March 10 will be remembered in South Korea, as the first time that a sitting President was impeached, a decision unanimously upheld by the Constitutional Court. Heavily influenced by an inner circle, Park Geun-Hye had lost all her credibility.
The election of Moon Jae-In that followed on May 9, marked the demise of the conservative Liberty Party — whose pro-American candidate, Hong Jun-Pyo, got only 24% of the vote – and a new liberal turn for South Korean. Son of a North Korean refugee and a human rights lawyer, Moon has his work cut out for him, facing growing aggression from the North.
His first task will be negotiating with North Korea, who is increasingly unhappy with the security situation, especially the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and a program of joint Americans and the South Koreans military drills conducted for the last decade despite North Korean objections.
Moon will also have to deal with the consequences of the previous government’s deployment of missile defense systems, including the negative attitude of China and Russia. Thirdly, the current American administration’s unpredictable foreign policy might cause additional problems for South Korea
For one, bent may damage the export-oriented South Korean economy. According to an April 28 article by Reuters, Trump described the American-South Korean Free Trade Agreement as “unacceptable” and “a horrible deal made by Hillary.” Trump also stressed that “South Korea should pay” for the THAAD (1 bln. $) which would certainly not strengthen the alliance, according to CNN. His aggressive rhetoric has clearly shown that his administration is seriously considering military action against the North.
Therefore, South Korea must present a reasonable strategy to reduce tensions. One possibility for Moon would be to reverse the decision on THAAD-systems, alleviating the pressure and opening the way to continuing negotiations. It could also result in the lifting of Chinese economic sanctions imposed on South Korea for the deployment of THAAD.
Cooperation with China will also increase pressure on North Korea. Only the Chinese can ensure presence of political will in Pyongyang by putting economic pressure, when it comes to nuclear negotiations with North Korea. However, this also depends on American involvement. Moon is expected to appeal directly to the President of the United States, in an attempt to prevent his inflammatory statements and actions, especially related to North Korea’s nuclear program.
This is not the first time South Korea has attempted to ease tensions with the North. In the 2000’s, the “sunshine policy” of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun’s Liberal administrations promoted closer economic and political contacts on various levels. However, a lack of coordination with the Bush administration led to constant clashes between Pyongyang and Washington, and limited success.
Nevertheless, the “sunshine policy” did result in greater political, cultural, and economic contacts between the two Koreas. Therefore, if Moon hopes to revive this legacy of de-escalation, coordinating his policies with the Trump administration is essential.
Domestically, things are also complicated. Many conservative South Koreans consider Moon too radical, according to Anna Fifield of The Washington Post. They believe that refusing THAAD systems undermines the national interest, some of his fiercest political opponents conservative Koh Yong-ju, quoted May 12 in The Huffington Post, have even labeled Moon “a communist”.
Industry also opposed Moon in the elections, largely due to his harsh criticism of chaeobols, the big South Korean business conglomerates. “Under the Moon Jae-in administration, the ‘collusive link between politics and business’ will completely disappear,” he promised in his Inaugural Address, reported by the Korea Times. Finally, his intention to abolish the South Korean domestic intelligence service has also provoked criticism.
Negotiations with North Korea will still remain one of the key priorities of the Moon presidency. This is a highly emotional issue for many South Koreans; Moon’s own parents were refugees from the North during the Korean War, and many of his relatives are still there, a tragedy of forced separation still common in Korea. The older generation in both Koreas still dreams of reunification, of seeing their parents and siblings. Whether Moon will be able to make any headway remains an open question.
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