A Delicate Balancing Act for South Korea’s Liberal Opposition

BY PETER MILLS

Moon Jae-in, the front-runner for president, at a rally against then-President Park Geun-hye in Seoul, South Korea, in December. (Jeon Heon-Kyun/European Pressphoto Agency)

Moon Jae-in, the front-runner for president, at a rally against then-President Park Geun-hye in Seoul, South Korea, in December. (Jeon Heon-Kyun/European Pressphoto Agency)

On March 10, the South Korean Supreme Court unanimously decided to remove South Korean president Park Geun-hye from office. Park, daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee, had been an important and powerful leader of the center-right Liberty Korea Party. She now faces criminal charges relating to the scandal surrounding a childhood friend, Choi Soon-sil, who once comforted the former president over her dying mother and developed enormous power and influence over Park Guen-hye as a result. Choi Soon-sil leveraged her influence over Park Guen-hye’s personal life to gain access as a key presidential advisor, a position she used to edit the president’s speeches, obtain access to classified information and solicit bribes from Samsung.

This scandal has shook South Korea. It is the first time a South Korean president has been impeached, and it will likely have significant policy implications regarding North Korea. An election to determine the new president should take place within 60 days. The leading candidate is Moon Jae-In, from the Democratic Party of Korea, a center-left party.

Ban Ki-moon, the former United Nations Secretary General, was believed by some commentators to be a likely candidate for the Liberty Korea Party, but he has since announced that he will not run. While Ban Ki-moon could have made a good showing against Moon Jae-in, allegations of corruption hurt his presidential campaign early on. In addition, Ban Ki-moon has spent most of the last decade in New York and has been confounded by South Korean politics upon his return to the country. While some of this could have been overcome, when combined with his age and ties to the conservative establishment, Ban Ki-moon’s campaign was over before it began. Ban Ki-moon’s exit leaves the Liberty Korea Party without a feasible candidate, as it is still reeling from the chaos of the impeachment and scandal surrounding Park Geun-hye.

Given that Moon Jae-in is the front runner, currently leading with about 32 percent of the vote, and his closest competitor, Ahn Hee-jung, only has 10 percent of the vote, it is likely that Moon Jae-in will be the next South Korean president.

So far, Moon has indicated that he prefers a more conciliatory approach to dealing with North Korea, which is reminiscent of the Sunshine policy that guided South Korean relations with North Korea from 1998 until 2008, which largely consisted of sending aid to North Korea in the hopes of building better relations. However, this approach yielded mixed results. While the Kaesong Industrial Park opened in 2002 along with a few other cooperative ventures, including a tourist site in North Korea, these ventures never fundamentally changed relations between the two countries. North Korea still tested a nuclear weapon in 2005 and initiated naval skirmishes over the Yeonpyeong Island in 2000, which left several South Korean sailors dead. While North Korea may have allowed a few English teachers into the country to teach at a university, the Sunshine Policy gave both the aid and time for North Korea to obtain a nuclear weapon.

Moon Jae-in will likely face similar difficulties as his predecessors with the Sunshine Policy. Predecessors advocated a conciliatory policy with North Korea, while the United States, under George W. Bush, advocated for a harsher policy with North Korea. It is hard to say how exactly Donald Trump will react to the recent crises and tensions with North Korea, but it is likely that he too will choose a hard line against North Korea.

A poignant example of the difficulties Moon Jae-in will face is the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system to the Korean peninsula. While Park Guen-hye supported the defense system in response to repeated North Korean ballistic missile tests, Moon Jae-in has voiced his concerns because the deployment of the defense system potentially threatens China’s own nuclear arsenal. In addition, the radar system THAAD uses to track and intercept ballistic missiles can track areas within China, potentially revealing sensitive information China may want to keep secret. China, for its part, has been a vocal critic of the THAAD deployment and has threatened economic retaliation against South Korea for hosting the system.

Further complicating Moon Jae-in’s efforts at Sunshine 2.0 are unprecedented levels of sanctions, unanimously endorsed by the United Nations Security Council, against North Korea. These sanctions, which target North Korean exports – primarily natural resources such as coal – slash North Korea’s export revenues by $700 to 800 million. In addition, bans on travel and dual-use equipment, which could be used to support North Korea’s ballistic missile or nuclear programs, were further strengthened. The fact that China has signed onto these sanctions shows its displeasure and underscores that recent North Korea has distanced themselves from their only ally, China. Although it is uncertain how much China will actually adhere to these sanctions, it is clear that the situation on the Korean peninsula is degenerating. Furthermore, there will soon have to be a choice between attempting to appease North Korea, or adopting a hard line, which will inevitably include some form of military response to North Korea’s missile tests. Given that the international community has come together to oppose North Korea, especially after the recent murder of Kim Jong-nam, a half-brother of Kim Jong-un, it may be difficult for Moon Jae-in to advance a more conciliatory agenda towards North Korea.

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