South Korea: Tumultuous Journey Ahead For Moon Jae-In – Analysis


The election of Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea as the new president of South Korea is the second conservative-to-liberal transition of power in South Korea’s democratic history. What makes this transition significant is that it takes place at a time of escalating tensions in the Korean peninsula owing to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and the bellicose posture that has been adopted by President Donald Trump.

A liberal president in South Korea comes as a counterpoint as Moon has made his intension known that he would pursue a policy of engagement and dialogue with North Korea as a means to addressing the nuclear issue. Such a policy stance by Moon is likely to crease fissure in the South Korea-US ties and could impact the alliance relationship. In the midst of such tumultuous developments that catapulted Moon to the office of President and brought disgrace to Park Guen-hye because of her scandalous involvement in bribery and corruption, what is often overlooked is the triumph of democracy and victory of popular will of the people of South Korea who craved for a change and opted for a clean government. Now the journey for Moon does not appear smooth.

Shadow of History

Given the historical hangover from which both Japan and South Korea continue to suffer, where does Japan fit in to craft a policy of adjustment with the Moon administration even when he tries to reach out to North Korea and leave North Korea’s nuclear threat to an uncertain future? The issue gets further complicated as both Japan and South Korea are allies and are expected to cooperate with the US and at a time when Trump has chosen to pursue a belligerent approach towards North Korea. In such an evolving scenario, there could be either of the two possibilities: North Korea responds to Moon’s peace overtures or feels more emboldened and enhances its bargaining leverage to extract maximum concession from the outside world. In such a situation, who falls into whose trap remains in confusion.

For Japan this could be a welcome prospect. Even while the administration of Abe Shinzo is preparing itself to bolster the country’s defence preparedness to secure Japan from potential external threats in the future, Moon’s dovish approach towards North Korea could provide some temporary relief to Japan’s worry if Pyongyang responds to Moon’s peace overtures. But the security issue and the perceived external threat is not the only worry of Japan vis-à-vis South Korea.

Both suffer from the shadow of history and some of the issues such as comfort women still remain unresolved. Abe could probably feel more comfortable to see a liberal president at the helm in South Korea than a conservative one. Of all the conservative presidents in South Korea, Park Guen-hye was the most unresponsive one even though Abe many a times extended hands of friendship but without success. Will things change under Moon so far as Japan-South Korea ties are concerned?

While focusing on the political reforms and seeks ways to boost growth and addressing to the unemployment issues domestically, in the foreign policy domain, the North Korean issue is likely to hog the limelight. This essay makes an attempt to analyse what the foreign policy stand that President Moon would choose on North Korea vis-à-vis South Korea’s relations with other stake-holding countries.

Aiming to emulate German model

First, Moon’s North Korea policy and his stated policy of engagement, with possibility of reviving the old Sunshine Policy. Moon is likely to draw some inspiration from the liberal foreign-policy thinking of former Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003). Kim was inspired by how the Cold War had ended without major upheaval and sought ways to engage with North Korea directly to bring to an end the confrontation by non-violent and peaceful manner. His Sunshine policy of direct engagement with the North was pursued by his successor Roh Moo-hyun, the last liberal president and Moon’s close friend and mentor. Kim was inspired by the initiative by then West Germany’s policy of direct engagement, or Ostpolitik, with East Germany in the last decades of the Cold War which culminated with the German reunification.

It may be remembered that then Germany Chancellor Willy Brandt began pursuing Ostpolitic in the 1970s, which his successor Helmut Kohl pursued after he came to power in 1982. This was not to overlook the fact that West Germany did not face any difficulty to integrate the East into a single Germany. But that difficulty was successfully overcome as East’s financial dependence gave significant political leverage to West Germany to play its reunification card.

Can such a scenario be visualised in the Korean Peninsula, a beginning of which could be the revival of the Sunshine Policy? The truism is that the situation in the Korean Peninsula is incomparable with what existed in Germany. East Germany never threatened West Germany, where as North Korea always threatens to attack the South. Moon and the liberals blame the conservative rulers Lee Myung-bak and Park Guen-hye, both of whom alienated the North and created a hiatus by abandoning the Sunshine Policy and opted for a hard-line approach, which is why North Korea’s dependence on China increased. This created a situation in which the US and South Korea started depending on China and urged it to rein in the North Korean regime, a purpose that the Sunshine Policy could have achieved, the liberals argue.

