The election of Moon Jae-in signifies greater geopolitical responsibility for South Korea in the future.
After a few months of being in office, President Trump has not inspired confidence that he can lead on international crises. His intended leadership on regional strategy in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions is particularly troubling. Trump risks doing untold damage to the Korean Peninsula and the Asia-Pacific (as well as US interests there) through strategic mistakes, temperamental blunders, intelligence leaks, and general hot-headedness. Fortunately, the recent election of South Korean President Moon Jae-in offers an opportunity to restore stable leadership on the question of North Korea.
The first four months of the Trump presidency have been tumultuous at best and disastrous at worst for US foreign policy. Trump has proven himself to be unprofessional, and perhaps unstable, in his interactions with foreign leaders. His disposition to act on instinct without proper contemplation or consideration of advice has already had dangerous consequences, like the botched Yemen raid and the leaking of classified intelligence to Russian officials at the White House. The president, although occasionally capable of competency in world affairs, cannot be trusted to consistently lead the US well on geopolitical issues. If Trump wants to avoid geopolitical catastrophes, he must seek stronger input from US allies with more experienced and tempered leaders.
Unfortunately, in his dealings with North Korea, Trump has done the exact opposite by marginalizing South Korea. Trump has used notably grandiloquent language towards North Korea. To counter North Korea’s nuclear arsenal development, he warned that the Obama policy of “strategic patience” has ended and that, according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, “All options are on the table.” By taking such an ardent position on the North Korean issue during a time of domestic political instability in South Korea, Trump has, through his choice of language, magnified US policy towards North Korea and understated the importance of South Korea in building more constructive ties with the North. The United States, and not South Korea, is currently making major decisions on North Korea strategy. Moon may be just the man to reassert South Korea’s role in geopolitical affairs in the Asia-Pacific and solve the dangers that Trump’s unorthodox brashness poses.
In early May, Moon, the candidate of the liberal Democratic Party, won the South Korean presidential election in a landslide after the impeachment (on corruption and bribery charges) of the conservative Park Geun-hye. Moon carries a refreshingly unique background among international leaders today. A son of North Korean refugees, Moon was arrested and imprisoned in the 1970s after protesting the dictatorial rule of then-president Park Chung-hee (Park Geun-hye’s father); he later worked in human rights law and lost a close election to Park Geun-hye in 2012. Moon’s ascendancy to the presidency will undoubtedly clash with the foreign policy initiatives of the Trump administration, particularly concerning North Korea. Nevertheless, Moon should lead South Korea to assume greater regional responsibility in the Korean Peninsula, and the Asia-Pacific at large, instead of bowing to US authority.
Park Geun-hye advocated a hardline approach to dealing with North Korea, but Moon Jae-in has different ideas. Park’s approach to South Korean relations was largely in accord with the foreign policies of the Obama administration; she reaffirmed South Korea’s support for US global and regional leadership and joined Barack Obama in condemning North Korea’s missile tests over the years and imposing sanctions on North as a consequence. But Moon and Trump are drastically different characters than their predecessors, and South Korea-US relations will be extremely challenging to maintain in the years to come. The two sides will have to resolve their differences quickly and efficiently to maintain strong relations moving forward, but Moon cannot allow Trump’s domineering influence to minimize South Korea’s role in the relationship.
As chief of staff for former president Roh Moo-hyun, Moon assisted with the implementation of the “Sunshine Policy” towards North Korea. Lasting from 1998 to 2008, South Korea’s Sunshine Policy aimed to facilitate stronger ties between North and South Korea through humanitarian aid provisions and increased economic interaction. It sought to bridge the gaps between the two cultures. Unfortunately, the strategy proved largely unsuccessful, as it failed to stymie North Korea’s aggressive and cavalier nuclear pursuits. A South Korean government report in 2010 found that there were “no positive changes to North Korea’s position that correspond to the support and cooperation offered” by South Korea, as evidenced by North Korea’s continued pursuit of nuclear arms and the sinking of a South Korean navy ship in 2010.
Presidents Trump and Moon are in agreement that North Korea’s continued nuclear development poses a threat to security in the Asia-Pacific and throughout the world. They also agree that certain sanctions against North Korea ought to remain in place. But Moon wants to bring back aspects of the Sunshine Policy as president, hoping to deter North Korean aggression while simultaneously rebuilding the derelict relationship between the two countries and seeking greater harmony on the Korean Peninsula.
Such reconciliatory intentions are greatly at odds with professed stances of the Trump administration. Trump has repeatedly vowed to match North Korea’s aggression with aggressive words and policies of his own. So far, he has certainly done so. Though his presidency is young, Trump has already relocated US naval forces to South Korea, while Tillerson has openly raised the question of pre-emptive military strikes against North Korea. Trump and Moon appear to be united in their interest to negotiate with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un directly, but their policy methods are worlds apart.
