Moon election could mean 'sunshine' toward Pyongyang – but a cloudier outlook for DC

Liberal Moon Jae-in's proposals for more engagement with North Korea may be just one policy plank to his supporters. But they hold an outsized importance for South Korea's decades-old alliance with the United States, which is pushing a distinctly harsher strategy to rein in the Kim regime.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
South Korea's president-elect Moon Jae-in thanks supporters at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul, South Korea, on May 10, 2017.

As the United States ratchets up pressure on North Korea over its accelerating missile and nuclear tests, South Korea has cast an emphatic vote for rapprochement with its isolated neighbor, electing its first pro-engagement president in nearly a decade.

Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer and democracy activist, declared victory late Tuesday evening after his two main rivals conceded the election. Early Wednesday morning, with 80 percent of votes counted, Mr. Moon held the lead with about 40 percent of votes, according to the National Election Commission. The winner's dovish approach may put him at odds with US President Donald Trump’s policy of squeezing Pyongyang through sanctions and the threat of military force.

That's not to say voters went to the polls determined to usher in an administration with friendlier views toward the North. In an opinion survey by RealMeter carried out before the election, just 18.5 percent of respondents said "national security and liberal democracy" was their top concern in selecting a candidate, while 27.5 percent named tackling corruption their first priority, and 24.5 percent named the economy. Mr. Moon's mandate likely has more to do with public antipathy toward conservative politicians after ex-President Park Geun-hye's scandal-ridden tenure than warmer attitudes towards the North, and his calls for engagement face plenty of opposition at home, as well.

But no matter where North Korea ranks on most South Korean voters' priorities, the winner's more conciliatory policies, with Seoul calling more of the shots, will likely complicate its longstanding alliance with Washington. 

“President Trump is more interested in leveraging China to stop North Korea's nuclear ambition, and, if found ineffective, the second phase is putting maximum pressure on Pyongyang with military power to draw Kim Jong-un to an advantageous negotiation table,” says Nam Chang-hee, an international relations professor at Inha University in Incheon, a port city about 20 miles west of Seoul. “In case a Moon administration fails to coordinate accordingly with the Trump policy, the alliance might go through difficult challenges.”

South Korea has been one of Washington’s closest allies since the 1950-1953 Korean War, during which they fought North Korea to an enduring stalemate, and currently hosts 28,500 US troops on its soil.

Reconsidering 'sunshine'

Moon, who replaces Ms. Park following her impeachment over a far-reaching corruption scandal, has floated a revival of the “sunshine policy” implemented by Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Kim Dae-jung and his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, the country's last liberal president and Moon's former boss.

The president-elect, who was the late Roh’s chief of staff and a top aide, sees diplomacy and economic cooperation as a means to reduce cross-border tensions, induce Pyongyang to abandon its weapons programs and, ultimately, pave the way to Korean reunification.

“There will be a paradigmatic change from a policy of pressure and sanctions to that of engagement,” says Chung-in Moon, who served as a top advisor to the Kim and Roh administrations, which governed between 1998 and 2008. “The Moon government will make every effort to improve ties with North Korea.”

While supporting sanctions as one tool to rein in Pyongyang, the new occupant of Seoul’s Blue House has pledged to restart the Kaesong Industrial Zone, a jointly operated industrial park situated just north of the border, and sightseeing tours to a scenic North Korean mountain, both of which were shut down by recent conservative administrations. If implemented, Moon’s proposals could leave him open to charges of undermining US and UN sanctions designed to punish the regime, especially as Washington lobbies nations to cut off economic and diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

Moon, the son of refugees who fled North Korea during the war, has also offered to meet Kim Jong-un, the Pyongyang strongman, under the right conditions, although Trump has expressed similar intentions. Presidents Roh and Kim both met with second-generation dictator Kim Jong-il. 

Seoul in the driver's seat

“I do not see it as desirable for South Korea to take the back seat and watch discussions between the US and China,” Moon said in an interview with The Washington Post last week, outlining his belief that Seoul should take the lead on issues affecting the Korean Peninsula. “I believe South Korea taking the initiative would eventually strengthen our bilateral alliance with the US.”

While acknowledging the importance of the US-Korea alliance, Moon has repeatedly argued for the South to assert greater independence from Washington, echoing his mentor, Roh, who won office in 2002 during a nadir in US relations, having pledged to be the first leader not to “kowtow to the Americans.”

Prior to his election, Moon criticized the deployment on Korean soil of THAAD, an American missile defense system, arguing that its implementation was rushed to deprive the incoming administration of the chance to consider its merits. Many South Koreans are opposed to the defense system, citing concerns about China and Russia's opposition to it. In an opinion poll carried out by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in March, 38 percent of South Koreans said they disapproved of the missile shield, with 51 percent in favor.

Compounding the controversy, Trump enraged many Koreans by suggesting last month that Seoul should foot the bill for the $1 billion system, although the administration quickly reaffirmed its commitment to paying for it. Trump's suggestion was the latest of several White House moves that alarmed Seoul. In mid-April, the president's comment that "Korea actually used to be a part of China" – made as he described his recent meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping – outraged South Koreans. The following week, when it was revealed that the "armada" Trump had said was on its way to Korean waters, the USS Carl Vinson, was actually sailing in the other direction at the time (although it has now arrived), some South Koreans were left doubting the US's commitment to their security. 

“What [President Donald Trump] said was very important for the national security of South Korea. If that was a lie, then during Trump’s term, South Korea will not trust whatever Trump says,” South Korean presidential candidate Hong Joon-pyo, who came in a distant second to Moon, according to Tuesday evening exit polls, told The Wall Street Journal.​

A return to the past?

But Moon will also have to reckon with engagement's controversial legacy here, especially among conservative South Koreans. Pyongyang tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006, despite the extensive efforts of the Roh and Kim liberal administrations to improve ties, including providing the North with some $4.5 billion in aid.

Since then, the Kim regime has carried out four more nuclear tests, and is expected to carry out its sixth soon.

In 2010, just days before the North shelled a South Korean island, killing four, Seoul’s Unification Ministry released a report arguing that a decade of engagement had induced “no positive changes” in Pyongyang’s behavior toward its neighbor or its own people. In a poll carried out by the Asan Institute of Policy Studies in March, South Koreans gave North Korea a favorability score of just over 2 when asked to place the country on a scale of 1-10.

“Many people are indignant about a return to the past because the money the South gave to North Korea became weapons for killing South Koreans,” says Song Dae-sung, a national security analyst and former brigadier general in the Korean Air Force.

“Moon Jae-in and the supporters of ‘sunshine’ think of South Koreans and North Korea as one people, and believe North Korea’s feelings of fraternity will stop it from ever using weapons of mass destruction on the South. But this is not the truth,” Song adds.

For now, Moon's popularity likely has more to do with antipathy toward Park and her party than enthusiasm for his North Korea policies, according to Dr. Nam, the international relations professor. But, he says, the public could warm up to engagement in the likely scenario that under Moon, “Pyongyang will tone down their hostile stance toward Seoul, expecting leeway from beefed-up international pressure and sanctions.”

Dr. Moon, the former presidential advisor, acknowledges that South Korea’s new president is likely to face major obstacles to his agenda, from US policy and domestic opinion to North Korean provocations. Still, he believes it’s time for South Korea to take a “proactive role in bringing peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

“The sunshine policy deserves another try,” he says. 

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