By: Gabriel Gorre, Guest Contributor
Photo Credit: Brookings Institution
On May 9th, 2017, Moon Jae-in, leader of the liberal Democratic Party of Korea, won South Korea’s presidential election with a plurality of the votes. Turnout in the election surpassed the highest total in two decades, as voters turned away from a conservative party tied to former President Park Geun Hye, removed from office and arrested on charges of accepting bribes.[i] While the leftward shift will affect South Korea’s domestic future, Western observers pondered how Moon’s foreign policy views would affect developments in East Asia and South Korea’s relationship with the United States. Unlike the previous administration, Moon has endorsed a softer line towards both North Korea and China and has voiced some opposition to US policy.[ii] Some commentators have gone as far as to suggest that Moon could be a larger thorn in the side of the Trump administration than Kim Jon Un.[iii] While early signs push back against such hyperbole, the actions and rhetoric of the young Moon administration do suggest a departure from previous South Korean stances that could prove an impediment to US policy on North Korea and China.
As a candidate, Moon argued in favor of a less aggressive approach to the North Korean regime. He ran on a platform that included diplomatic and economic rapprochement with North Korea, an idea known as the “Sunshine policy.”[iv] This policy, last utilized during the liberal administration of Roh Moo-Hyun, in which Moon served, includes diplomatic engagement with the North and economic cooperation with the Kim regime.[v] He has suggested reopening and expanding the Kaesong complex, an economic cooperation zone between the North and South, a maneuver banned due to UN Security Council resolutions restricting financial support for the North, and has encouraged a restart of the Six Party talks.[vi]
These policies contrast starkly with the policies of the Trump administration. Far from publicly seeking engagement with the Kim regime, the Trump administration has challenged it. It has threatened military action against North Korea in response to missile launches and sent a carrier strike group towards the North Korean coast in a show of force.[vii] Economically, the Trump administration has supported expanded UN sanctions, placing significant pressure on the regime and attempting to isolate the North.[viii] President Trump’s rhetoric has been equally, if not more, aggressive, so much so that at times US officials have felt the need to soften their impact.[ix]
Essentially, the two allies seem to endorse opposing strategies in their efforts to deal with the North Korean threat. US efforts to isolate North Korea, both diplomatically and economically, would be undermined by South Korean engagement with the North. For instance, the further operation of the Kaesong complex would not only violate existing UNSC resolutions, but it would also reduce the effectiveness of economic pressure on North Korea. Money from the complex, including wages seized from North Korean laborers by the Kim regime, likely helped to fuel the North Korean nuclear and missile programs until South Korea closed the complex in 2016.[x] Similarly, analysts note that the US government will have difficulty convincing China to reduce their own economic cooperation with the North if South Korea, a US ally, begins to engage in commerce with the Kim regime.[xi] Diplomatically, observers believe that efforts by Moon or members of his administration to visit Pyongyang and negotiate a halt to, but not the disarmament of, the North Korean nuclear program would harm US efforts to dismantle North Korean nuclear armaments.[xii] In addition, threats of military action by the United States ring more hollow if South Korea, a country that would bear much of the brunt of any expanded conflict on the peninsula, does not seem to support aggressive action on the part of its ally. These differences, and the conflicts that could arise from them, could ultimately prove damaging to efforts to tackle the crisis developing on the Korean peninsula and could be an impediment to US policy in the area.
The Moon administration also seems to want to reduce tensions with China at the expense of US policy towards the People’s Republic. In a move that worried US officials, the new South Korean government halted the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system, which played a role in harming relations between China and South Korea.[xiii] While the move pleased his constituents, it also increased tensions with the United States, worrying a number of scholars within South Korea that the move could endanger the alliance between South Korea and the United States.[xiv] Meanwhile, the South Korean government has also indicated that it will seek to reopen discussions with Japan regarding the latter’s use of sex-slaves during the Second World War.[xv] The United States had attempted to resolve the issue in 2015 by encouraging the two nations to move towards an agreement, which ultimately included a Japanese apology and monetary reparations.[xvi] By reopening these discussions, the South Korean government risks increased tensions with Japan, a situation that could reduce the strength of the US alliance system in East Asia and, thus, benefit China.[xvii]
Some analysts suggest that these policy changes are, in part, an effort by the Moon administration to reduce US influence on South Korean foreign policy decisions.[xviii] Whatever their motivation, these policies ultimately undermine US policy towards China in East Asia by straining relations between US and South Korean policymakers; succumbing to Chinese pressure and, thus, motivating China to continue to bully South Korea and other nations to achieve similarly positive results; and reducing the effectiveness of the US alliance system in East Asia. Each of these outcomes benefits China at the expense of the United States.
