South Korea

Sunshine is back

Print edition : June 09, 2017

South Korea’s new President Moon Jae-in addressing a press conference at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on May 10. Photo: Kim Min-Hee-Pool/Getty Images

South Korean protesters at a rally near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul on April 29 against the plan to deploy the THAAD missile system in South Korean territory. Photo: Ahn Young-joon/AP

At the railway station in Seoul on May 14, a South Korean soldier walks by a TV news programme showing a file image of missiles being test-launched by North Korea. Photo: Ahn Young-joon/AP

The war clouds seem to be receding on the Korean peninsula with Moon Jae-in’s attempts to reach out to the North after his election as South Korea’s President.

The big victory of Moon Jae-in, former trade unionist and human rights activist, in South Korea’s May 9 presidential election is the first bit of refreshing news this year from the Korean peninsula, a region that has been witnessing political turmoil and military tensions for some time. On the campaign trail, Moon Jae-in had said that his first priority would be to restore calm in the Korean peninsula. With United States President Donald Trump and his top officials making belligerent statements against North Korea in the past few weeks, war clouds loomed large. The Trump administration had used the North Korea bogey to install the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile system on Korean soil in April, an action that drew strong criticism from China and Russia. To add insult to injury, Trump demanded that the South Korean government pay for the defence system estimated to cost more than $1 billion.

China said the missile system would undermine the country’s nuclear and defence capabilities along its southern coast. China had taken diplomatic and economic steps against South Korea after the previous conservative government in Seoul agreed to the speedy installation of THAAD. As a consequence, big-spending Chinese tourists stopped coming to South Korea, one of their favourite destinations, and the Chinese started boycotting South Korean products. China is South Korea’s biggest trading partner.

Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party of Korea, a left-of-centre party, described the THAAD deployment as “a total failure of diplomacy”. He himself had on the campaign trail called for the immediate suspension of the THAAD deployment. At that time he said the Americans had “sneaked” the missile system in when the country was in the midst of an election campaign. One of the first things he did after taking office in the second week of May was talk to the top leadership in Beijing to allay their misgivings about the real purposes of locating the THAAD system so close to their borders.

Relations with the North

More importantly, President Moon Jae-in pledged to restore the “sunshine policy” that was initiated under Kim Dae-jung, the first left-of-centre President elected by South Koreans in 1998. The policy encouraged dialogue, family reunion and economic engagement with North Korea. One of the outcomes was the setting up of the Kaesong Industrial Park in North Korea in which South Korean conglomerates had invested heavily.

Kim Dae-jung was the first South Korean leader to visit the North. Tensions between the North and the South had diminished considerably when the policy was in place. However, the rise of a conservative reactionary government in 2008 put the brakes on the policy. Moon Jae-in’s predecessor, Park Geun-hye, completely disengaged with the North by ordering the closing of Kaesong Industrial Park last year.

The new President indicated that reopening the industrial park in order to send a conciliatory message to the North would be among his first priorities. This is in stark contrast to the nine years of conservative rule when South Korea, acting in tandem with the U.S., threatened the North with sanctions. If his statements after assuming office are anything to go by, Moon Jae-in is determined to chart a new foreign policy course for his country. While running for office, he had said that South Koreans would have “to learn to say no” to Washington.

But cutting the umbilical cord to Washington is easier said than done. His close friend and ideological mentor, Roh Moo-hyun, who was the President from 2003 to 2008, had also said that he would not “kowtow to the Americans”. Though he stuck to the sunshine policy, Washington arm-twisted him into sending troops for the Iraq War and signing a free-trade agreement. Trump now says that deal was a bad one for the U.S. and wants to renegotiate it. Trump has also repeatedly stated that he wants South Korea to spend more on its own defence and share the costs of hosting the U.S. military on its soil.

Although before the elections Moon had warned against the imposition of the THAAD system on Koreans, he may now find it difficult to get it removed without seriously rupturing the country’s long-standing military alliance with the U.S. The THAAD system may be theoretically able to protect the U.S. and Japan from a North Korean attack, but the South is the sitting duck. With Seoul located less than 50 kilometres from the border with the North, any war would lead to the devastation of the South Korean capital and its surrounding areas. More than half the country’s population is located in this zone.

