After months of political drama liberal Moon Jae-in decisively won in South Korea, a victory that ended over a decade-long conservative rule, which was by the end tarnished by extreme corruption and scandal, and ended in the impeachment and arrest of Park Geun-hye which triggered a snap election. The liberal victory was expected, given the current mood of South Korea, and a high turnout almost guaranteed the defeat of the incumbent conservatives. A simple plurality was needed for the liberals to win. Speaking at a makeshift podium, Moon was quoted to say “I will make a just, united country. I will be a president who also serves all the people who did not support me.”
In an interesting development, Moon said that he would be willing to go to North Korea to meet its leader Kim Jong-un, in a notable change of track from the previous conservative governments. Signaling that he is flexible and expressing willingness to negotiate immediately, the left-liberal-leaning Moon said that he is willing to do anything that might help bring peace to the continent. “I am willing to go anywhere for the peace of the Korean peninsula if needed. I will fly immediately to Washington. I will go to Beijing and I will go to Tokyo. If the conditions are right, I will go to Pyongyang,” he was quoted by Guardian.
Perhaps in a further indication that the new administration would be different than the old one, Moon even considers reviewing THAAD system placed in South Korea. The system has been a bone of contention between China and United States and was installed just a week before the elections. China has consistently opposed and urged the new president to scrap the system.
There has been talks reported by Reuters, where US officials have anonymously raised their concerns, about the new volatility in ties between South Korea and US. Moon and US President Trump are very different characters. There are chances of confrontation. Trump recently also demanded payment for THAAD placed in South Korea. That, added to the fact that Trump is positioning himself as a North Korea hawk, means that there are chances of difference of interest.
The US, of course, as per diplomatic rituals congratulated Moon, just as China and Japan did. The White House press secretary spoke of a continuing a strong alliance and enduring partnership.
That said, I would suggest a few cautions for both South Korea, and US. First of all South Korea needs to realise that any diplomatic maneuver, especially in such a volatile situation will inevitably bring up risks of cheesing off partners and adversaries. Any individual single effort to solve the Korean crisis would anger hardliners in both Washington and Tokyo. It is unlikely that Seoul, despite its good intentions is willing or able to take that risk or go that far. The idea in Washington is simple, that America is unwilling to coexist with a nuclear North Korea and that North Korea is a danger to American interests in the Pacific. Given that situation, if any country, especially South Korea intends to bypass American intentions to hand olive branch to the North, they will risk a collision course with Washington.
Similarly, the US should realise that public opinion in South Korea is increasingly opposed to brinkmanship with North. At the end of the day, South Korea is a democratic country and its leaders are limited by fluctuating public opinion and domestic concerns. Plus, the South Korean economy which used to benefit from Chinese tourists have taken a hit recently, due to the THAAD scenario. THAAD, as I have written several times before, has no observable benefit and therefore could be a point of renegotiation. However, I’d suggest that the chances of US-South Korean collision might be exaggerated. After all the structural forces decide foreign policy. The last South Korean liberal leader ruled around the same time of George W Bush and they were not fans of each other. That didn’t have any effect on the foreign policy.
There’s prudence in seeking dialogue, and in that way the new South Korean leader’s instincts are correct. However, foreign policy depends on a variety of other factors than just good will. It’s best therefore not to be overtly optimistic.