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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
After months of buildup, from the impeachment of Park Geun-hye to the rough and tumble of the Presidential campaign, South Korea – and the rest of the world – finally has our answer: Moon Jae-in declared victory in a speech near midnight local time after an 8 pm exit poll all but assured his win.
To say the election represents a sea change in South Korean politics would be an understatement. His second bid for the Presidency after losing to Park Geun-hye in 2012, the former Chief Secretary to Roh Moo-hyun rode a wave of popular discontent with two terms of conservative rule, and was quick to exploit the spirit of last year’s candlelit protests which led to his one-time opponent’s impeachment to win South Korea’s top job.
But amid his promises to clean up politics and improve standards of living, Moon has also committed himself to a “Sunshine 2.0” policy towards the North. After years of Seoul isolating the DPRK under Park and her predecessor Lee Myung-bak, the new President has said he hopes to re-open and expand the shuttered Kaesong Industrial Complex, visit Pyongyang, and seek a peace treaty with the North – among other things.
But as the heady idealism of campaigning is replaced by the stark reality of governance, what will President Moon, who will take office on Wednesday, be able to do about North Korea? And what obstacles stand in his way?
The following experts responded to NK News in time for our deadline:
1. What does Moon’s victory mean for inter-Korean relations going forward? Will Pyongyang be happy with the result?
John Delury: North Korean state media has been hammering away recently on the theme of the damage conservative rule has done to inter-Korean relations. Without commenting specifically on Moon Jae-in, they have been setting expectations of a new era of dialogue and cooperation. But it is likely to be bumpy, as it was during the ‘Sunshine’ decade. I don’t think they will be popping the champagne bottles in Pyongyang just yet.
Cha Du-hyeogn: In general, the new government is expected to show a more flexible attitude toward inter-Korean cooperation compared to the last, and Moon’s election pledges suggest it, too. However, Pyongyang appears to have little interest in the election results considering its behavior this year. This is because the main target of either a dialogue or negotiation is the Trump administration, not Seoul.
North Korea feels more comfortable with Moon Jae-in government compared to a conservative government, but it will not be able to make any concession or meaningful posture changes in inter-Korean relations. On the contrary, there is a possibility that the North will interrupt cooperation between Seoul and Washington by seeing a Moon Jae-in government as an opportunity to disrupt ROK–U.S. relations.
A typical example would be either a sixth nuclear test or an ICBM launch at the beginning of the Moon Jae-in’s term. Despite the fact that Moon’s government will condemn it, it is possible that it will take a passive attitude toward the military option and will not pursue a drastic increase of pressure on the North. This is will cause disagreement between the South and the U.S., and Pyongyang will profit from the discord.
Chris Green: Pyongyang will be neither happy nor unhappy. It will absorb news of the new administration with equanimity and then begin to play the hand that it is dealt. In the final reckoning, the government of North Korea has one overriding concern, which is its own preservation. The regime will drink from the well of a Moon presidency only to the extent that it can do so without compromising its own national security and its political and social dominance of northern Korea.
I would also note that a Moon presidency is not axiomatically good for North Korea. It is not 2005 anymore; things have changed a lot, and South Korea and its electorate is incomparably different. A vote for Moon was emphatically not a vote for Sunshine 2.0. It was a vote against corruption, against a haughty, uncommunicative and distant government, and in favor of a different economic direction. For the overwhelming majority of people, North Korea didn’t come into it.
Joshua Stanton: Pyongyang said it was happy with Roh Moon-hyun’s election in 2002, Moon Jae-in managed Roh’s campaign, and Pyongyang has been vicious in its attacks on Moon’s opponents this year, so I suppose so. There may be a temporary improvement in inter-Korean illusions, but the policies in Pyongyang will remain constant.
In fact, they may become more aggressive as Kim Jong Un gains confidence in his nuclear hegemony. Pyongyang’s pause in testing missiles and nuclear weapons will be brief, and the end of that pause will force Moon to choose sides. Either he will moderate his anti-anti-North Korean policies and offend Kim Jong Un, or his party will suffer punishing losses in the National Assembly. As it stands now, Moon’s party only holds 119 out of 300 seats.
Cheong Seong-chang: Given that President-elect Moon Jae-in has expressed a strong determination to develop inter-Korean relations, including the resumption of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) and the pursuit of peaceful coexistence and gradual unification with North Korea, the South – North relations can be expected to improve rapidly in the future.
If the Moon government implements an appeasement policy, Pyongyang may have difficulties: the North won’t welcome inordinate exchange between the two Koreas, since conflict and confrontation with the South is necessary for its existence.
The Moon government’s North Korean policy will affect the South’s foreign relations overall, including relations with Washington and Beijing. Therefore, it is high time that prudent and strategic judgment is used, and international coordination should be the top priority during this process.
