South Koreans, in a high turnout presidential contest, just gave an overwhelming victory to the “progressive” Moon Jae-in. The candidate of the Democratic Party of Korea won with 41 perecent of Tuesday’s vote, according to the final tally of the National Election Commission. Two conservative and center-left figures trailed far behind.
Moon, the son of North Korean refugees, campaigned on engaging Pyongyang and reorienting his country away from the U.S. In coming months, therefore, Seoul may end up blocking President’s Donald Trump’s determined efforts to stop Pyongyang’s weapons programs.
Moon, who took office Wednesday, has advocated a far softer approach to the North. He wants, for example, to initiate talks with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader.
Moon also campaigned on restoring economic links with the North, like reopening and expanding the Kaesong Industrial Complex, closed by his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, last February. The complex, just north of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas, once included 125 South Korean light-manufacturing operations and shoveled about $120 million a year into the coffers of the Pyongyang regime.
Moon also has said he is against the basing of the American-built Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, designed to shoot down North Korean missiles. The caretaker government of Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn rushed the deployment of THAAD, as the defense system is called, prompting calls by Moon during the campaign to reconsider the action.
(President Trump then announced in two separate interviews that he expected S. Korea to pay $1 billion for the system, which also helps to defend Americans. When U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told his counterpart that was not the case, Trump was furious, according to Bloomberg’s Eli Lake. None of this helped Moon’s opponents.)
Many think that Moon, in general, will resurrect the Sunshine Policy, the approach identified with two previous liberal-leaning presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, who governed from 1998 to 2008. Moon was Roh’s chief of staff.
That generous policy, essentially one of unconditional assistance to the North, would undercut the attempts of the Trump administration to tighten sanctions designed to deny Kim Jong Un the means to build more nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Yet what is of great concern is not so much specific policies Moon may implement. It is his general approach to the U.S., the only nation pledged to defend his country.
Moon’s signature line during the campaign was that South Korea should “learn to say no” to the U.S. “Which candidate can do a proud diplomacy, saying what we need to say to the Americans?” he asked during the final week of campaigning. That echoed the words of his mentor, President Roh, who often talked about South Korea untying itself from the United States in order to play a “balancing role” in North Asia.
Moreover, Moon during the campaign made statements that sounded inconsistent with the maintenance of his country’s defense treaty with the U.S.
There are some reasons to think that, despite everything, Moon will not lurch into North Korea’s camp as soon as he takes office. For one thing, a large portion of the South Korean electorate is skeptical of the Kim regime, and the new president needs the support of that large conservative bloc. Moon, therefore, will have to tread lightly.
The new president understands that, although he is personally passionate about helping the Kimist state, he was not elected to change North Korea policy but to break the corrupt-looking links between the South Korean government and the chaebols, the conglomerates dominating the economy and politics.
After all, Park was impeached and later removed because of her apparent involvement in—or at least her tolerance of—these unsavory dealings. Moon needs the cooperation of the conservatives to restructure the links between the government and big business.
It’s significant that Park, a hardliner when it came to North Korea, first tried to develop relations with Pyongyang with her “trustpolitik” policy. Why? She had to do that to not anger the progressive voters. Similarly, Moon cannot afford to drive away conservatives.
Yet Moon does not have to change radically Seoul’s North Korea policies to do great damage to America’s efforts to disarm “Fatty the Third,” as the North Korean leader is sometimes called. By merely talking about a new approach to Pyongyang, Moon legitimizes Chinese efforts to support corpulent Kim.
Even though Trump has had some success in convincing China to scale back assistance, it’s evident Beijing is reluctant to cut off North Korea. Yes, Beijing on Feb. 18 announced it would not, for the remainder of the year, purchase coal from the North, but it did so in fact in February after the announcement and in both April and May. And despite the announced coal-purchase ban, Beijing has helped Pyongyang in other ways to make up the shortfall in coal revenue. Two-way trade between China and North Korea appears to have been increasing this year.
So South Korea may give cover to Beijing to support its communist cousin in Pyongyang. In the past, during the Sunshine era, the Chinese repeatedly told American diplomats that it was OK for them to support the North because the South Koreans also were doing so.
And as Moon readjusts policy, Kim now has one more external party to manipulate. He can make China, Russia, and South Korea compete with one another for his favor.
Ultimately, Moon’s action can result in a more aggressive China. Beijing worked hard to intimidate South Korea and prevent the basing of THAAD on its soil. The Chinese can be assured that, even if Moon does not remove the one already-deployed THAAD battery, he will not allow additional THAAD sites.
Beijing will now not have to worry as much about the missile-defense system. Moon, therefore, has undercut a reason for China to cooperate with Washington.
Beijing, consequently, will see that its belligerence against South Korea in recent months worked. John Pomfret, writing in The Washington Post, thinks an emboldened China may now intensify intimidation of other states. “Success with the South Koreans,” he writes, “could embolden China to try similar tactics with Japan, Vietnam, and perhaps even Australia.”
It looks like Trump’s to-do list in Asia just got a lot longer.