South Korea swore in its new president last night after Moon Jae-in beat his conservative opponents, Hong Joon-Pyo and Ahn Cheol-soo by a landslide. Jae-in is South Korea’s first democratic president in over 10 years, and a major shift in inter-Korean policy is expected to change the political climate in the peninsula significantly.
Moon Jae-in vowed to implement an engagement orientated system and will negotiate with its principal ally, the United States, as well as its top trading partner, China. Moon Jae-in is concerned about the military build-up in the Korean peninsula, including the controversial presence of an advanced U.S. Navy armada carrying state-of-the-art missile defense systems.
Moon Jae-in used his victory speech as an opportunity to reiterate his commitment to peace between the South and North of the Korean peninsula.
“I will quickly move to solve the crisis in national security. I am willing to go anywhere for the peace of the Korean Peninsula — if needed, I will fly immediately to Washington. I will go to Beijing, and I will go to Tokyo. If the conditions shape up, I will go to Pyongyang.”
This action could prove to be a significant hurdle to President Donald Trump’s aggressive foreign policy objectives towards North Korea. Trump is attempting to stop Kim Jong-un’s nuclear missile program to safeguard the United States, as well as its ally, South Korea.
In addition to the U.S. Navy presence, President Trump’s approach to North Korea’s provocations has also included cutting off financial aid to Kim Jong-un’s regime, as well as foiling missile launches with advanced digital disruption technology. According to Mr. Trump, engagement with North Korea is futile as long as Kim Jong-un continues to threaten U.S. national security.
Last week U.S. State Department officials were briefed on the Korean situation by Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. As far as Secretary Tillerson is concerned, the strategy is focused on a pressure campaign in the form of a metaphorical “knob.” Right now Mr. Tillerson says the button is sitting at a setting of “five or six,” as North Korea repeatedly defies U.S. requests for nuclear disarmament.
Mr. Tillerson will also be calling on nations around the world to “fully implement the United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding sanctions because no one has ever fully implemented those.”
South Korea – a major power in the region – is a crucial United States ally. However, the election of President Moon Jae-in is threatening to destabilize the allegiance between the two countries. For more than a decade, Moon Jae-in has been an avid proponent of a Korean peace policy called the “Sunshine Policy.”
The term “Sunshine Policy” is inspired by Aesop’s fable, “The Sun and the Wind,” which tells the story of a traveler who is urged by the Sun to remove his coat after having made it warm enough for him. President Moon Jae-in’s predecessors, Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-hyun, favored forward-leaning engagement policies which ushered in the “Sunshine Era” in South Korea’s policy towards North Korea.
Kim Dae-Jung’s “Sunshine I” strategy differed from that of Roh Moo-hyun’s “Sunshine II” in that Dae-Jung viewed a revision of North Korea’s systems as a way to pave the way for national unification. Roh Moo-hyun, on the other hand, preferred an appeasement policy of acquiring external peace as a means to achieve domestic change.
President Moon Jae-in shares the sentiments of his predecessors, but it is not yet clear whether he will pursue either of their versions or design his own “Sunshine III” action plan. His approach is critical to the sustainability of current U.S. sanctions against North Korea.
Moon Jae-in believes that the United States approach to North Korea’s nuclear provocations has been largely ineffective, and argued that peace talks are a better way to go about deescalating the mounting tensions. President Moon made his intentions blatantly clear when he urged South Koreans to “embrace the North Korean people to achieve peaceful reunification one day.”
South Korea’s most recent presidents, both of whom were conservatives, were strictly aligned with the U.S. international sanctions strategy. China will no doubt welcome Mr. Moon’s starkly different ideological stance, as the North Korean ally’s President Xi Jinping has repeatedly called for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
The New York Times reported that David Straub, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, warned that the “serious policy differences between the U.S. and South Korean presidents” over the North Korean matter could result in “significantly increased popular dissatisfaction with the United States in South Korea.”
Donald Trump is under pressure to make good on his vow to end the conflict in the Korean peninsula. Relations between South Korea and the U.S. could become severely strained if Trump insists on pursuing an aggressive military strategy in the region.
Duyeon Kim, a prominent fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine that “South Koreans are more concerned that Trump, rather than North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, will make a rash military move, because of his outrageous tweets, threats of force and unpredictability.”
[Featured Image by Lee Jin-man, Wong Maye-E/AP Images]