With the dismissal of South Korea’s former president Park Geun-hye from office, a new presidential election is coming up on May 9, and a change of parties is not only expected—it is almost certain. With the liberal Democratic/Minjoo Party replacing the conservative Korean Liberty Party/Saenuri, what kind of changes can the world expect with regard to U.S.-Korean relations and policy towards North Korea?
Throughout the past year, the Minjoo Party criticized Park’s decision to deploy the U.S.-produced Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. The leading Minjoo Party candidate, Moon Jae-in, served as the chief of staff to the last liberal president, Roh Moo-hyun, who supported policies of engagement with North Korea. So will the next government be more open to diplomacy at this dangerous time on the Korean peninsula?
Lee said that because of the reality on the ground, the next president, whoever it is, will be constrained in his choices. The Minjoo Party will have to accept THAAD, because it is already a done deal. The first components of THAAD arrived at Osan Air Base, outside of Seoul, on March 6, and the system is in the process of being assembled. “By the time the elections are over, this is going to be a done deal, and they will have no choice but to accept it. They’ll just blame it on the Park administration,” Lee said.
As for possibilities of dealing with North Korea, Lee said the Minjoo Party might support engaging in talks, as China has suggested to the U.S. “Four party talks might be enticing for the next progressive government, but I think they will have a hard time juggling the economic interests of China with the military alliance of the United States. The military alliance, as much as they [the progressives] disdain it, is not something that they can just ignore. It would just be irresponsible,” he said.
Lee himself has called talks “pointless” in his NK News column, and also criticized other possible engagement strategies like reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint industrial zone operated with South Korea in the North that was started by liberal president Kim Dae-jung and then shutdown by Park in 2016 after another North Korean nuclear test.
But he would also oppose the use of military force against North Korea as well. “I think deterrence has worked for the past seventy years, and I think it can continue to work,” he said. “Strong deterrence militarily and economic sanctions, I believe will help contain the situation as much as possible, but something more kinetic would involve a lot of human lives being lost. I think that would be the absolute worst case sanctions.”
While U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments in Seoul were interpreted by many as advocating for more aggressive policies, Lee didn’t think so. Tillerson said the time for “strategic patience” had passed and that military options are “on the table.”
“It’s the same thing they’ve been saying since the Clinton administration,” Lee said. “And anytime you say, ‘All options are on the table,’ what that means is, yeah, we have options, but we haven’t picked one yet. So I think they’re just going with being ‘tough’ on North Korea as far as their rhetoric goes, but I am not convinced that their rhetoric can be backed up by any significant actions.”
While North Korea is getting all the foreign press for its half a dozen missile tests in the first three months of 2017 and its threats to test fire its first intercontinental ballistic missile (which it has not shown it has the capabilities to do, though analysts say it is close) towards the U.S., Lee said that the economy will be an even bigger issue for Korean voters.
“The biggest issue for the progressive and middle of the road voters is the economy. It’s always been the economy, and it will always be the economy. The conservatives said they would improve things. They failed. Now is the government really able to steer the economy? That’s debatable. But this is politics, so as far as performance goes, the conservatives have not lived up to the government’s expectations.”
Lee, who was born in Brunei, growing up in a country still very much influenced by British colonialism, and attended college in the U.S. before going to become a citizen of his ancestral Korea, calls himself “a foreigner in my own country.” He also had a lot to say about the political divide in Korea, the differences between conservative politics in the U.S. and Korea, Korea’s narrative of “ethnic purity,” and the legacy the Japanese occupation of Korea still weighs on Korean politics, where conservatives and liberals will trade insults of “pro-communist” and “pro-Japanese.”
Read the full interview: Interview with John Lee