Expert Commentary

Will Moon Push for Engagement with Pyongyang?

J. James Kim
Director, Washington D.C. Office, Asan Institute for Policy Studies

In his first days in office, newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in has tried to reassure the governments of the United States, Japan, and China that he will work to reduce tensions with North Korea, however his preference for engagement over sanctions has some experts wondering if his North Korea policies will clash with those of the Trump Administration. So far, Moon has pledged to work closely with regional partners, especially the United States, saying, “The alliance with the United States is and will always be the foundation of our diplomacy and national security.”

As Moon embarks on his term as president, The Cipher Brief spoke to James Kim, the director of the Asan Institute’s Washington, D.C. office, to learn more about what Moon’s presidency means for South Korea and for the United States.

The Cipher Brief: What was the most important issue (or issues) in this election and how did it affect the outcome?

James Kim: The unusual circumstances leading up to this election—President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment—meant that this election was about “change.” Conservative candidates such as Hong Jun-pyo and Yoo Seong-min were at a clear disadvantage, since they needed to show that they were different from President Park even though they were rooted in her party. Progressive candidates such as Moon Jae-in and Sim Sang-jung had an easier campaign to run, but Sim was less popular among mainstream voters because of her extreme left ideological leanings. Ahn Cheol-soo provided the moderates with an option that was not rooted in traditional establishment politics, but he failed to impress during the debates. The vagueness of his policy positions raised questions about his qualifications.  

While voters were clearly concerned about the economy and jobs as well as social programs, national security was also elevated as an important issue in this year’s election due to rising tensions in the region. President Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure and engagement” on the North Korean nuclear issue raised some concerns as the media news cycle was on overdrive with the U.S. deployment of strategic assets [the submarine USS Michigan and aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson] to the region, followed by displays of American air strikes in Syria and Afghanistan.

TCB: How do you foresee the election of Moon Jae-in, a member of South Korea’s largest liberal party, affecting U.S.-South Korean relations?

JK: While Moon has stated that the U.S.-ROK [Republic of Korea] alliance is “an important foundation for [South Korea’s] diplomacy and national security,” he has also expressed [the view] that it is not desirable “for South Korea to take the back seat and watch discussions between the U.S. and China” on the North Korean question. In short, he has stated that he wants South Korea to take the lead on the North Korean issue. At the same time, he has stated that he desires a more conciliatory approach towards North Korea than his predecessor. He thinks that President Trump’s “ultimate goal is to bring North Korea back to negotiations.” Finally, he has laid out a three-step process in his negotiations with North Korea that involves no additional nuclear tests, no further development of the nuclear program, and eventual denuclearization.

The question, of course, will be, what he will do if his assumptions about President Trump and North Korea do not hold. That is, there is a possibility that the Trump administration may never begin negotiations with North Korea and the Kim Jong-un regime will continue to develop its nuclear capabilities. This, after all, has been the case under the previous three U.S. presidents. Why will the Trump administration agree to negotiate with North Korea if Pyongyang is not inclined to negotiate on a nuclear freeze or denuclearization? We will have to wait and see whether President Moon will push ahead with the policy of engagement with North Korea, even if these conditions do not hold true. If he does not, then the question is, what he can do, if anything, about the North Korean nuclear problem on his own.

TCB: Moon is the former chief of staff for the Roh Moo-hyun administration, which worked towards reconciliation with North Korea and was a proponent of the Sunshine Policy. Given where relations stand today, what is the likelihood of a return to the Sunshine Policy?

JK: As a president, he can certainly declare a change in policy and enhance diplomatic ties with Beijing and Pyongyang. But he will have to manage several constraints if he wants to reengage with North Korea by creating new business relations or reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) and Mount Kumgang Tours. Any financial transactions with North Korea on these fronts will now be in violation of existing sanctions. That is, without support by the international community, South Korea’s options on these fronts will be limited.

What this means is that a return to the Sunshine Policy will require a different approach. For instance, certain kinds of assistance to North Korea, such as a humanitarian [aid], may be more acceptable than others. Again, much of this will still require crafty diplomacy and discussion. Mr. Moon would need to devote significant resources, time, and energy if he wishes to embark on this path. 

TCB: What is Moon’s stance on the influence of chaebol (large family-owned conglomerates) on the economy and politics, and do you foresee his presidency having an impact on the chaebol system? More broadly, what is his vision for South Korea’s economy?

JK: Similar to most other presidential hopefuls, Moon supports reforming the Korean economic structure to address the problem of high youth unemployment, inequality, and subdued growth. He has stated the desire to move away from the family-owned corporate chaebol system to one that is more professional, competitive, and fair. Finally, he has also expressed a desire to reform the political system to root out graft and promote a more representative democracy.

Much like his predecessor, however, he faces a significant institutional hurdle. The National Assembly is split among at least four major parties, and no party controls enough seats (three-fifths or 180 seats) to push necessary bills through floor votes. Without a major reorganization of these parties or a revision of the Advancement Law [the law requiring three-fifths of the Assembly to consent before a bill can be put up for a vote during a plenary session], we expect policy gridlock in the parliament to stand in the way of important reforms in South Korea until 2020, when the next general election is scheduled to take place. Either Mr. Moon prays that the Assembly members can set aside their partisan differences to form a consensus, or he must display strong leadership [and] broker a compromise between divergent interests. 

The Author is J. James Kim

J. James KIM is the director of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies (Washington, DC) and research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies (Seoul). He is also an adjunct lecturer in the SIPA Executive Master of Public Administration program at Columbia University. Previously, he was an assistant professor of political science at the California State Polytechnic University (Pomona).

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