The leading presidential candidate in South Korea could thwart US plans to counter the North

Park Geun-HyeNicolas Asfouri/AP PoolSouth Korea President Park Geun-Hye during the opening ceremony of the G-20 Leaders Summit in Hangzhou, China, Sept. 4, 2016.

As the torrential downpour from riot water cannons subsided in Seoul, South Korea on Friday, a critical question loomed over the cheers and tears from supporters and protestors of the
recently impeached President Park Geun-hye: who would become the next president during a recent bout of political chicanery from the North.
Since news of President Park’s scandal steadily grew and the former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dropped his bid earlier this year, a clear frontrunner for the South Korean presidency has emerged. According to a recent Gallup Korea poll cited by The Wall Street Journal, Moon Jae-in, the opposition’s Democratic Party leader, received about 30% of support — putting him ahead of his closest opponent, another liberal candidate, who sits at 10%.

If elected, however, Moon, the former chief of staff during President Roh’s administration, may draw ire not only from hardline conservatives in South Korea, but with allies, like the US, as well.

Conservatives in South Korea have traditionally leaned toward cooperation with the US, especially in matters involving the military, and have opposed appeasing their neighbours to the North, often drawing a clear line, albeit fruitlessly, against their provocations. A recent example of the South Korean-US military cooperation would be the agreement to install the US’ anti-missile battery system, known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), on South Korean soil, much to North Korea and China’s dismay.

Liberals on the other hand, have supported the enactment of a detente between the North and South, and have traditionally opposed measures, such as the joint military exercises with the US, that raise concerns from neighbouring China. For instance, during President Kim Dae-jung’s term in the late-1990s, Kim enacted a foreign policy called the Sunshine Policy — the first bilateral meetings since the Korean War — to foster a warmer relationship both economically and socially between the two nations.

“Sunshine” from Moon

Moon’s statements have echoed Roh’s foreign policy. Calling himself “America’s friend,” he called the relationship with Washington “a pillar of our diplomacy” on the eve of President Park’s impeachment. However, he also qualified his statement, by saying that South Korea should learn to “say ‘No’ to the Americans.”

He justified his stance and advocated for warmer relations with North Korea by stating that the decade-long sanctions on the North imposed by South Korea and the US failed to halt the North’s nuclear weapons program.

“We must embrace the North Korean people as part of the Korean nation, and to do that, whether we like it or not, we must recognise Kim Jong-un as their ruler and as our dialogue partner,” Moon said in The New York Times.

Moon also called for economic cooperation with the North by hinting at the reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a collaborative business venture, that was closed by the previous administration in 2016 after North Korea’s weapon tests.

” … We can create endless opportunities,” said Moon during his 2012 presidential campaign. “I will establish a five-year plan for the Inter-Korean Economic Union’ and I’ll discuss it with North Korea and move it forward.”

Though Park’s conservative administration supported the instalment of THAAD in South Korea, Moon expressed concern over the defence system that tempers both China and North Korea, promising a review of the system.

“I cannot understand why there should be such a hurry with this,” he said, referring to the Park administration’s decision to allow the instalment of the THAAD. “I suspect that they are trying to make it a fait accompli, make it a political issue to be used in the election.”

Dark side of Moon

Critics of Moon, however, contend that his policies are detrimental to the nation, saying that his ambiguity about his opinion on THAAD is indicative of his leadership.

“His ambiguity might be working for the interests of North Korea or China but it causes uneasiness among the public,” the conservative Liberty Korea Party floor leader Chung Woo-taik said in The Korea Times.

“There’s nothing scarier than a presidential candidate who opposes a military option for self-defence running in the race,” Chung said.

Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also weighed in, admonishing Moon Jae-in’s “strategic ambiguity” that leaves room for China to wage economic warfare, something that has since caused rioting and has been hurting South Korean conglomerates in China.

“It is pathetic that opinions in politics are fragmented,” said Ban Ki-moon. “THAAD is a representative security issue. On such an issue, both the ruling and opposition blocs should have one voice.”

Moon’s critics may have good reason for their opposition. His stance towards reenacting Sunshine-like measures — a policy that was deemed a failure by many accounts, including the South Korean government — could yield limited, even disastrous, results.

“There are no positive changes to North Korea’s position that correspond to the support and cooperation offered by us,” the 2010 report stated, also referencing the sinking of a South Korean navy ship that killed 46 sailors.

Further, there looks to be no end in sight for the continuation of North Korea’s weapons testing program, including the country’s extended-range ballistic missiles. According to a report by Beyond Parallel, an affiliate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, there was a 62% chance of another North Korean nuclear test or ballistic missile launch in the next 30 days, and a 43% chance in the next 14 days.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s planned trip to Seoul next Friday as part of his mission across Asia may yield more information on Moon’s views for his potential presidency, however, with a projected election date of May 9, there is ample room for other presidential candidates to make a mark during the election cycle, along with a higher chance of further provocations from the North.

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