May has not been a peaceful month in the Korean Peninsula. The combination of political, economic, and diplomatic crises for the Republic of Korea (ROK) has not only rocked the foundations of the South Korean political establishment but also marks a major milestone in the nation’s history. Under the looming threat of North Korea’s ongoing nuclear missile program, the incoming president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, will likely face a number of challenges that could exacerbate current tensions on the negative diplomatic fallout for South Korea. Despite these concerns, Moon’s proposal, engagement with North Korea, is the best option out of a host of others. While expectations of what can be achieved should be tempered by pragmatism, people should be optimistic.
After the Cold War and fall of the ROK military regime in 1992, South Korea’s foreign policy towards its northern counterpart generally leaned towards engagement, termed the “Sunshine Policy.” During this period, South Korea’s domestic policies were more left-leaning with characteristics of a centre-left party, including efforts at breaking down the concentration of wealth. These developments were not surprising given that the country had just emerged from military dictatorship, which had close ties with South Korea’s large conglomerates, known as Chaebols. The political failures of these presidents, from domestic corruption to North Korea’s increasingly alarming nuclear ambitions, eventually led to the rise of conservative politics that gained the presidency in 2008.
Since 2008, with Lee Myung-bak’s ascension to the presidency, the conservative Saenuri/Liberty Korea party has governed South Korea. The conservative, hardline approach is most evident in ROK’s policy towards the DPRK. Emphasis is shifted towards using military and diplomatic pressure to force DPRK to denuclearize. The intensity of this policy has oscillated over the decade, with instances like former President Park’s “middle way” between hardline confrontation and the “sunshine policy,” which sought rapprochement with Beijing to contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Park’s warm relationship with Beijing peaked in 2015, but quickly deteriorated in the following year when it became apparent that Beijing’s influence on Pyongyang was more limited than previously thought. President Park’s decision to introduce the THAAD anti-ballistic missile was the final act that saw South Korea return to a hardline confrontational policy against the North as well as consolidating its existing alliance with the US.
Although it was a combination of failing economy and corruption scandal were that brought down Park Geun-hye, Park’s approval rating in South Korea has begun to fall long before the corruption has become apparent. Behind the drama of Park’s fall was dissatisfaction with the current state of South Korea after almost a decade of conservative government. The centre stage of this dissatisfaction had to be how to respond to North Korea’s increasingly ambitious nuclear targets, and maneuver between the region’s major powers.
Despite North Korea’s continued threats and missile testing, the South Korean people have chosen a candidate that ran on the platform of engagement with the North and a return to the “Sunshine Policy” of the 1990s. The new president faces an array of challenges, both domestic and foreign, that can destabilize his current administration. The biggest challenge to Moon’s return to the “sunshine policy” is whether such gestures would be reciprocated by the DPRK. Given that nuclear missiles are almost fundamental to the survival of the Kim regime in deterring foreign threats, both perceived and real, and a great propaganda tool for domestic consumption, the likelihood of North Korea giving up its nuclear arsenal or stopping development, even in exchange for a security guarantee, is remote.
In addition to North Korea, even ROK’s allies may pose challenges for Moon’s proposed policies. President Trump had made a point of confrontational policies with the DPRK as well as pushing the deployment of THAAD in South Korea regardless of the South Korean Parliament’s decisions. Japan is similarly eager for more hardline containment not only of North Korea but also Chinese power and influence in the region. Both South Korea’s major allies are unlikely to be supportive of a softer stance on DPRK and its nuclear programs. On the other side, the DPRK has often painted the joint US-South Korea military exercises as threats to its national sovereignty and justification for its nuclear program. Out of this situation, one encouraging development emerges. Given the state of US global involvement, Trump has realized that engagement is necessary to achieve any results in curtailing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Trump’s current stance allows Moon’s engagement policy to begin with a good start. However, given the unpredictability of the Trump’s regime and the continued American insistence for the THAAD missile, balancing Moon’s elections promise and demands from ROK’s allies will be difficult.
China and Russia are the two other major countries that have major influences on events in the Korean Peninsula, and therefore are necessary for Moon’s engagement policies to work. Moon’s relationship with China is off to a good start, as Xi Jinping sent congratulations to Moon on May 11, the first time a president of the PRC has done so for an incoming president of the ROK. Moon is scheduled to meet Xi in June and visit China in August. The Chinese government’s position on North Korea aligns more with the pro-Sunshine policy Moon, calling for a return to the Six-Party Talks. However, it also places partial blame for discontinuation of the talks on the U.S. for “inciting regional tensions,” which can complicate further talks. The Russian reaction is more difficult to judge. Russia, in general, has been relegated to that of a secondary player in East Asian politics. On the other hand, many state-sanctioned North Korean workers are active in the Russian Far East, and Russia’s stance towards the US is even more hostile, squarely blaming the United States for tensions in the region and is determined to block potential advances in the region. Russia has also been a member of the Six-Party Talks, and its involvement in East Asian affairs grows as its relationship with Europe deteriorates over its involvement in Ukraine. Balancing between South Korea’s traditional ally, the US, its differences with Japan, Russia, and China to reign in an increasingly unpredictable Kim Jong-un, will be a challenge for the incoming new South Korean administration.
Given the current state of affairs, Moon’s engagement policy with the DPRK is probably the only path that can deliver some stability to Northwest Asia. Military pressure and unilateral actions by the US, Japan, or South Korea would only further spur North Korea’s determination to have nuclear weapons. Any American or South Korean military actions on the Korean Peninsula, without cooperation from China and Russia, would most likely escalate out of control. While North Korea is unlikely to agree to termination of its nuclear capacity, an agreement that persuades North Korea to freeze its existing capacity, as the nuclear deal with Iran was trying to achieve, would be more beneficial than the current policy of threats and military exercises.
Moon’s electoral victory demonstrates that despite the populism that overthrew former President Park, populism in South Korea has not taken a nativist or chauvinist turn. Domestic support can, therefore, lay a strong foundation for Moon’s return to engagement. Despite this, however, lack of results on nuclear disarmament may incite the populace to turn against Moon and his policy of engagement, just as it did a decade ago. It is also important to note that public frustration due to lack of progress was also what led former President Park’s to introduce the THAAD missile. The South Korean people’s continued suspicion of China, especially in the aftermath of the THAAD fallout and perceived bullying, will likely speed up the frustration process with Moon’s new administration.
Northeast Asia continues to be a region of high tensions, nuclear proliferation, and power contests. The new South Korean government will likely have to fight an uphill and difficult battle against both its allies and dialogue partners while contending with a volatile North Korea. Moon’s engagement policies are unlikely to overcome the political inertia and distrust that permeate the region. The alternative, however, is increasing tensions, greater power competition, and nuclear proliferation. While the likelihood is small, engagement has historically worked better than confrontations in lowering tensions. From Nixon’s visit to China in 1979 to Obama’s engagement policies with Iran and Myanmar, both have been more successful than previous policies of confrontation. While the world, and South Koreans, should not be misled about what Moon’s engagement can achieve, we should also be optimistic in that it can at least improve the current situation.
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