Vol. XLI No. 25 June 18, 2017

South Korea’s New President Aims to Restore Calm in the Korean Peninsula

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE victory of Moon Jae-in, former trade unionist and human rights activist in South Korea's presidential polls with a large majority, is the first bit of refreshing news to come out of the Korean peninsula this year. The region has been witnessing political turmoil and military tensions since last year. The newly elected president had vowed on the campaign trail that his first priory would be to restore calm in the Korean peninsula. The Americans were threatening war against North Korea with belligerent statements coming from the American president and his top officials, in the last couple of weeks. The Trump administration had used the North Korea bogey to install the Terminal High Altitude Advanced Defense (Thaad) missile system on Korean soil in April this year. The opposition parties had objected to the installation of the sophisticated anti-missile system.

Their installation has come in for strong criticism from China and Russia. Beijing says that the installation of the Thaad system will undermine its nuclear and defense capabilities along the country's southern coast. Beijing had taken diplomatic and economic steps against Seoul after the previous conservative government had agreed to its speedy installation. Big spending Chinese tourists stopped coming to South Korea. The country had become one of the favourite destinations of Chinese tourists. The Chinese public had also started boycotting South Korean products. China is South Korea's biggest trading partner. The new president had strongly signaled his objections to the Thaad missiles. President Donald Trump, added injury to insult, when he demanded that the South Korean government pay for the expensive defense system estimated to cost more than $1 billion.

The center-left Democratic Party of President Moon Jae-in had described the Thaad deployment as “a total failure of diplomacy”. On the campaign trail, he had called for the immediate suspension of the Thaad deployment. He had said at the time that the Americans had “sneaked” the missile system in when the country was in the midst of an election campaign. One of the first things he did after taking office in the second week of May was to talk to the top leadership in Beijing in a bid to allay their serious misgivings on the real purposes of locating the Thaad system so close to their borders.

More importantly, President Moon after taking office, has pledged to restore the “sunshine policy” that was first initiated under President Kim Dae-jung, the first left of center president elected by the South Koreans in 1998. The policy encouraged dialogue, family reunion and economic engagement with the North. The Kaesong industrial park was set up in the North with the South Korean conglomerates investing heavily in the project. Kim Dae-jung became the first South Korean leader to visit the North and meet with the leadership there. Tensions between the North and the South had considerably diminished when the policy was in place. The coming to power of a conservative reactionary government in 2008 put a brake on the policy. It was his disgraced predecessor, Park Gyeun-hee, who completely disengaged with the North by ordering the closing up of the Kaesong industrial park, last year.

The new president has indicated that one of his first priorities will be to reopen the industrial park in order to send a conciliatory message to the North. During the nine years of conservative rule, South Korea acting in tandem with the United States only threatened punitive sanctions on the North without offering any carrots in return. Moon, if his statements after taking office are anything to go by, is determined to chart a new foreign policy course for his country. The president when he was running for office had said on several occasions that South Koreans will have “to learn to say no” to Washington.

But cutting the umbilical cord from Washington is easier said than done. His close friend and ideological mentor, Roh Moo-hyun, who was president from 2003 to 2008 had also promised that he would not “kowtow to the Americans”. Though he stuck to the sunshine policy, he was arm twisted by Washington into sending troops to the Iraq war and sign a free trade agreement with the United States. Trump now says that deal was a bad one for America and he wants to renegotiate it. Trump has also repeatedly stated that he wants South Korea to spend more on its own defense and share the costs of hosting the American military on its soil.

Though Moon had repeatedly warned against the imposition of the Thaad system on Koreans before the election, he may now find it difficult to get it removed without seriously rupturing the country's long standing military alliance with the United States. He has on many occasions said that he is inclined to review the Thaad deal. The Thaad system may be theoretically able to protect the United States and Japan from a North Korean attack but the South will be a sitting duck. With Seoul located less than 50 kilometers from the border with the North, any war would lead to the devastation of the capital and the surrounding areas. More than 50 per cent of the country's population is located in this zone. In the second week of June, Moon announced that he was suspending the further deployment of Thaad on Korean soil. The two systems that have already been deployed will stay for the time being.

