Forecasts on Korea’s Foreign Policies Following the Launch of the New Administration

Evaluation of the Korean presidential election results

Presidential candidate Jae-In Moon of the largest opposition party, who called for reform, elimination of deep-rooted irregularities and national unity, was elected as president at the 19th Korean presidential election held on the 9th of May. The by-election came after former president Park was removed from office and holds several significant meanings for Korea’s policy. First, procedural democracy improved through the peaceful change of government from Korea’s largest conservative party to the largest liberal party. Second, it was a ‘transfer of power through a bloodless revolution’ which was possible because the candle light protests that began in November 2016 at Gwanghwamun square ended peacefully and democratically. This civil revolution was an outburst of energy that came through the peaceful yet fierce and dynamic participation of the Korean people seeking democracy. Third, traditional themes such as ‘regionalism’, ‘color schemes’, and ‘North Korea’ that are key to Korean politics weakened to a certain extent in this election. Fourth, there was a clear generation gap in regards to voting tendency. People in the 20s-50s age group voted for liberal politicians while those in the above 60s age group voted for conservative politicians. In conclusion, Korean voters selected Moon, who promised to reform Korea by creating a fair and just society, vitalizing the economy, bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula and seeking common prosperity.

Evaluation of Korea’s political and economic situations

The national uncertainty caused by the ‘absence of leadership’ was resolved with the election of Moon as the new president. However, the Moon administration faces a range of difficult tasks internally and externally. First, just as Moon openly promised those gathered at Gwanghwamun square that he will be a unifying president, he must coordinate between the ruling party and opposition parties for the effective administration of state affairs. The ruling party (Minjoo Party) has only 120 seats while at least a 151 seat overall majority is needed to pass bills. In order to fulfill his pledge to eliminate deep-rooted irregularities and pass various reform bills he needs to collaborate with other parties. Second, the new administration has a bulky task of resolving conflict and uniting people in the Korean society divided by the monopolization of government in the previous administration. In particular, Moon must ease the confrontation between generations and regions to open an era of national unity. Third, the most important economic task is to create jobs and narrow the income gap amidst slowing growth rates. The ‘reform of Chaebols’ could be organized as part of the plan to materialize a fair economy. President Moon’s reform of the Chaebols is structured around improving the degenerative governing structure of Chaebols, such as family centered governance or heredity of wealth, to transform the way Korea’s economy will grow.

Forecast on South Korea’s reconciliation with North Korea and resolving tension on the Korean Peninsula

At his inauguration speech, President Moon defined his administration as the ‘the third phase of democratic administration’ after former presidents Dae-joong Kim and Moo-hyun Roh and promised to proceed with policies that reconcile with North Korea and seek denuclearization. I view this as a proclamation to continue on the lines of and upgrade the ‘Sunshine policy’ of Kim and Roh to a ‘Moonshine policy’ that reflects current situations. Two major issues are of importance to President Moon regarding North Korea. First, easing the confrontation between North and South Korea as swiftly as possible and preventing the possibility of war for certain. Second, establishing a foundation for a unified Korea by opening an era of common prosperity and peace on the peninsula. Therefore, the new administration will use diverse political measures to solve the North Korean nuclear threat. In other words, it will use diplomatic measures in addition to the preexisting economic sanctions to seek a more rational solution. Provided that North Korea abolishes its nuclear programs and that the peninsular becomes denuclearized, President Moon is expected to ease tensions between North and South Korea and opt for dialogue such as by holding an inter-Korean summit, in contrast to the preceding administrations of Myung-bak Lee and Geun-hye Park.

Forecast on South Korea’s relations with the US, China, Japan and Russia

The possibility of Northeast Asia facing changing circumstances on various issues, including North Korea’s nuclear plans, was increased with the inauguration of the Moon administration. In particular, it is clear that the Moon administration will strengthen diplomatic ties with the four neighboring strong powers to establish a foundation for peaceful resolution on the Korean Peninsula and its reunification. Moreover, it will search for numerous methods including multilateral cooperation to bring peace on the peninsula and common prosperity for Northeast Asia. The Moon administration’s aim and task to rebuild diplomacy among the four strong powers can be laid out as the following.

First, the US. The US is the most important ally of Korea. Therefore, one can expect that a Korea-US summit with President Donald Trump will be held as soon as possible, through which it will primarily build a tight system of confidence to strengthen Korea-US relations and cooperate on North Korea issues. The new administration will put a lot of effort towards building a mutual assistance system on the most urging national security issues regarding North Korean nuclear development, as well as amicably handling sensitive issues such as the Korea-US FTA, defense costs and THAAD expenses.

Second, China. The main priority is to solve retaliatory measures taken by China in response to the deployment of the THAAD system in South Korea. Simultaneously, the administration will design its policies regarding China in a manner that enhances national interest while taking into consideration the bigger framework of competition and cooperation between the US and China. The Moon administration is likely to cooperate on North Korea’s nuclear issues based on solidarity with China while on a strategic level expand room for economic cooperation and actively seek future cooperation areas. In order to do so, restoring Korea-China relations into a strategic partnership and developing it into a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ in the future could be considered.

Third, Russia. The new administration will most likely put more emphasis on its ties with Russia compared to the preceding administrations of Lee and Park. For this, the new administration is expected to realize viable cooperative projects while seeking internal reinforcement. This is because without close cooperation with Russia it will be difficult to resolve the acute instability of the Korean Peninsula and build the foundations for a reunified Korea. Moreover, tight knitted cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union led by Russia can provide a new source of power for the growth of both Korea and Russia. In other words, amidst low growth rates worldwide and rising tendencies towards protectionism, and as the side-effects of being excessively reliant on China for Korea’s foreign trade intensifies, Korea is expected to strengthen its strategic relationship with Russia and jointly pioneer ‘room for Northern economic growth’.

Fourth, Japan. Ties with Japan are anticipated to face difficulties in the Moon era to some extent. Appropriate coordination is required on the most contentious issues of territory, history, and especially on the renegotiation of the agreement regarding the so-called ‘comfort women’ issue. Therefore, it is likely that the new administration will take a ‘two track’ course that seeks to solve historical disagreements such as the wartime sexual exploitation of Korean women without connecting them to other issues of cooperation between Korea and Japan. Particularly, the administration will put foremost importance in maintaining the mature partnership between Korea and Japan by further developing cooperation for the future while also striving to establish a mutual assistance system on national security issues related to the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia.

President Moon will soon send special envoys to the US, China, Japan and Russia, countries that have a large influence on Korea, to explain the new administration’s policy directions and cooperation measures. In the process, the larger plans for its foreign policy will become clearer. The new administration, inaugurated at a time of great challenges from economic and security standpoint, needs to establish stronger than ever cooperation and mutual assistance systems with the neighboring four major countries. I expect it to win through these challenges in a wise manner. 

Lee Jae-Young is Vice President of the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy

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