Can South Korea’s new president Moon Jae-in find the right balance on N Korea and domestic policies?
Donald Kirk says Moon Jae-in, as a minority president, faces a tough task in juggling political opposition at home as well as ties with America and China, as he seeks to revive the “sunshine” era in exchanges with North Korea
The drama of South Korean history opens a tumultuous new act with the election of a liberal labour lawyer who has promised to both bring about détente with North Korea and satisfy the demands of the restive masses fed up with rightist abuses.
Whether Moon Jae-in will be able to live up to his campaign pledges is about as problematic as Donald Trump keeping his word to “make America great again”. Like the US president, Moon is likely to find taking charge of government and getting people to follow his bidding is more difficult than talking about it.
What takes priority – reconciliation with North Korea or economic hardship at home? And how does Moon work through the maze of bureaucratic and legislative obstacles, not to mention the shrill protests of those who opposed him? Yes, he won far more votes than either of the other two major candidates, the conservative Hong Joon-pyo and centrist Ahn Cheol-Soo. Throw in the votes for all the also-rans, however, and you get a clear majority of the electorate preferring someone other than Moon.
The issue that transfixed most voters has been the ongoing scandal of the ousted, jailed president Park Geun-hye, whose fall from grace had everything to do with endemic corruption and the cosy bonds between the top layers of government and the chaebol – giant family-run conglomerates – that prop them up.
Sure, people care about North Korea too, but you didn’t hear too many demands for a revival of the “sunshine policy” of 1998-2003 president Kim Dae-jung and his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, whom Moon served as chief of staff. The fact that Moon in that capacity arranged Roh’s visit to see Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang near the end of his presidency in 2007 may have whetted his appetite for another mission, this time as a supplicant before Kim Jong-un – but the coveted invitation may not be all that easy to get.
We can be sure Kim will first want to see if Moon really is as sunshine-minded as he might have seemed during his campaign. The litmus test will be whether he loosens the ties that bind South Korea in tight alliance with America. Moon will have to show he’s not America’s man before Kim invites him for a summit.
Moon was quoted as saying he would rather go to see the North Korean leader before calling on the US president. However, he has denied saying anything quite like that. For sure, he will be off to the White House not too long after taking over the Blue House.
A Moon-Trump summit, though, does not mean he has to be all that cooperative. Surely he’ll want to see what Trump was talking about when he said South Korea owed America US$1 billion for the luxury of providing a home for THAAD, the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence counter-missile battery now lurking on a Lotte golf course south of Seoul.
Will Moon tell Trump, look, we’re not only not going to pay for it, we’re going to ask you to plant it in someone else’s backyard? Or will he be advised to vacillate and avoid an early confrontation with the Americans while risking the wrath of China and, of course, North Korea?
Watch: Why China is so angry with South Korea
China has been punishing Lotte and other Korean companies by suspending or cutting their operations, ordering tough customs and safety inspections, and stopping hordes of Chinese from visiting Korea on group tours. How long will the Chinese exert this type of pressure while also pressuring North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile programme?
For Moon, North Korea will be more difficult. All Kim needs to do is order a few more missile tests, maybe another nuclear test. Will Moon, in his eagerness for dialogue, argue that sanctions are not working and negotiations are essential? Would he dare offend North Korea by calling for tough measures?
Judging from what he’s said, Moon would still be disposed to concessions – reopening the Kaeseong Industrial Complex, authorising more visits to the North by South Koreans, even resuming the shipments of rice and fertiliser from the sunshine decade.
But will his foes let him do all that? Moon, as a minority president, will have to study the art of compromise for the sake of both his policy towards North Korea and his political survival against foes who would like nothing better than to destroy him.
Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea