Expect a short victory bash for liberal human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in. He handily won the South Korean presidential election Tuesday. But after he takes office, Moon must quickly triage a pack of insanely high government priorities.
The $1 trillion-plus Asian economy led by the likes of Hyundai Motor and Samsung Electronics is growing only stubbornly. The nation of 51 million people is staring into a wealth gap. Koreans wonder how much they can trust any president after the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, who’s now a corruption suspect. Her slow fall since last year hobbled a lot of official business.
But first priority is seen going to foreign policy, which has slipped into a dangerous vortex involving Beijing, Washington and that pesky reclusive neighbor with nukes, North Korea. An action plan is sort of urgent as North Korea’s routine nuclear and ballistic missile tests probably have the south in mind. U.S. President Donald Trump ardently backs South Korea, but his belligerent counter-push — including an aircraft carrier and nuclear submarine that were skulking around Moon’s own country last month — is making the north only angrier.
Moon, who won by a landslide and was set to take office Wednesday, advocates talking to North Korea alongside other countries and offering it economic investment, according this analysis by the U.S.-Korea Institute under Johns Hopkins University. Call it the Moonshine policy? He is proposing to restart the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which opened in 2004 in North Korea to employ the poor people up there in making goods for South Korean firms, and to encourage economic reforms in the north. The complex opened under late ex-president Kim Dae-jung as part of a broader “Sunshine Policy” of reducing tension with North Korea. Moon advocates signing a peace treaty with the south’s 1950s war rival, as well. Each side still claims sovereignty over the other. He might try to enshrine his government’s North Korean policies through legislation, according to the Nknews.org website.
“Moon and his fellow progressives believe that South Korea can protect its interests only by carving out its own independent position and policy in dealing with North Korea,” says Steven Kim, a Korea scholar with a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.
“I expect he will try to engage North Korea by proposing talks to persuade it from conducting further tests in return for South Korean concessions such as resumption of humanitarian aid and limited economic exchange.”
But North Korea may prefer to hide from the sunshine. It’s “bent” on developing military capabilities soon and may not give Moon much “maneuvering room to carve out its own engagement policy” to stop a nuclear crisis, Kim says. Too many goodies for North Korea would set off a public backlash in the south, he adds.
To make the sun shine harder up north, Moon has hinted at scaling back reliance on the United States for military support. A less threatened North Korea might feel less pressured to build up its military, easing the need in Seoul for foreign defensive aid. About 28,500 U.S. troops are already stationed in South Korea. Moon has not said he would quit the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile intercept system being built now with the United States. But the candidate nominated by the Minjoo (Democratic) Party of Korea disputes the decision-making process behind THAAD as not being transparent. He wants rights to review it. Moon’s skepticism comes as a lot of Koreans take issue with U.S. President Donald Trump’s demands that Seoul pay $1 billion in operational costs of THAAD.
A rethink of the missile defense system would ease South Korea’s strained relations with China, as well. Beijing fears Seoul and Washington would use THAAD to peek into nearby China and see what the giant, secretive People’s Liberation Army is up to. It has retaliated economically with a cut in Korea-bound tourism and a boycott against Lotte, the Korean conglomerate that swapped land to allow THAAD’s construction. China as the biggest economy and military in Asia could retaliate further without some easing up in South Korea.
“Beijing’s continued pressure on the THAAD issues will compel the new government to map out global strategy given the new realities of Chinese pressure,” says Victor Cha, senior adviser with Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
By Ralph Jennings