South Korean Challenge for US

Moon Jae-in

Despite Trump administration’s far more aggressive stance toward Pyongyang, several South Koreans including Moon Jae-in favor gentler approach toward the dictatorial regime

By Mridu Kumari

Presidential elections in France and South Korea have given a big slap to those who expected hardliner candidates’ victory in these countries. Results of both the elections have also offered a common narrative that liberal politics, which doesn’t subscribe to jingoism or rhetoric, would thrive irrespective of challenges in the society from fundamentalists. But arrogant US President Donald Trump who has not come out of his campaign mode, despite being in office for four months, forgot that his views have much less acceptance even among countries which are America’s trusted allies.

Following the win of Moon Jae-in, a human rights lawyer who favors dialogue with North Korea, as President in the just concluded elections in South Korea, the American President would have to chart out a different roadmap to the South East Asian region. Seoul under Moon Jae-in would not toe Americans’ line on the issue of North Korea. And this was apparent in the opposition of deployment of THAAD missile defense system against North Korea by Moon. Instead, he supports more engagement with the North. That means relations between Seoul and Washington would not be on the even keel. Already strategists have begun to say that Moon’s win could potentially result in cooling relations with the US. If that happens, it is apprehended that the US may try to topple the newly South Korean President because, to the chagrin of America, there is all likelihood of softening of South Korean policy on North Korea.

In contrast, Moon’s rival in the election, a centrist candidate Ahn Cheol-Soo, supported tougher diplomatic path, including reviving the six-party talks. Nonetheless, victory of Moon Jae-in has capped a remarkable national drama in which corruption, mass protests and impeachment forced South Korean President Park Geun-hye from office, first time in almost 60 years. Son of North Korean refugees, Moon has several challenges before him; apart from handling Trump’s anti-North Korean agenda, he will have to limit the power of big business and address the abuses uncovered in his predecessor’s downfall. People who know Moon say that the newly elected South Korean President will also have to make good on his promise of a new approach to North Korea while  balancing relations with the US and China.

“I will set a new example as the President of the Republic of Korea. I will make my utmost efforts to become a President who will be viewed as a successful by the public and history,” Moon said in a national address which he made soon after his election. Then in his attempt to establish a close rapport with people, he made a pledge to avoid a scam that ensnared Park and her aides. “I will become a clean President. I take office empty-handed, and I will leave office the same way,” Moon said, while laying emphasis on his immediate priority, which apart from others, dwelled on his government’s roadmap to Pyongyang. He pledged a diplomatic and more conciliatory approach towards North Korea, offering to go to the rival’s capital under the “right circumstance.” 

All these stand in stark contrast to the Trump administration’s far more aggressive stance toward the dictatorial regime in Pyongyang. Fearing that North Korea is rapidly developing missiles capable of hitting mainland America, the Trump administration has sent some of the US Navy’s most powerful warships to South Korea, and top administration officials are openly talking about a potential preemptive military strike on North Korea’s nuclear facilities. They also sped up the deployment of the THAAD system, currently in place on a South Korean golf course. But despite the very real threat North Korea poses to the South, several South Koreans favor gentler approach toward Pyongyang. After all, South Korea’s capital city, Seoul, is within direct firing range of thousands of pieces of North Korean artillery already lined up along the border. As my colleague Alex Ward has written a 2005 war game predicted that a North Korean attack would kill 100,000 people in Seoul in the first few days alone.

There is also robust opposition to THAAD in some parts of South Korea over safety and environmental concerns as well as fear that China, which staunchly opposes THAAD, will inflict severe economic punishment on South Korea in response to its deployment. With Moon, whose victory ends nearly a decade of conservative rule in South Korea now coming into office, THAAD’s future, as well as the future of the US-South Korea relationship, is uncertain And given all the turmoil that’s been happening on the peninsula in recent months, from the possibility of a new North Korean nuclear test to the scandal that led to the impeachment and arrest of Moon’s predecessor, more uncertainty is just about the last thing anyone needs right now.

It should be noted that the deployment of the US missile-defense system was approved back in July 2016 in an agreement between the Obama administration and then-President Park Geun-hye.  During the campaign, Moon made clear he didn’t like the plan, and called for halting the deployment of THAAD “until the new president takes office and can evaluate its benefits and drawbacks.” “The delivery should be halted even how, and the next administration should ultimately decide this issue,” his campaign manager said on April 26, less than two weeks before the country’s election. But why in the world would South Koreans object to a missile-defense system designed to protect them from incoming missiles from the North? The first reason is that China, one of South Korea’s most important trading partners, is unhappy about the deployment of THAAD, which it sees as a potential threat to its military capabilities.

And the specter of Chinese economic retaliation against South Korea is making some in South Korea reconsider THAAD. “I want to emphasize again that China is firm in its resolve to oppose the deployment of THAAD in South Korea and will resolutely take necessary actions to safeguard its own security interests,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said at a press briefing in Beijing in late February. “Any consequences entailed from that will be borne by the US and South Korea. We strongly urge relevant parties to stop the deployment process and not to go further down that wrong path,” he said.