The power vacuum in South Korea has finally been filled after a corruption scandal led to the removal of Park Geun-hye in March. Moon Jae-in was sworn in Wednesday as South Korea’s President. Moon, who is decidedly more liberal than his predecessor, has taken a more diplomatic approach to the North Korea situation.
I will urgently try to solve the security crisis. If needed, I will fly straight to Washington. I will go to Beijing and Tokyo and, if conditions are right, to Pyongyang also.
President Moon has also appointed Suh Hoon as the head of the National Intelligence Service and Lee Nak-yon as prime minister. That appointment is still awaiting parliamentary approval. These appointments, both veterans of Korean politics, have ties to the “Sunshine Policy” of the early 2000s, which sought peaceful coexistence with the North. While the Sunshine Policy was officially declared a failure, these appointments could hint at a kinder, gentler approach to the North.
Ultimately, Moon Jae-in’s change of course stands to undermine U.S. efforts in dealing with North Korea. President Moon has questioned the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) systems in South Korea and has criticized the system’s deployment before the election, arguing that it took away the new government’s ability to make a decision on the matter.
The current U.S. strategy on North Korea appears to be one of pressure and isolation. President Trump has called on China’s President Xi Jinping to step up their efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear program. China, North Korea’s closest ally, understands the need for regional stability but opposes the aggressive tactics taken by the United States.
President Moon has already hit the ground running with calls to Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe, whose government has lobbied for greater defensive capabilities, warned Moon “dialogue for dialogue’s sake would be meaningless” without “sincere and concrete action” on the part of North Korea.
China, on the other hand, immediately pressed President Moon on the issue of THAAD. Despite previous criticism of the system, South Korea’s president has stated that North Korea must end their provocations before the THAAD issue can be resolved.
The United States now finds itself in a position similar to what many world leaders faced when President Trump took office. There is a new sheriff in town, and he does things differently. Just as the rest of the world waited (and still waits) to see exactly how President Trump’s policies will affect previous agreements and strategies, so too must the United States navigate the new policies of President Moon Jae-in.
President Moon is not only ideologically different than his predecessor, but a certain level of distancing is required on his part. Park Geun-hye was ousted due to a corruption scandal that shook South Korea’s faith in their government. President Moon must differentiate himself enough from President Park that he regains some of the faith and trust many South Koreans lost in the office of the President.
As President Moon Jae-in becomes acquainted with his new role, his plans and policies on North Korea will become clearer. In the meantime, it is safe to say that South Korea will take a more conciliatory approach to the North and that we can expect to see an effort to engage and interact on a more diplomatic level.
Whether Kim Jong-un will cooperate is, of course, another matter.
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