Aidan Foster-Carter: It means inter-Korean relations will improve, and indeed be revived. Pyongyang will be very happy in my humble opinion. The alternative view is that they prefer hardliners in Seoul, as a known quantity. But they also like money.
Kim Dong-yub: I don’t believe the victory of Moon Jae-in will definitely lead to the improvement of inter-Korean relations. Relations have deteriorated over the past ten years, and there a number of issues that need to be resolved. Pyongyang will not easily come to the South for talks.
Seoul’s relationships with neighboring countries such as China and the U.S. and security environment will certainly become more complex. In this perspective, it’s more meaningful to discuss what kind of efforts Seoul should make and what kind of policies Seoul will implement to take the initiative on North Korean issues and inter-Korean relations.
Choi Dong-ju: The Moon Jae-in government will make efforts into opening a dialogue with the North, in contrast to the approach previous governments have taken for the last ten years. But it’ll be hard for the new President to come forward for the dialogue due to public sentiment in the South: Pyongyang has ratcheted up military threats against Seoul for the last decade.
2. What impact will this likely have on ROK-U.S. relations as they relate to North Korea?
John Delury: The key question, obviously, is can Moon’s strategy on inter-Korean relations and Trump’s approach to North Korean denuclearization be coordinated? I think they can and the U.S.-ROK alliance can enter a new, more mature stage in its development. But it will take a lot of work on both sides.
Cha Du-hyeogn: Seoul and Washington already learned important lessons in the early and mid-2000s during the era of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun governments. Both understand what can be acceptable to the other party and what causes strong opposition. Due to his experience, I believe the [Moon Jae-in government] has the accumulated the capacity to navigate its differences with the U.S.
However, if the U.S. and the ROK show different opinions on the THAAD deployment, for example, or if the deployment is delayed and ratification by the National Assembly is required, it will be a crucial test for ROK–U.S. relations. If this situation should arise, the U.S. will likely require the expansion of the South’s burden sharing and operation costs – something President Trump has already suggested. The South will re-examine the economic burden and the security benefits of the THAAD deployment.
I believe it will be difficult to reverse the THAAD deployment, but the process could increase distrust between Washington and Seoul. As mentioned about, both have conflicting views on the preemptive strike against Pyongyang. What is more important is to how to manage conflicts by exposing them rather than trying to avoid them.
Chris Green: There is a widespread fear that a conciliatory South Korean administration will result in five years of conflict with the United States, and indeed this may turn out to be so. North Korea would certainly like it to be so. But it doesn’t have to be so. The slate is clean, and as long as the United States and South Korea are willing to liaise closely in order to use the carrot of South Korean engagement with the stick of “all options are on the table” containment and deterrence from the United States, Moon and Trump could even prove to be a winning combination.
However, this outcome requires very cool heads on both sides, and I haven’t seen much evidence of that of late. The probability of such an optimistic prognostication coming to pass is middling, at best.
Joshua Stanton: I predicted months ago that the combination of Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump would be uniquely volatile, and Trump’s recent statements about THAAD and cost-sharing, even if they helped Moon in the short term, support that forecast in the medium term. Of all the candidates, Moon is the worst-positioned to manage the relationship with Trump.
The White House’s policy review puts it on a direct collision course with the policies Moon has promised his voters. But while Donald Trump narrowly missed winning a majority of the popular vote, Moon is likely to miss that mark by ten points. Whatever Moon’s actual views, his domestic political position will be weak. I’m not sure South Korean voters, who are much warier of North Korea than they were in 2002, would support a major shift back to the Sunshine Policy or a major breach in the alliance with the U.S.
Cheong Seong-chang: The North Korean policies of the Trump administration, with its hardline stance, and the position of the Moon Jae-in government, which supports inter-Korean dialogue, may seem contradictory, but they are actually very complementary.
The U.S. could prohibit the North from conducting a sixth nuclear test or launching an ICBM by imposing strong pressure on Pyongyang, keeping the military option open. This would allow the Moon Jae-in government to pursue improvements in inter-Korean relations in the future.
The fact that President Moon Jae-in will have to actively negotiate with North Korea could contribute to reducing the North Korean nuclear threat to the U.S. My belief is that there will no serious conflict between the U.S. and the South over the North Korean policies.
Kim Heung-kyu: The U.S. is now currently pushing ahead with a strategy of negotiating with North Korea based on maximum pressure. And if the Moon government can cooperate with the U.S., then relations will remain good.
If the Moon government breaks with the U.S. in the current situation, where international cooperation is required, it will be hard to pursue efforts to denuclearize the North. In addition, Seoul might face diplomatic isolation.
