South Korea’s new president must hit the ground running to deal with North Korea
John Barry Kotch say the just-elected liberal Moon Jae-in would do well to take the lead diplomatically on resolving the stand-off over North Korea, but getting China and the US on the same page won’t be easy
South Koreans could be forgiven for feeling a little like Mexicans, whose unkind fate has landed them “so far from God and so close to the United States”. For Koreans, a self-described “shrimp among whales” and prone to being crushed in the game of Great Power rivalry, the situation is much more complicated and the necessity for balance and nuance in policy terms much greater.
While economic security resides increasingly with China, its largest trading partner, national security with the US, its protector of last resort, and with a historical legacy shadowed by Japan, its overriding preoccupation is with fending off its nuclear nemesis to the north.
In last week’s changing of the guard in Seoul, the moderate liberal candidate, Moon Jae-in, convincingly defeated his two rivals in a three-man race to replace disgraced former conservative president, Park Geun-hye, constituting a bellwether for all three; improving relations with the North, repairing relations with Beijing while maintaining a strong alliance with Washington.
The last four South Korean administrations reflected starkly different outlooks. The first two, presided over by Kim Dae-jung and his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, spanning the years 1998-2008, hewed to the “sunshine policy of engagement” with the North, featuring two summits, family exchanges, tourism and the establishment of the Kaesong economic zone. This worked well during the Clinton administration, but ran into headwinds after 2000 with the election of George W. Bush, who labelled Kim Jong-il a “pygmy” leader who “starves his people”, consigning the North Korean regime to membership in the “axis of evil”.
By contrast, the last two administrations (2009-2017) led by conservatives, Lee Myung-baek and the recently impeached Park Geun-hye, took a hard line, not out of sync with the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience”. By now, the gains of the Kim and Roh years have become a distant memory.
Moon’s immediate challenge will be to restore equidistance between Washington and Beijing. While he has questioned the need for THAAD, he is unlikely to reverse the decision of his predecessor overnight rather than over time. Still, Moon plans to send delegations to Beijing to discuss THAAD as well as North Korea policy. Seoul’s likely pursuit of engagement will also strengthen Beijing’s clout diplomatically with Pyongyang.
At the same time, Washington would be well advised to cut Moon some slack in charting a more moderate course following a decade of hardline conservatism, rather than insisting that he ratchet up pressure on Pyongyang from the get-go.
Interestingly, while both Beijing and Washington are wooing Seoul, only if the three capitals are on the same page is tangible progress possible with Pyongyang. Otherwise, the North will just exploit their differences.
South Korea has a broader agenda vis-à-vis the North than any of its larger neighbours or the US, which could be easily compromised over the terms of engagement; conditional for Washington, given that it is focused almost exclusively on terminating the North’s weapons of mass destruction and missiles, while open-ended for Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo.
And while it’s clearly in Seoul’s interest to take the lead diplomatically as the country most at risk militarily, thereby maximising the likelihood of a negotiated resolution of the current crisis, this will be a hard sell given the preconditions currently staked out by the Trump administration.
Further, South Korea has been largely absent from deliberations on strategy towards Pyongyang since the influence-buying scandal erupted last year, leading to massive popular protests and the toppling of Park’s government. So Moon’s challenge will be to have Korea’s voice heard in crafting a common strategy with the US, a relationship which Moon has termed “the foundation of our diplomacy and national security”.
Finally, the election complicates life for Kim Jong-un. By pressing forward with nuclear and missile tests, the North Korean leader risks burning bridges behind him, almost certainly forfeiting some of the goodwill Moon’s victory presages, while foregoing further tests could compromise his byungjin policy, a pursuit of both nuclear weapons and economic development, as well as alienating his hardline military base.
However, by successfully launching an intermediate-range ballistic missile last weekend and breaking a string of failures, Pyongyang succeeded in having it both ways, neither backing off from further provocations nor crossing a red line. Although the distance traversed was less than 800km, its flight path lifted it to an altitude of more than 2,000km, consistent with a range of more than 4,000km, putting all of Japan as well as the US Pacific territory of Guam potentially within its cross-hairs. Even more ominously, it is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
The UN Security Council has unanimously condemned the North Korean missile test and warned of new sanctions. China’s stance will be critical.
John Barry Kotch is a political historian and former US State Department consultant