By: James Gao
This week, the South Korean population discovered the target of its next fanatical obsession: newly elected President Moon Jae-in’s unnamed bodyguard, who has quickly become a Twitter sensation for his good looks. While the Internet’s infatuation with Moon’s bodyguard may be in good fun, seeing as his election comes at a critical period for the country, Moon must hope that his presidency will be even half as sensational and widely appealing as his bodyguard’s looks.
Following the disaster that tainted ousted President Park Geun-hye, the South Korean population scrambled to find a suitable replacement for the country’s highest office. They needed an uncontroversial candidate who could bury the scandals of the past and focus on the future. They needed a leader who could effectively respond to the rising tensions in East Asia that threaten South Korea’s security.
On May 9th, 2017, the South Korean people found their answer in Moon.
Moon, a member of the Democratic Party of South Korea, is the first liberal candidate to be elected to the South Korean in almost ten years. Previously a human rights lawyer, Moon served as a member of South Korea’s national assembly and ran unsuccessfully against Park Geun-hye in the 2012 presidential elections. For the entirety of his political career, Moon seeked to paint himself as a politician who connected to the people; an advocate for the common man who rejected the elite “establishment” of political insiders like Park. In the first week of his presidency, Moon has publicly rejected the use of butlers, and pledged to forsake residing in the presidential palace of South Korea in favour of a more humble office in Seoul.
In many aspects, Moon is a foil to the disgraced Park Geun-hye. He represents the change that the South Korean people wanted as they seek to put the remnants of Park’s tarnished presidency behind them. Nowhere is the symbolic change Moon brings more palpable than in his foreign policy.
For South Korea, effective foreign policy is critical in protecting the country’s sovereignty amidst unpredictable neighbors. South Korea is nothing but a helpless onlooker in the eastern Asia region as its next-door neighbors - North Korea and China - aggressively pursue their self-interests.
In the case of North Korea, the country’s mere existence is an existential threat to South Korea. The country has recently intensified its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles program, with the Kim regime seeing “significant technological advances” in the range of its missiles, posing an immediate threat to its sworn enemy immediately south of the 38th parallel. In dealing with North Korea, Moon hopes to revive the “Sunshine Policy” of previous liberal South Korean presidents: one focused on diplomacy, openness and willingness to negotiate with Kim Jong-un. Moon involved himself in implementing this policy when he served as former President Roh Moo-hyun’s chief of staff in 2005. During that period, the Korean Peninsula saw increased economic cooperation between the two Koreas, more diplomatic dialogues and many concessions made to the North Koreans. While the policy was abandoned in 2008 after North Korea backtracked on its promises to end its uranium enrichment program, Moon wants to give the policy a second shot - but in order to do that, he must take into account the changes in the Asian geopolitical landscape that have occurred in the past nine years.
First on Moon’s to-do list is establishing strong relations with the Trump administration. While South Korea’s left has been historically anti-American, Moon recognizes the importance of the two countries’ alliance and pledges to cooperate with Trump in order to resolve the North Korean crisis. However, Moon is likely to find friction with his American counterpart, unsurprisingly due to Trump’s confusing policy positions. While Trump recently stated that he would be willing to meet with Kim Jong-un, his actions speak louder than his words - and Trump’s actions are the exact militaristic aggression against North Korea that Moon wants to avoid. Trump, having previously said that he would not rule out the possibility of preemptively striking North Korea and heralding the use of aggression, will need to compromise with Moon on creating a united foreign policy approach. Without Moon’s approval, the prospect of using military force looks unlikely in the near future. But it is unclear as to how willing the Trump administration will be to give in on its current high-pressure approach to the Kim regime.
Moon’s policies are likely to cause similar friction with Japan, a fellow close ally of America whose security is also compromised by the growing North Korean nuclear threat. While relations between the two countries are strained due to the legacy of Korean “comfort women” sex slaves used by the Japanese empire during World War II, cooperation on the subject of North Korea is critical. Much like Donald Trump, conservative Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to continue forcing the North Koreans to back down through aggressive action. It is imperative that Moon and Abe also reach agreement on the North Korean crisis, and continue their military information sharing program that may be critical for the safety of both countries.
The disagreement between the United States, Japan and South Korea is further exacerbated by the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system, currently being implemented jointly by the United States and South Korea. The system, which consists of several truck-based rocket launchers stationed in South Korea, would be able to hit any incoming North Korean missiles over South Korea and Japan. While the agreement was a strong step forward for the country’s relations with America, they have also simultaneously antagonized China, something that Moon does not want. THAAD includes a missile scouting radar that ranges into Chinese territory, and Chinese government officials fear that the system would allow America to spy on China and give them a military advantage in Asia. In response to South Korea’s deployment of the system, the government has encouraged the boycotting of South Korean businesses and tourism. This has seriously stifled the South Korean economy; China is South Korea’s largest trading partner and the country has seen a small recession since Chinese boycotts began.
Moon has repeatedly called for a reconsideration of the system’s deployment, citing it as an unnecessary measure that only worsens tensions on the peninsula. In addition, the country’s economic growth is contingent on a compromise with China. THAAD has already been half-deployed, and, as such, prompting a removal of the system now would be costly and strain the country’s relationship with America. Instead, the two countries will likely reach a negotiation that soothes Beijing’s fears and lifts the dampers on the South Korean economy. Meanwhile, Moon will pressure China to use its economic leverage over Pyongyang (China is the hermit kingdom’s sole trading partner) to suppress the North’s nuclear weapons program. The first steps to repairing Sino-Korean relations have already been taken, with foreign ministers from both countries meeting and pledging support for improved future relations.
Moon Jae-in is faced with the difficult task of appeasing two giants: maintaining strong relations with both China and the United States. While a difficult feat, cooperation with both countries is needed to deal with the immediate threat of North Korea. Moon’s pro-diplomacy North Korean policies will likely lead to conflict between South Korea and its allies - and that is when Moon Jae-in’s negotiation skills will be truly put to the test.
Only ten days into his presidency, Moon Jae-in is still in his “Honey-Moon” phase. The atmosphere surrounding the newest South Korean president is optimistic. He has been described as “pragmatic” and “humble”, and saw approval ratings skyrocket within his first week. But it won’t be long after the new Moon that the sun will rise again, and only after Moon’s words become actions will we truly know if South Korea’s foreign policy future will be all sunshine and rainbows.