After former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that he would not seek to become the next president of South Korea, South Korea’s ruling conservatives were left without a clear candidate to succeed the beleaguered President Park Geun-hye. From Rhee In-je to Won Yoo-chul, there isn’t a single conservative candidate left who has a realistic chance of becoming the next South Korean president if the election were held today.
What that means is that Moon Jae-in, with a little over 33% in his approval ratings, has the best chance of becoming the next South Korean president. Just in case anyone has forgotten, Moon Jae-in was President Roh Moo-hyun’s chief-of-staff and, according to former Foreign Minister Song Min-soon’s memoirs, he agreed to ask the North Korean government how South Korea ought to vote in a 2007 UN General Assembly vote that condemned North Korea’s atrocities against its own people.
Again, just in case anyone has forgotten, Moon Jae-in has never flat out denied this allegation. He merely claimed that he “could not remember the details” and that it was tantamount to “ideological mudslinging.” The fact that Moon Jae-in is the front-runner in the race ought to tell anyone just how incredibly weak the other candidates must be.
Moon Jae-in, with a little over 33% in his approval ratings, has the best chance of becoming the next South Korean president
ENGAGEMENT ON ITS WAY?
Recently, Moon Jae-in suggested that, if elected president, he would not necessarily cancel the decision to deploy THAAD anti-missile batteries in South Korea, but he would seek to postpone it. That may be able to afford him some wiggle-room with Washington. However, his statements about how he would pay a visit to North Korea before anywhere else and how he would immediately reopen and expand the Kaesong Industrial Complex require scrutiny; particularly the latter.
About a year ago, the South Korean government publicly announced that the North Korean government could have been using money that it generated from the Kaesong Industrial Complex to build up its nuclear weapons.
As explained ad nauseum by Joshua Stanton, international agreements require nation states to “ensure” that monetary payments to North Korea are not diverted to WMD programs. So when the Park administration made that announcement last year, it admitted that it had no way of ensuring that that was not indeed happening. Therefore, in order to ensure that South Korea was not and will not violate UN sanctions, the Kaesong Industrial Complex had to be shut down. Good riddance to bad rubbish.
Nothing that is being said about North Korea by the Trump administration suggests that it would be willing to turn a blind eye to further violations of sanctions
There is only one way to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex while guaranteeing that it does not violate UN sanctions: the North Korean government has to promise absolute transparency to ensure the international community that there is no doubt whatsoever that none of the money generated from the Kaesong Industrial Complex is being diverted to North Korea’s WMD programs. One does not have to be a veteran North Korea watcher to guess that Pyongyang would never agree to that.
Pushing through with reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex without getting this guarantee from North Korea would mean that South Korea would be just as guilty of violating UN sanctions as the United States accuses China of being. The difference is that the United States does not have much leverage over China and therefore can do little to stop it, whereas it has a lot of leverage over South Korea.
CLASH WITH DC
U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has assured that should North Korea use its nuclear weapons, it would draw an “effective and overwhelming” U.S. response. That was echoed by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, when he said he would formulate “a new approach to proactively address” threats from North Korea. And finally, President Trump himself tweeted that North Korea developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. “won’t happen!”
Nothing that is being said about North Korea by the Trump administration suggests that it would be willing to turn a blind eye to further violations of sanctions against North Korea. Least of all if the party violating those sanctions is an allied state, which Trump has often accused of being a free rider.
Under the circumstances, reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex would be foolish and would also be fraught with danger.
One may be tempted to believe that Moon Jae-in already knows this but is saying this now in order to merely use it as campaign rhetoric. After all, distancing oneself from anything that President Park Geun-hye was involved in might not be so unwise. Under the best case scenario, once the elections are over and if Moon Jae-in is swept into office, political realities will force him to renege on some of his promises. It will be politics as usual.
WHAT DO VOTERS THINK?
However, this does not make too much sense when we consider that both older and younger South Korean voters do not care for North Korea all that much. Senior citizens still remember the horrors of war and many remain staunchly anti-communist (never mind that North Korea is not really communist). And younger voters care less about the importance of minjok as a result of a new form of South Korean nationalism beginning to take hold. Promising to improve relations with Pyongyang does little to benefit him, if at all.
Reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex would be foolish and would also be fraught with danger
Progressive candidates running for president in a center-right country typically face an uphill battle. This year, however, is different. With weak conservative candidates and the public overflowing with desire to see the chaebol cut down to size, there is no better time for progressives to take over the Blue House.
And as the public is much more concerned about domestic politics and the economy than about the Boy King of the North, who is becoming less relevant among South Koreans with each passing moment, neither Moon Jae-in or any other progressive candidate needs to obfuscate or lie about their views regarding North Korea.
So under the worst case scenario, it wouldn’t be entirely implausible to assume that Moon Jae-in knows about these political realities but does not care; that he knows that this will inevitably lead to a conflict with the Trump administration but he will pursue it anyway. Perhaps he intends to pursue a policy of hedging between the U.S. and China. He would be in good company.
It should, therefore, come as no surprise that Moon Jae-in is already being talked about in the U.S. Congress. Considering Moon Jae-in’s history and political views, there is little reason to suggest that the Trump administration would be inclined to see him as a trustworthy ally.
There is no doubt that Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in together form a toxic mix. Meanwhile, the Boy King laughs.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons
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