The liberals also argue that during the Kim and Roh eras, North Korea had not become a de facto nuclear power and therefore blame the conservatives that by alienating the North, they indirectly pushed it on the nuclear path. Such a new situation could pose bigger challenge to Moon to implement his Sunshine Policy. As for now, it is unclear what exact form and under what conditions Moon would approach the North to offer his carrot.

Protecting the Alliance relationship

By opting to engage with North Korea, Moon has to handle his policy extremely carefully not as to adversely impact the alliance relationship with the US, which has to remain as the bedrock of his diplomacy. Any peace overtures towards the North by the Moon administration has to be premised on prior consultation with the US as the nuclear issue is not merely bilateral one but has regional and global significance. This being so, Moon can afford to play safe in engaging with the North by promoting inter-Korean cooperation on social and environmental issues that fall outside the scope of international sanctions.

The liberals argue that the conservatives cut off all contacts with the North during the past decade of its rule, thereby compromised the national goal of peaceful reunification by merely harping on denuclearization. The liberals’ perspective is that by remaining engaged with the North can the South expect to create the right situation for eventual peaceful reunification. Seen from this perspective, Moon is likely to adopt a two-pronged strategy whereby denuclearisation and engagement could go side by side with the aim of achieving eventual reunification.

Notwithstanding Trump’s bellicosity and rumoured conspiracy to assassinate Kim Jong-un, a possible regime change cannot be an option. The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made this clear during his visit to Asia. Since Moon is not questioning the need to keep sanctions in place, there could be no disagreement with the US on this. It is unclear however if North Korea shall respond to Moon’s such carrot and stick policy.

Much so however one might seek to endorse Moon’s peace overtures, his North Korea strategy is bound to come into conflict with Trump’s policy that pushes a distinctly harsher strategy to rein in the Kim regime. Moon’s dovish approach is likely to put him at odds with Trump’s choice of more sanctions and threat of military force.

China factor

The issue is larger and more complicated than it appears. The conservative governments in South Korea had warmed up relations with China at a time when Beijing-Pyongyang ties had soured. Trump showed hostility towards China but soon became soft as he wanted China to leverage to stop North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

Though Moon’s policy to build bonhomie with the North would not directly impact Beijing, it could impact on US-China relations and could frustrate Trump’s North Korean strategy through Beijing. Beijing however would never rejoice Moon’s long term goal of achieving reunification through engagement and Sunshine Policy as a reunified Korean peninsula across its border could be against its strategic interests. Beijing will surely work against such a possibility as it would bring US forces closer to the border. At the same time, Beijing would not rejoice with the prospect of a regime collapse for fear of millions of refugees crossing the border and add to its internal problems. A divided Korean peninsula suits China and it would continue to craft its policy accordingly. In this scenario, Moon’s challenges are going to be multi-fold.

Revisiting Sunshine Policy

What does revisiting the Sunshine policy mean? Simply put, it means pursuing diplomacy and economic cooperation as a means to reduce cross-border tensions, and induce Pyongyang to abandon its weapons program and, eventually pave the way to Korean reunification.

With this in mind, Moon pledged to restart the Kaesong Industrial Zone, a jointly operated industrial park situated just north of the border, and sightseeing tours to a scenic North Korean mountain. Both were shut down by the preceding conservative administrations. Such a move by Moon could be seen as undermining the UN sanctions and how he is going to justify reorienting approach towards North Korea remains unknown. Moon has also expressed the desire to meet Kim Jong-un under the right conditions, thereby emulating Presidents Roh and Kim, both of whom met with second-generation Kim Jong-il, the present North Korean leader’s father.

The past administrations of Roh and Kim had provided some $4.5 billion in aid to North Korea in order to improve ties, which the North used to a large extent on weapons program and nuclear advancement. It is feared therefore that Kim Jong-un may repeat the same if Moon government comes up with liberal doles and financial package in order to wean it away from its nuclear path.

A national security analyst and former South Korean army veteran former Brigadier General Song Dae-sung observes: “Many people are indignant about a return to the past because the money the South gave to North Korea became weapons for killing South Koreans”. He further says: “Moon Jae-in and the supporters of ‘sunshine’ think of South Koreans and North Korea as one people, and believe North Korea’s feelings of fraternity will stop it from ever using weapons of mass destruction on the South. But this is not the truth”.

