Written by Jeffrey Robertson.

On 9 May, South Korea elected Moon Jae-in as president. Given Moon’s early and consistent lead in the polls, much has already been said about South Korea’s new president. But, as is often the case with South Korea, the event means something substantially different to the international and to the domestic audiences.

Moon’s international agenda has attracted attention. He has never hidden his belief that ultimately, relations with North Korea can only be improved by engagement. This potentially includes re-opening the Mt. Geumgang Tourism Project, the Gaeseong Industrial Complex, and seeking direct talks with North Korea. Moon also criticised the previous administration’s decision to deploy Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) as rushed and undemocratic. This implies reviewing and potentially rescinding the decision to deploy THAAD – a move that would improve relations with China, and potentially lead to a relaxation of economic sanctions on the tourism, entertainment, and retail sectors. These two points alone appear to put Moon at odds with recent US efforts to pressure North Korea.

There is a settling in period for any new administration. Understandably, any efforts to re-engage North Korea must await a more conducive geopolitical environment. Additionally, with no party holding a clear majority in the National Assembly, and the next general election not scheduled until April 2020, the new administration will struggle to pass legislation. While implementation may have to wait, Moon’s international agenda will become clear within the first twelve months.

Moon’s victory had little to do with North Korea, the United States or China

The election of Moon thus raises the question: will the combination of Moon and Trump be the perfect storm to disrupt the US-Korea relationship?

Moon Jae-in’s credentials as a progressive reformer are strong. He is part of a distinct generation of South Korean centre-left and leftist politicians who were politically active during the democracy movement of the 1980s, commenced a political career during the 1990s, and entered positions of political influence during the 2000s. Moon, in particular, because of his close personal, professional, and political association with Roh Moo-Hyun, is viewed as representative of this generation and an inheritor of its tradition.

For international critics, these credentials tarnish him as an inheritor of a tradition marked by the accommodation of North Korea and anti-Americanism. The nature of the South Korean political system fuels these concerns. The South Korean constitution provides for single five-year presidential terms. During election periods, candidates are constrained in their ability to express more radical views. Once elected, these constraints disappear. Reflecting this, it appears that Moon is indeed going to find it difficult to work with the Trump administration that seeks to pressure and contain North Korea.

South Korea already knows the challenges of working with Trump administration. If Trump proved anything in his first 100 days, it was the fact that he has no fixed policy position on Korean peninsula affairs. From his first mention of South Korea to his last, Trump’s position has been inconsistent. Trump indicated military action was imminent, but also floated the possibility of negotiations, one-on-one talks with Kim Jong-un, and a grand bargain. He stated an aircraft carrier battle group was heading to South Korea – but it went in the opposite direction. THAAD was deployed – then Trump stated South Korea should pay for it. This inconsistency can be partly blamed on Trump’s inexperience in government.

No president comes to power with a complete understanding of the Korean peninsula, but to date all have secured advisors or filled positions within the State Department and Department of Defence to compensate and provide competent advice on what can be a difficult issue. The Trump administration has no senior advisors with East Asia experience. It has no Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, or Assistant Secretary of Defence for Asian and Pacific Affairs. It is yet to appoint an Ambassador to South Korea. Policy advice on Korean peninsula affairs is lacking.

South Korea fears becoming Trump’s low hanging fruit.  Reassessing alliance commitments to NATO or Japan are more difficult than reassessing alliance commitments to South Korea. Renegotiating free trade agreements (FTAs) in which the US secures substantial benefit or requires multiple partners, such as NAFTA, is more difficult than renegotiating the Korea-United States (KORUS) FTA. Taking on countries accused of currency manipulation, such as Germany, Japan or China is substantially more difficult than South Korea. Even if South Korea is not the initial target, it will be an easy option for Trump to rail against and show progress – an ideal patsy.

Accordingly, on the surface it appears that the combination of Moon and Trump could indeed be the perfect storm to disrupt the US-Korea relationship. The two leaders seem destined to clash. Their ideological convictions, policy objectives, and personalities appear to be irrevocably incompatible. But this ignores the opening maxim –  it is often the case with South Korea, that events mean something substantially different to the international and to the domestic audiences.

Domestically, Moon’s election represented the culmination of public protest against a corrupt and unjust government, and represents public recognition of the need to address the social ills of entrenched intergenerational inequality, youth unemployment, and poor working conditions. Moon’s victory had little to do with North Korea, the United States or China. Marked by the highest voter turnout in South Korean records, it represented an end to a tumultuous political period and a hope for a return to economic and political progress. The domestic agenda will likely dominate Moon Jae-in’s term in office – there will be no perfect storm.

Jeffrey Robertson (@Junotane) is a Visiting Fellow at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University (ANU) and an Assistant Professor at Yonsei University in South Korea. He is author of Diplomatic Style and Foreign Policy: A Case Study of South Korea (Palgrave 2016). Image credit: CC by Republic of Korea/Flickr.


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