There is a clause in the US-South Korean Mutual Defense Treaty of 1953 which states that the two parties are committed to try to solve “any international dispute” by peaceful means and “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations”. President Moon while dealing with the Trump administration will no doubt put a great deal of emphasis on this particular point. President Trump is threatening that he will solve the problem with North Korea “one way or the other”. After his bellicose statements in April had apparently no impact on Pyongyang, Trump now is depending on Beijing to arm twist Pyongyang into making concessions on the nuclear and missile front.

With Moon's election to the presidency, war clouds seem to be definitely receding on the Korean peninsula. President Moon, from available indications, will closely coordinate with China, while formulating his North Korea policy. North Korea, meanwhile, has openly criticised China for cooperating with Washington in the imposition of additional sanctions against it. Both Beijing and Seoul, for different reasons, do not want a chaotic disintegration of the North, as desired by Washington and some of its close allies. The South may pay lip service to the concept of reunification but the leadership there knows that economic and political costs could prove to be very costly. One of the main reasons China is against regime change in Pyongyang is because it does not want American troops stationed on its border. America has permanent bases in the South and a large concentration of troops there. China had gone to war against the United States in 1951 in order to prevent such an eventuality.

During the campaign, Moon had stressed that the aim of the international sanctions on North Korea was not to bring the government in Pyongyang down but to goad it towards the negotiating table. “To do that, we must recognise Kim Jong-un as their ruler and as our dialogue partner. The goal of sanctions must be to get North Korea back to the negotiating table”, Moon has said. Washington now does not have the option of triggering a war with the consent of a pliant South Korean government. In his first speech to the national assembly, President Moon pledged “to do whatever it takes” to keep the peace on the Korean peninsula. He said that he was willing to immediately travel to Washington and later to Pyongyang in order to be able to fulfill the pledge.

Public opinion in South Korea is also against any further deepening of military ties with the United States. The suspicions about America's game plan for the region among South Koreans has only increased under the erratic Trump presidency.  North Korea was not a big issue during the South Korean election campaign. The economy, corruption and relations with Washington were the issues that predominated during the month long campaign. The new president has said that he will engage in “sincere negotiations” with both Washington and Beijing on the issue of lessening tensions in the region. President Moon will need a lot of diplomatic astuteness to keep South Korea neutral in the looming confrontation between the United States and China. Interestingly, both the Koreas sent delegation to the Belt/Road summit in Beijing held in the middle of May. The Americans also send a delegation though they knew that the North Koreans would be present.

North Korea also chose to test fire an intermediate range missile on May 13 despite warnings from Washington and the international community. Pyongyang has announced that it was “a new ground to ground medium long range strategic ballistic rocket”. It was the first missile test since the new South Korean president assumed office. “It represents a level of performance never before seen in a North Korean missile”, an aerospace specialist, John Schilling observed. North Korea in a statement, said the test was “aimed at verifying the tactical and technological specifications of the newly developed ballistic rocket capable of carrying a large size heavy nuclear warhead”.

 President Moon condemned the launch as “a clear violation of the UN security council resolutions”. However, he said, that there remains a need to keep doors open for dialogue with the North. “We must show that dialogue is possible, when the North changes its attitude”, he said after the latest missile launch by Pyongyang. Only Washington and Tokyo have issued stronger statements with the White House describing North Korea “as a flagrant menace for far too long” and demanded the implementation of more international sanctions.

In his first days in office, President Moon has been quick to dismantle some of the odious domestic policies that his predecessor had introduced. He ordered the withdrawal of the right wing nationalist text books from the school curriculum. Park Gyeu-hee had proclaimed in 2015 that government schools will have to abandon “left leaning” text books and replace them with “patriotic” text books. The text books that were published under her government's supervision mainly ended up extolling the dictatorial and corrupt rule of her father, Park Chung-hee and promoting a right wing nationalist history of Korea. She had also drawn up a black list of artistes, intellectuals and media men who were deemed to be left wing. They were banned from writing or participating in government funded programmes and the official media. That ban no longer exists.

President Moon though may find it more difficult to bring the “chaebols” (big business conglomerates) to heel as he promised on the campaign trail. One of the main reasons for the impeachment of President Park was because of her corrupt involvement with the bosses of chaebols like Samsung. All the presidents who held office in South Korea since the advent of multi party politics, were investigated for corruption. President Moon has promised to be different. On his first day in office, he told the Korean people that he has assumed the top job with an “empty pocket” and that he would also leave office with his “pockets empty”.