Challenges Before New South Korean President – Analysis

South Koreans could not have chosen a better candidate than Moon Jae-in for the presidency, considering the current tense political and strategic situation of the Peninsula.

By K. V. Kesavan

The election of Moon Jae-in as the next President of the Republic of Korea has not only put an end to the prolonged political uncertainty created by the scandal-ridden administration of the previous President Park Geun-hye, but has also brought the Liberals back to power after a gap of one decade. This election was conducted under extraordinary circumstances which saw the nation sharply polarised following the corrupt administration of Park Geun-hye.

Consistent with Moon’s political orientations, his election campaign raised several expectations in terms of Seoul’s attitude towards North Korea, its alliance with the US, its policy towards China and Japan.

Considering the current tense political and strategic situation of the Peninsula, South Koreans could not have chosen a better candidate than Moon Jae-in for the presidency. A liberal by temperament, Moon during the election campaign raised the expectation that he could rally the country under his leadership and move in the direction of the much needed reconciliation among the different sections of the Korean people. Though he garnered only 41% of the votes cast, he was way ahead of his rival candidates. The conservatives who had ruled the country for 10 years are now in total disarray due to the close nexus they had with the strong business world and the consequent vested interests it created. In particular, President Park Geun-hye’s administration was marked by stark abuse of power that undermined governance.

It is important to note that the electoral success does not seem to have made Moon unduly euphoric. Rather, he appears to have clearly understood the challenges that he is going to face in the coming days. At home, the first and foremost task of President Moon is to project a new vision of his administration that could win the trust of the people. He called on the political parties to keep the national interests of the country above their narrow political ends and move forward with “our hands locked in each others.” He promised to reduce the powers of the President by setting himself as a role model. A true political transformation would be possible only when the President takes initiatives in establishing “trustworthy politics”. He promised that he would be an incorruptible President “who moves in and out of office with clean hands.”

As an experienced politician, Moon understands that though the conservative opponents have lost the election, their continuing role in the Korean politics cannot be ignored. Even in the presidential election, the two major conservative rivals — Hong Jun-pyo of the Liberal Korea Party and Yoo Seong-min of the breakaway Bareun Part — garnered 24% and 7% of the popular votes. There is also wide speculation that the two may get merged in due course and that could pose serious challenges to the Moon administration. The political reality in South Korea is that despite the scandal ridden administration of Park, the conservatives still were able to get almost one third of the vote in the presidential election.

In the National Assembly, Moon’s party has only 120 seats out of the total of 300 whereas the conservative Liberty Korea has 107 and the other conservative breakaway party, Bareun, has 20 seats.

According to the National Assembly Law, legislative bills and nomination of important appointments, including that of the prime minister, must be approved by a three-fifth majority vote in the House. Since Moon’s party has only 120 seats in the House, and falls short of the requisite strength, this hurdle will pose a major challenge at least in the short term.

As for foreign policy, Moon has to display his statesmanship and diplomatic skills to measure up to a set of extremely complex issues. To seriously pursue his election promise on seeking a rapprochement with North Korea is the single most critical issue that will draw his utmost attention. As one who was associated with the two past Liberal administrations that promoted closer political and economic engagement with Pyongyang under the Sunshine Policy, Moon still believes in the efficacy of that approach. In his inaugural address, he emphasised his conciliatory approach and resolved to work for peace in in the Korean Peninsula. In pursuance of accomplishing this goal, he expressed his willingness to visit the US, China, Japan and even North Korea.

But most analysts see too much of ‘idealism’ in Moon’s inaugural address and believe that his optimism is somewhat misplaced under the prevailing conditions. The nuclear weapons and missile programmes of North Korea have gone too far and there is no indication on the part of Kim Jong-un of even a slight change of attitude towards the new dispensation in Seoul. On the contrary, tensions have intensified following the 14 May ballistic missile test conducted by Pyongyang.

As an ally, South Korea follows the US strategy of seeking to end the nuclear ambitions of North Korea, but it also worries about some of the hawkish and unpredictable aspects of President Trump’s administration. Many in South Korea wonder how Moon will be able to carry forward his peaceful approach to Pyongyang in the midst of the global condemnation of Pyongyang.

Another issue that is going to test Moon’s government is over America’s deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system, designed to provide South Korea a defensive shield against North Korean missiles. China has strongly criticised the THAAD on the ground that it could undermine its own security interests. Even during the election campaign, Moon had expressed his reservations on the THAAD and promised to conduct negotiations with the US to find a solution. Considering the sensitivities of China which is also Seoul’s biggest trading partner, Moon would strive hard to maintain a delicate balance in Korea’s relations with both Washington and Beijing.

Another issue that will engage Moon’s immediate attention is how to improve relations with Japan. Though both Japan and South Korea are long-standing allies of the US, their relations have been estranged in recent years mainly due to their differing perceptions on historical issues. This has even affected their common interest in promoting regional security. During the previous presidency, Park Geun-hye went rather too far in fostering closer relations with China. President Moon does not appear to modify that policy. He is not happy with the 2015 agreement between Tokyo and Seoul on the issue of comfort women. However, he has appointed a pro-Japanese politician Lee Nak-yon as the new Prime Minister. Further, he has also sent a special envoy to Japan to convey his desire to renew the old ‘shuttle diplomacy’ that would encourage the top leaders of the two countries to meet frequently. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his colleagues would surely welcome a new era of better understanding and mutual cooperation between the two countries.

Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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