A clause in the U.S.-South Korean Mutual Defence Treaty of 1953 states that the two parties are committed to try to solve “any international dispute” by peaceful means and to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations”. While dealing with the Trump administration, President Moon Jae-in will no doubt put a great deal of emphasis on this particular point. But Trump has threatened to solve the problem with North Korea “one way or the other”. After his bellicose statements in April had apparently no impact on Pyongyang, Trump now is depending on Beijing to arm-twist Pyongyang into making concessions on the nuclear and missile front.

With Moon Jae-in’s election to the presidency, war clouds seem to be receding on the Korean peninsula. From all available indications, he will coordinate closely with China while formulating his North Korea policy. North Korea, meanwhile, has criticised China for cooperating with the U.S. in imposing additional sanctions against it. Both Beijing and Seoul, for different reasons, do not want a chaotic disintegration of the North, as desired by Washington and some of its close allies. The South may talk of reunification, but the leadership there knows that the economic and political costs will be very high.

One of the main reasons China is against a regime change in North Korea is because it does not want U.S. troops stationed on its border. The U.S. has permanent bases in the South and a large concentration of troops there. China had gone to war against the U.S. in 1951 in order to prevent such an eventuality.

During the campaign, Moon Jae-in stressed that the aim of the international sanctions against North Korea was not to bring its government down, but to goad it to the negotiating table. “To do that, we must recognise Kim Jong-un as their ruler and as our dialogue partner. The goal of sanctions must be to get North Korea back to the negotiating table,” Moon Jae-in said. Washington now does not have the option of triggering a war with the consent of a pliant South Korean government. In his first speech to the National Assembly, Moon Jae-in pledged “to do whatever it takes” to keep the peace in the Korean peninsula. He said he was willing to travel immediately to Washington and later to Pyongyang in order to be able to fulfil the pledge.

Public opinion

Public opinion in South Korea is also against any further deepening of military ties with the U.S. The suspicion among South Koreans about the U.S.’ game plan for the region has only increased under the Trump presidency. More than North Korea, it was issues such as the economy, corruption and relations with the U.S. that dominated the month-long campaign in South Korea.

The new President said that he would engage in “sincere negotiations” with both Washington and Beijing on the issue of lessening tensions in the region. Moon Jae-in will need diplomatic astuteness to keep South Korea neutral in the looming confrontation between the U.S. and China. Interestingly, both the Koreas sent their delegations to the One Belt One Road summit in Beijing held in May. The U.S. also sent a delegation although it knew that the North Korean delegation would be present.

Meanwhile, North Korea chose to test-fire an intermediate range missile on May 13 despite warnings from the U.S. and the international community. It was the first missile test since the new South Korean President assumed office. Pyongyang announced that it was “a new ground-to-ground medium long-range strategic ballistic rocket”. It represents a level of performance never before seen in a North Korean missile, the aerospace specialist John Schilling observed. In a statement, North Korea said the test was “aimed at verifying the tactical and technological specifications of the newly developed ballistic rocket capable of carrying a large size heavy nuclear warhead”.

Moon Jae-in condemned the launch as “a clear violation of the U.N. Security Council resolutions”. However, he said there remained a need to keep the doors open for dialogue with the North. “We must show that dialogue is possible, when the North changes its attitude,” he said after the latest missile launch by Pyongyang. Only Washington and Tokyo have issued stronger statements, with the White House describing North Korea “as a flagrant menace for far too long” and demanding the implementation of more international sanctions.

Withdrawing right-wing decisions

In his first days in office, Moon Jae-in has been quick to dismantle some of the odious domestic policies that his predecessor had introduced. He ordered the withdrawal of the right-wing nationalist textbooks from the school curriculum. Park Geun-hye had proclaimed in 2015 that government schools would have to replace “left-leaning” textbooks with “patriotic” ones. The textbooks that were published under her government’s supervision mainly ended up extolling the dictatorial and corrupt rule of her father, Park Chung-hee, and promoting a right-wing nationalist history of Korea. She had also drawn up a blacklist of artistes, intellectuals and mediapersons who were deemed to be left-wing. They were banned from writing or participating in government-funded programmes and the official media. That ban no longer exists.

Moon Jae-in may find it more difficult to bring the “chaebols” (big business conglomerates) to heel as he had promised on the campaign trail. One of the main reasons for the impeachment of Park Geun-hye was her corrupt involvement with the bosses of chaebols such as Samsung. All the Presidents who have held office in South Korea since the advent of multiparty politics were investigated for corruption. Moon Jae-in has promised to be different. On his first day in office, he told the Korean people that he had assumed the top job with an “empty pocket” and that he would also leave office with his “pockets empty”.

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