The installment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) antimissile defense system by the US military in South Korea is one major potential source of difference in relations between Trump and Moon. The THAAD system was jointly approved by President Park Geun-hye and President Obama as an immediate deterrent to North Korea. However, some in South Korea argue that THAAD will only paint a clearer target on their country rather than ensuring its protection. Leading up to the South Korean election, Moon was vocally critical of THAAD, noting that it would be irresponsible to deploy the system given the lack of a strong “democratic process, an environmental assessment, or a public hearing” as part of THAAD deliberations. As Moon’s probability of victory grew, the US military, aware of Moon’s opposition to THAAD, escalated its installation timeline despite protests. Although the THAAD system is currently operational, Moon and Trump will certainly have to negotiate its continued existence (something that apparently has not yet transpired).
Moon’s concern over the Trump administration exerting pressure on South Korea to conform to US expectations has not gone unnoticed. Trump generated intense controversy in South Korea when he claimed in late April that South Korea should pay for the installation of the THAAD system (an estimated $1 billion in costs). Moon countered that the system was expedited and constructed against the democratic wishes of the South Korean people. In fact, Moon expressed in an interview with the Washington Post that he had “reservations” about the US potentially interfering with the South Korean election by pushing for THAAD’s installation. Indeed, considering how THAAD became a central issue in the election, Moon would be wise to remain wary of how the US under Trump might try to exploit their countries’ alliance to assert US-led policies in the Korean Peninsula at the expense of South Korean interests and concerns.
If Trump tries to bully Moon into submitting to US demands, Moon should stand up for himself and for his country. Both sides understand the importance of their alliance’s continuing strength, but Moon won the South Korean presidential election resoundingly because he promised change for his country on both domestic and foreign policies. Moon cannot backtrack from those promises and expect the same positive geopolitical results South Korea needs right now, given Trump’s inability to lead appropriately on the international stage.
The South Korea-US alliance is unlikely to shatter over Moon’s and Trump’s differences in personality and policy. Although they are farther apart than Trump and Japanese president Shinzo Abe are with regards to the US-Japan Security Alliance, Trump and Moon know that US-South Korea relations are just as vital to regional stability in the Asia-Pacific and to containing the North Korean threat. Even so, Moon will not acquiesce to every Trump demand. During the campaign, Moon articulated his belief that South Korea “must lead the efforts to solve problems related to the (Korean) peninsula” and that “allies and neighboring countries, including the United States, should take on a role to support” South Korea’s initiative. Judging Moon’s record, he has a proclivity to “say no” to the US. Combined with the seemingly impulsive actions of the Trump administration, Moon will have an opening to seize an increased role for South Korea in dialogue with the North and build better diplomatic ties between the two without risking a Trumpian debacle.
Both Moon and Trump have noted that they would be willing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un if the circumstances were proper. No US president has ever met with a North Korean dictator, while two South Korean presidents (Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun) met with Kim Jong-il in 2000 and 2007 at the Inter-Korean Summits. Moon has an excellent opportunity to take the initiative and meet with Kim independent from the Trump administration. If Moon reinstates the Sunshine Policy and actively works to reopen conversations between the two Koreas—especially by meeting Kim Jong-un, even without Trump in attendance—he could reassert South Korea’s diplomatic leadership and international credibility. Setting up such a meeting before Moon visits the White House in June would send a clear message that while South Korea will respect US power in the Asia-Pacific, Moon will not be held beholden to Trump. Instead, he will work to carve out South Korea’s own national trajectory.
In order to avoid a Trump-inspired disaster on the Korean Peninsula and broach the North Korean issue successfully, Moon must exercise his political mandate and lead South Korea onward during a time of heightened worry and speculation among his people. As Moon himself has said, South Korea cannot “take a back seat” in discussions with other nations, be it China, North Korea, the US or Japan, because “South Korea taking the initiative would eventually strengthen” the South Korea-US alliance. Moon must not submit to the pressure that the Trump administration will undoubtedly place upon him. He must not retract his previous stances on North Korea. If he does so, he will share in the woes of a strategy planned and executed by Donald Trump. He must not pass on the opportunity to dramatically reshape the Korean Peninsula’s future—and the Asia-Pacific at large—through a new South Korean foreign policy strategy aimed at empowering South Korea rather than fulfilling Trump’s desires.
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Aman Tiku is a second year majoring in history and political science. Last summer, Aman interned at the FDA working on social science research projects. He writes a column on political developments in the Asia-Pacific at the Gate, having lived abroad for much of his life as an American citizen. On campus, he also serves as a Staff Editor on The University of Chicago Journal of Human Rights.