Such sentiments demonstrate that President Moon is likely to face major obstacles at home. Such sentiments could gather steam once the anti-Park plank start which helped Moon to move to the Blue House starts dissipating. It is then Moon would be compelled to shed some of his pro-North Korea enthusiasm and go along with the international voice to punish the North.


Moon is also concerned that the THAAD deployment strained ties with South Korea’s top trading partner China. China is opposed to THAAD and therefore imposed a series of measures seen as economic retaliation over the deployment. China feels that THAAD’s powerful radars allow Washington to spy on its own military operations. Trump demanded that South Korea pay one billion dollars for the THAAD deployment, which South Korea rejected. Moon has vowed to review the Park government’s decision to host the THAAD. He feels that the decision to deploy THAAD was rushed by circumventing proper democratic process and feels the incoming government was deprived of a chance to consider its merit. Besides China and Russia, there was strong domestic opposition to the deployment of the missile shield.

As if to adding fuel to the fire, Trump enraged many Koreans by suggesting that Seoul should pay $1 billion. Though the South Korean government quickly rejected this demand, arguing that there was no such provision in the agreement to deploy THAAD, this left a sour note in the bilateral ties. Trump’s incoherent statements on security issues have at times raised doubts among allies if the US really remains committed to its security obligations.

Dealing with China’s opposition to THAAD could be more problematic for Moon. Korea has a bitter historical past in its relations with China. China did not hesitate to intervene in the past whenever it “viewed the Korean Peninsula as a potential beachhead for an invading maritime power”. First Chinese intervention in the Korean Peninsula came in 1592, when Japan prepared to attack the Ming Dynasty by first subduing Choson (Joseon) Dynasty Korea. It was repeated again during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894, and then again during the Korean War in 1950-53. Despite such bitter history, the liberals in Korea of today hope to get China’s cooperation to achieve reunification. While the Moon administration is expected to maintain the alliance relationship with the US, it is expected to allay the Chinese apprehension that THAAD deployment has breached into its security by trying to convince Beijing that it is a temporary measure and that it shall be removed if denuclearisation of North Korea is achieved.

Pyongyang Tests Moon by Missile firing

Even when the new President is yet to settle in office, and despite enough indications of his pursuance of an engagement strategy towards North Korea and possible revival of the Sunshine Policy, North Korea test-launched a ballistic missile in a direct challenge to Moon elected just four days before.

The missile flew some 800 km (500 miles) before landing in the Sea of Japan. Preliminary examination of the missile by the US Pacific Command said that the flight was “not consistent with an intercontinental ballistic missile”. The real worry is Pyongyang is consistently working to master the technology needed to field nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the US mainland. Irrespective of the type of the missile, the launch poses a worry to Moon who had prioritised North Korea above domestic economic agenda.

As usual, condemnation followed. Trump administration called the launch unacceptable and repeated threats of military action. Moon called an emergency national security meeting but avoided making any statement on the launch. Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo reacted to the launch as “absolutely unacceptable” and that Japan shall respond resolutely.

The missile was believed to have been fired from near Kusong in North Phyongan province. Past satellite rocket launches have been called clandestine tests of ICBM technology, but it is not believed to have tested a true intercontinental ballistic missile yet. North Korea has remained consistent in its stand that it will continue to bolster its nuclear capability unless the US abandons its hostile policy. The launch came as troops from the US, Japan and two European nations gathered on remote US islands in the Pacific for drills aimed as a message to North Korea. The USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft super-carrier, is also engaging with South Korean navy ships in waters off the Korean Peninsula. Between the previous liberal era a decade ago and now, North Korea has made considerable advance in its nuclear program. This in itself could put immense constraint on the part of Moon to be able to return to the type of Sunshine policies that he envisages.

Way Ahead

Moon’s intentions could be sincere and honest but the journey ahead is too bumpy. If he is able to manage relations with the US, China and Japan properly and get them on board to reach out an understanding on North Korea, he would leave a statesmanlike footprint in history. But events and stances chosen by the stakeholders could ensure that Moon can never have that honour. For now, he has at least an opportunity to try.

*Professor (Dr.) Panda is currently Indian Council for Cultural Relations India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent either of the ICCR or the Government of India.  E-mail: [email protected]

Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, Former Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a think tank under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Former ICCR India Chair Professor, Reitaku University, Japan, and former Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi E-mail: [email protected]

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