A Change In South Korean Policy Toward North Korea

New South Korean President and former human rights lawyer Moon Jae-In is the first liberal president South Korea has had in decades. The election came after the impeachment of former President Park Geun-Hye for corruption. Park currently is awaiting trial in jail for allegedly accepting around fifty-two million dollars in bribes. Moon won with roughly 41% of the vote. The turnout for the election was the highest in two decades at 77%.

Moon is seen as a clean candidate capable of fighting corruption and revitalizing the South Korean economy. Most notable, however, is his policy toward North Korea. Unlike his predecessors, Moon advocates a gentler approach towards their rogue neighbour. Moon is the child of North Korean refugees and worked as an aide to the last democratic party President Roh Moo Hyun.

In his inauguration speech, he promised to do everything he could to build peace on the Korean peninsula. His plans toward North Korea include reviewing Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system (THAAD) and improving relations with Pyongyang. He even suggested that he is willing to make a visit under the right circumstances. While Moon will continue to maintain pressure and sanctions, he also believes opening up dialogue and building trust is an important step toward peace. One of his goals is to return to the Sunshine Policy that operated between 1998 and 2008 which aimed to soften NK by offering humanitarian assistance, diplomatic dialogue, cultural exchanges, and increased economic relations. The implementation of this policy earned former President Kim Dae-Jung a Nobel Peace Prize in 2000.

This stance toward North Korea is in direct opposition to the aggressive stance coming from the United States. Tensions have recently increased between Washington and Pyongyang in past months. The rapid advance of North Korean military technology has put the US on edge. The US has openly considered a potential preventative strike on North Koreas nuclear facilities, sent the US Navy’s most powerful ships to South Korea and President Trump continues to regularly post hostile tweets aimed at North Korea.

While North Korea is a bigger threat to South Korea than to the United States, South Koreans tend to have a softer stance toward their neighbour than their ally. The anti-ballistic missile system, THAAD, is supposed to help protect South Koreans from potential attack by their neighbour, but many South Koreans oppose the development of the system. Already, the development has seen economic retaliation from China. Some Korean TV and music videos have been blocked from streaming in China, cutting off one of its biggest markets. A number of Korean-owned chains have also been closed in China for dubious reasons.

Economics is not the only reason South Koreans oppose the missile system. Some have questioned why the billion dollar system does not extend coverage to the capital, Seoul. Others cite safety and environmental concerns. In a mass protest last year, around 900 South Koreans shaved their heads in protest of THAAD development in their region. Protestors cite concerns that the anti-missile system would make them a target in wartime, and that the high-tech radar could harm their crops. In the same area, 5000 protesters gathered and the governor of Seongju literally used his own blood to write “No to the deployment of THAAD.”

The election of Moon Jae-In will likely limit Trump’s options, reducing the likelihood of military force, and economic and diplomatic isolation. Instead, Trump may be forced into negotiations with China and South Korea. This is a positive development which increases the chances that peace will be achieved.