What Issues Does South Korea’s New President Face?

The main foreign policy issue before South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, is the improvement of relations with North Korea, according to Georgy Toloraya, Director at the Center for Asian Strategy at the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences. His initiatives, however, are unlikely to be successful, as the North Koreans themselves are right now not interested in approaching their southern brethren.

As a result of the early election, the democratic opposition has replaced the conservative government, which has been in power for nine years. In many ways, this was a protest vote. The election of an opposition president is the result of the population’s discontent with both foreign and domestic policy. The voter was mainly concerned with domestic policy: issues regarding corruption, the strength of monopolies, social development, education and so on. However, foreign policy also played an unusually important role as well.

Park Geun-hye spoiled relations with practically everyone. Dialogue with North Korea was severed, the animosity between North and South reached an unprecedented scale, relations with China worsened because of the US THAAD system, relations with Japan worsened because historic issues were not settled. The relations only remained normal with the United States, although this is something that Park is blamed for. Because of this, President Moon Jae-in will face a number of foreign policy issues, chief of which is improving relations with North Korea.

In reality, this is not the result of tactical thinking, but his deep convictions. He was the Chief Secretary of President Roh Moo-hyun, who continued on President Kim Dae-jung’s efforts and conducted a policy of cooperation and engagement with North Korea. There were very important agreements reached at the 2007 summit. President Lee Myung-bak, who came to power after him, destroyed these agreements, and now it will be necessary to restart these policies with a blank page.

During this time, conditions in North Korea itself changed greatly. The new leader, Kim Jong Un, came to power, the country achieved a lot of progress in developing nuclear and missile technology, which, in turn, led to its international isolation.

I doubt that Moon Jae-in’s initiatives in improving relations with North Korea will be successful. First, the United States currently have the opposite policy toward North Korea, with isolation and pressure, up to the point of applying military force. Second, the North Koreans themselves are not interested in going to meet their southern brethren with open arms. I cannot rule out that the North Koreans will actually abstain from significant steps and will look at how the new government will act.

Other foreign policy issues also depend on relations with North Korea, including relations with China, which economically sanctioned South Korea as a result of the US anti-missile system deployment. Now, the South Koreans will be forced to make excuses and look at ways of solving the problem.It is unclear, how to find them.

Moon Jae-in said that there will be an issue of renegotiating agreements with the US on anti-missile system deployments, although I doubt that anything will come of that. Americans were able to bring these systems in two weeks before the election and place them, now they cannot be torn out from South Korean soil.

Some compromises are possible. It may be possible to turn Chinese irritation toward the US, but relations with a key partner are a very serious foreign policy issue. South Korea will need to preserve relations with Trump, but at the same time not become pressured by the new administration, which is decisive regarding both the North Korea situation and the idea that South Korea should pay more for mutual defense. These are not simple tasks.

There are also many issues with Japan. It is obvious that Moon Jae-in and his team have considerably more radical ideas of how issues of the past should be dealt with, particularly the “comfort women,” an issue that appeared to be resolved by the previous administration, but which the population was very dissatisfied with the way it was resolved. This issue will be at the center of contradictions with Japan.

Relations with Russia, although they do not have a priority in the current South Korean administration, remain important in economic and energy fields, in building the Transpolar Sea Route, building mutual cooperation between Moscow, Pyongyang and Seoul. Improving relations with Moon Jae-in is in our interest and in the interest of the Russian business community. Because of this it is important to create dialogue with the new administration, including at the top level, as soon as possible.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.