s ego on the eve of the historic summit. Moon spoke to Trump for 40 minutes on Sunday afternoon before the talks, saying it is thanks entirely to Trump’s resolute determination and strong leadership that the historic North Korea-US summit could finally be held, and that all Koreans would pray with all their hearts that Trump would be able to make a miraculous achievement. Yes - it was Trump the saviour, the ultimate deal maker, the miracle maker - just the image that would spur him to success.

It worked. Trump strode in as if he were larger than life, all smiles, reaching out to touch Kim’s arm on more than one occasion, giving the impression they were long-lost friends. The ultimate showman, he was able to show off his presidential limousine known as “The Beast” to the North Korean leader - flown in from Washington - evidence of just how powerful Trump is, or portends to be. It was all meant to greatly impress and it gave Trump the validation he so eagerly desires. 

A limousine kitted out with tear gas cannon, a night vision camera and pump-action shotgun was sure to impress. As was the seven-seat interior, sealed to protect against a chemical or biological attack. Moon, who was watching this piece of theatre from his office in the Blue House, was all smiles - he knew it was working.

The South Korean president knows that the process of denuclearisation and US withdrawal may take at least a year or two to complete, but it will succeed.

Moon may have come from a father who worked in a prisoner-of-war camp and from a mother who sold eggs, but that has given him the gravitas that has made him the visionary leader he is today. He said in his election campaign he wanted to be the type of president who can share a glass of soju (wine) with the public after work. There is no doubt his people are toasting his triumph this week.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Foreign Editor of Independent Media.