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
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.
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.
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?
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