In recent interviews, Moon seemed to suggest a possible pivot away from the statements he made on the campaign trail. Though he criticized the “accelerated” nature of the THAAD deployment, Moon pushed back against the notion that the actions of his government, including environmental impact assessments, suggested a reversal of the decisions of the Park administration.[xix] In line with the Trump administration, Moon urged China to take action to reign in the Kim regime, and he voiced his support for additional sanctions as a response to further ICBM or nuclear tests by the North.[xx] He has also noted that his administrations shares the goal of complete nuclear disarmament of the North Korean state with the Trump administration.[xxi]
Yet other statements within those interviews point to a continuation of some of the policies and rhetoric mentioned above. He again criticized the 2015 agreement between South Korea and Japan regarding Korean “comfort women”, and urged Japan to revisit its wartime actions and make amends.[xxii] Moon also proposed a movement towards negotiating a nuclear freeze with the Kim regime as a part of the movement towards a nuclear weapons-free North Korea, a strategy that the Trump administration has opposed.[xxiii] He also questioned the effectiveness of previous efforts by the Park administration to restrict money flows from other governments to North Korea.[xxiv] In addition, Moon argued for the reopening of the Kaesong complex as part of the diplomatic process, despite recognition that such a maneuver would violate US and UN sanctions against North Korea.[xxv]
In the end, the US will have little control over which path the Moon administration follows. Moon’s remarks suggest a considerable deference to public opinion, as in the case of the “comfort women” agreement, and Moon will not soon forget the liberal base that helped to push him into office as part of the backlash against the Park administration. As a result, arguments emanating from the US foreign policy establishment will struggle to gain traction when the South Korean public has a different viewpoint. The Trump administration must account for this new reality as it crafts its policy in East Asia.
[i] Phippen, J. Weston. “Moon Jae In Wins South Korea’s Presidential Election.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 09 May 2017. Web. 18 June 2017.
[ii] Borchers, Callum. “Analysis | Why Does South Korea’s New President Want to Talk to North Korea? Norah O’Donnell Is Going to Ask.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 18 June 2017. Web. 18 June 2017; Sang-hun, Choe. “Moon Jae-in of South Korea and China Move to Soothe Tensions.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 11 May 2017. Web. 18 June 2017; Bandow, Doug. “Who Poses Tougher Challenge For Donald Trump: South Korea’s Moon Jae-In Or The North’s Kim Jong-Un?” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 17 May 2017. Web. 18 June 2017, 1.
[iii] Bandow 1.
[vi] Stanton, Joshua, Sung-Yoon Lee, and Bruce Klingner. “Getting Tough on North Korea.” Foreign Affairs. Council on Foreign Relations, 18 May 2017. Web. 18 June 2017; Bandow, 1.
[viii] Nichols, Michelle. “U.N. Expands North Korea Blacklist in First U.S., China Sanctions Deal under Trump.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 03 June 2017. Web. 23 June 2017; Blandow 2.
[ix] Bandow 2.
[x] Stanton, Lee, and Klingner.
[xi] Bandow 2.
[xiii] Griffiths, James. “South Korea Suspends THAAD Deployment.” CNN. Cable News Network, 08 June 2017. Web. 18 June 2017. It should be noted that many analysts, including those in Moon’s administration, questions whether a full reversal of THAAD’s deployment is possible, and some have suggested that China may be willing to compromise on the measure; see Sang-hun, Choe. “Moon Jae-in of South Korea and China Move to Soothe Tensions.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 11 May 2017. Web. 18 June 2017.
[xiv] Harris, Bryan. “US Uneasy as South Korea’s Moon Jae-in Tilts towards China.” Financial Times. The Financial Times, 9 June 2017. Web. 18 June 2017.
[xix] Weymouth, Lally. “South Korea’s New President: ‘Trump and I Have a Common Goal’.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 20 June 2017. Web. 25 June 2017; Yoon, Jean, and Soyoung Kim. “Exclusive: South Korea President Calls on China’s Xi to Do More on North Korea Nuclear Program.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 22 June 2017. Web. 25 June 2017.
[xx] Yoon and Kim.
[xxii] Weymouth; Yoon and Kim.
[xxiii] Weymouth; Sanger, David E., and Gardiner Harris. “U.S. Pressed to Pursue Deal to Freeze North Korea Missile Tests.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 June 2017. Web. 25 June 2017.