The Korean Peninsula long has provided one of the greatest political challenges facing Washington, DC. But it’s not just North Korea. Today, the South is in political flux, with a rushed presidential campaign to come, a new president to take office in May and a potentially dramatic change in foreign policy.
On Friday, the Constitutional Court confirmed the National Assembly’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. An election must be held within two months, likely on May 9.
Park’s dramatic downfall was as unexpected as it was sudden. The once dominant ruling party is now a political wreck, its former members divided and dispirited. The Saenuri Party has broken in two, while a small, dedicated band of Park backers have criticized party officials for abandoning her.
She has no obvious successor, and most of the right’s potential presidential candidates poll in the single digits. The campaign will unfold with Park facing interrogation and arrest, following many of her subordinates. Domestic issues will likely dominate the debate, including regulation of the chaebols, or family corporate conglomerates, currently at the heart of the Park scandal.
Still, while few would bet on the right retaining power, nothing is certain in Korean politics. Returning UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon had been expected to ascend to the top of South Korea’s political charts. Instead, he dramatically flamed out and abandoned his planned presidential run. A new face or foreign provocation, always a possibility from North Korea, could unexpectedly transform the race.
If the campaign follows its expected trajectory, however, the left will win. In contrast to normal campaigns, there will be no transition, with the winner sworn in immediately. The victor will confront a government filled with Park’s appointees, entrenched after nearly a decade of conservative rule.
Today’s front-runner, Moon Jae-in, is the former leader of the main opposition party who lost to Park five years ago. His leftish domestic inclinations don’t much matter in Washington. In contrast, his attitude toward America and North Korea could generate heartburn for the Trump administration.
Like most South Korean politicians, Moon says he supports the alliance, even proclaiming himself to be “America’s friend.” Where’s the fun in having to spend more on defense if a friendly superpower can be conned into doing so?
He recently sought to burnish his national-security credentials by adding former military leaders to his think tank. Nevertheless, such efforts have a forced feel about them, since no one would mistake him for a hawk.
Moon almost certainly would change the Republic of Korea’s relationship with Washington. He recently declared that the ROK should be willing to “say ‘No’ to the Americans.” He also stated that “experts share the view that we should confidently engage in our diplomacy for ‘our national interest’.” A top adviser from Ewha Womans University, Suh Hoon, said, “A paradigm shift in diplomatic approaches is required,” with expanded contacts throughout Asia and Europe.
Even more dramatic might be the change in relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Moon complained that South Korean policy toward Pyongyang over the last decade, largely mirroring the U.S. approach, had consisted of little more than “bad-mouthing the North” and “comprehensively failed.”
North Korea should be one of the ROK’s “top priorities,” he said, which should be resolved with “the cooperation with the U.S. . . . while taking responsibility for our security.” He said sanctions were necessary, but to force Pyongyang to negotiate. He pointedly observed that economic penalties had not halted the DPRK nuclear program.
If elected, he proposes reviving the “Sunshine Policy,” of Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, the latter of whom he served as chief of staff. The policy sought to moderate the North’s policies through aid and trade. Moon said that although he abhorred the Kim regime, “We must embrace the North Korean people as part of the Korean nation, and to do that, whether we like it or not, we must recognize Kim Jong-un as their ruler and as our dialogue partner.”
Moon proposes reopening and dramatically expanding the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the North, in which 124 ROK manufacturers had employed fifty-four thousand North Koreans. The zone provided the DPRK with roughly $100 million in hard currency a year—and about a half billion dollars since it opened in 2004—only a fraction of which was paid to the workers. Park closed the complex last February in retaliation for the DPRK’s missile and nuclear tests.
However, reengaging Pyongyang won’t be easy. The last round of South Korean investment, trade and aid only seemed to fund missile and nuclear programs, which continued to advance over the last decade.
Popular opinion has shifted against the North, especially after two violent North Korean attacks in 2010. In fact, attitudes of younger South Koreans most closely mirror those of the oldest generation which, because of the Korean War, views the North as an enemy. For the Sino-DPRK website, Phillip Lee and Steven Denney observed that “South Korea’s youngest generation has taken a new, and decidedly more aggressive stance on North Korea.”