Towards Engagement with North Korea: Implications of the South Korean Presidential Election

Towards Engagement with North Korea: Implications of the South Korean Presidential Election
REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
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The new South Korean President’s interest in engagement with North Korea may aid in improving relations with China, providing greater means to entice North Korea with both carrots and sticks, argues Timothy Rich.

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South Koreans elected Moon Jae-In on Tuesday, with 41.1% of the vote and thus complete the post-Park Geun-Hye impeachment transition through peaceful and democratic means. Although many Western observers have been quick to call this election a response to the Trump administration’s policies on North Korea (see here), including the controversial THAAD missile defense, such claims ignore the electoral context of this election and its implications on South Korea’s policies to its northern neighbor.

Whereas preferences on North Korea policy fall largely on generational lines with younger voters favoring Moon, this election centered more squarely around the twin domestic challenges of the economy and corruption (see here and here), including how to address reining in powerful business interests (“chaebols”). Nor do we see a major ideological shift among Korean voters, but rather the implosion of Park Geun-Hye’s Saenuri Party. Besides a split in the conservative vote between the Liberty Korea Party (the repackaged Saenuri Party) and the Bareun Party (former Saenuri Party members that bolted in December based on the Park scandal), the entrance of the centrist People’s Party candidate Ahn Cheol-Soo further lowered the threshold for Moon. The electoral environment did not result in a surge of support for Moon as evident in comparing his performance in 2012, where Moon captured 48% of the vote in his loss to Park. The election also largely conformed to traditional patterns of regionalism. Furthermore, lacking an outright majority in the National Assembly, Moon’s Minjoo Party will need to coordinate with others to address domestic reforms, with the centrist People’s Party being the most likely partner.

So what should we expect from a Moon administration? Moon did not receive the traditional two-month transition period, being sworn in the next day following the resignation of acting president Hwang Kyo-Ahn.

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Photo Credit: AP/達志影像
South Korean President Moon Jae-in talks on the phone with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, May 11, 2017. Moon told his Chinese counterpart that he plans to send a special delegation to Beijing for talks on North Korea and a contentious U.S. missile-defense shield, Seoul officials said Thursday. (Yonhap via AP)

Moon likely realizes that increased tensions between Washington and Pyongyang were at least indirectly influenced by an inward looking Seoul during the Park impeachment crisis. Moon’s victory has been characterized as a setback in U.S.-South Korea relations in some circles, including those such as Josh Rogin of the Washington Post who called Moon “anti-American” (see Joshua Stanton’s detailed assessment). The more alarmist tones ignore not only South Korea’s own national interests, but the broader history of U.S.-South Korea relations which endured similar periods in which Washington and Seoul differed in North Korea policy. Those who do mention previous episodes tend to focus on the tensions between the Roh Moo-Hyun and George W. Bush administrations, but ignore the variance in South Korean and American positions vis-à-vis North Korea over time. Despite tensions raised by President Trump’s demand that South Korea pay for the THAAD missile defense system and earlier claims that he may terminate the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), both Trump and Moon appear willing at least in principle to meet with Kim Jong Un, suggestive that the gulf between Seoul and Washington post-election may be smaller in this area than predicted.

Moon’s North Korea policy will likely include greater emphasis on engagement as already pointed out elsewhere with varying degrees of concern (see examples here, here and here). Moon symbolically has greater means to entice North Korea towards engagement based on his familial roots in the north, as his parents fled the port city of Hungnam in late 1950. Although the details of engagement remain ambiguous, the policies are suggestive of a return of sorts to the Sunshine Policy of Moon’s predecessors Kim Dae-Jung (1992-1997) and Roh Moo-Hyun (1997-2002). Moon served as Roh’s campaign advisor and later chief of staff, thus it should not be a surprise that aspects of Moon’s policies would mirror that of Roh.

Still, Moon appears to realize the changing political landscape limits a wholesale return to the Sunshine Policy, which ultimately failed to prevent a nuclear-armed North Korea. However, Moon’s interest in engagement with North Korea may also aid in improving relations with China, providing greater means to entice North Korea with both carrots and sticks. Chinese officials have long encouraged economic engagement with North Korea as a means to decrease the regime’s bellicose behavior, while Moon appears interested in reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex, closed by Park, that paired South Korean capital with North Korean labor. Although it is too early to speculate, such efforts between Seoul and Beijing may entice North Korea to reconsider dormant frameworks such as the Six Party Talks.

Editor: Edward White