Aidan Foster-Carter: Trump had better think before he tweets. His hardliners won’t like it, but frankly it’s hard to argue with Moon’s line that the North is first and foremost a Korean issue. There will be tensions, but they will be manageable. Having served in the Roh Moo-hyun government, Moon has experience handling Washington.
Kim Dong-yub: My understanding is that there will be no major changes as it is hard to shake the foundation of the long-standing ROK – U.S. alliance. The bigger variable will be how the Trump administration treats the new South Korean president.
If the U.S. looks on the new president from a biased viewpoint, it could cause changes in the South–U.S. relations. Three issues, including cost sharing of the THAAD deployment, defense cost burden-sharing, and the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) could be ignition points that will bring about a change in the bilateral ties.
Regarding North Korean issues, the Trump administration can consider two options on whether the U.S. can directly hold talks with the North or work together with the South. If Washington chooses to cope with the North Korean issue excluding Seoul, President Moon will not stand it. The term “Korea Passing” (diplomatic isolation for the South) recently appeared in this context. There may be a struggle between the U.S. and the South for the initiative on North Korean issues.
Choi Dong-ju: Relations between Seoul and Washington won’t be greatly damaged: a large number of the South Korean people support the ROK–U.S. alliance. The President can’t break the alliance on his own judgment. But there is still the possibility that the Moon government will pursue a plan to take over wartime operational control (OPCON) and other issues, which were also pursued by Roh Moo-hyun government. If this happens, I believe that there will be national debate on the necessity of the U.S. THAAD battery and strategic nuclear weapons.
A bigger issue that people think the ROK–U.S. alliance can be shaken for political reasons, and people should not discuss the issue in this way. If there was a discord between the Bush administration and the Roh government, why did the U.S. and the South agree on the Free Trade Agreement (FTA)? In fact, there were conflicting views on the status of forces agreement (SOFA) and sharing the cost of stationing the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), but the basic framework of the alliance didn’t waver.
3. With the deployment of THAAD now complete, what prospects does this election present for ROK-China relations?
John Delury: THAAD deployment is one of three sudden moves by Park Geun-hye that Moon will have to dig out of early on in his term. The others are the comfort women ‘deal’ with the Abe government and the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Park. Moon would probably like to undo all three deals.
He might very well revoke the deal with Tokyo, which, as Alexis Dudden points out, is really a ‘joint press conference’ rather than a formal agreement. Moon will look into the feasibility of reopening Kaesong in the context of comprehensive reworking of inter-Korean ties. And he will have to figure out how to address Chinese concerns over THAAD without damaging Korea’s close security ties to the United States.
Cha Du-hyeogn: The Moon Jae-in government will likely seek to improve South Korea – China relations, and present the THAAD deployment as a result of the maladministration of the Park Geun-hye government. In response, China will gradually alleviate the pressure over the THAAD deployment. If Beijing eases the pressure too quickly, it will be forced to acknowledge the existence of pressure – which it doesn’t want to do.
China might also take advantage of disagreement between the South and the U.S. over defense burden sharing and the cost of the THAAD deployment. In addition, Beijing will likely take the initiative on North Korean issues, further emphasizing the importance of a coexistence of dialogue and sanctions in a bid to lessen the burden of increasing pressure on Pyongyang.
Chris Green: 2017 marks 25 years since the establishment of bilateral relations between China and South Korea. In the subsequent two and a half decades, the two sides have fostered deep and mutually beneficial economic ties. The sheer value of the trade that flows back and forth across the narrow sea between the two states is sufficient to make it worth finding a way through the current crisis, and it is my view that this is precisely what will happen.
With Moon in the Blue House, South Korea is capable of saying to Beijing, in all honesty given that Moon himself appears to agree with it: “We do not like the THAAD deployment, but there was an agreement with our predecessor and our hands are tied.” At the same time, Seoul could make a goodwill gesture which would leave THAAD in place but withdraw it from the political theater.
Joshua Stanton: I expect China to increase the pressure on South Korea to disarm and gradually weaken its alliance with the United States. I don’t think there’s any doubt that this has been a very good year for China’s ambitions in Korea.
Cheong Seong-chang: During the Roh Moo-hyun government, Seoul and Beijing had very close discussions on North Korea. With a Moon Jae-in government, both can improve ties superficially as well as step up cooperation on the North Korean issue.
Although the THAAD deployment is complete, U.S. President Trump has said he hopes that Seoul will bear the cost. Under the circumstances, President Moon could suggest a new approach that the South, the U.S. and China can accept by carrying out summit diplomacy and holding talks with President Trump.
As President Moon is fully aware of China’s concerns over the THAAD deployment, the relationship between the South and China will be enhanced.
Kim Heung-kyu: China hopes to improve bilateral relations with South Korea, and China’s sensitivity to the THAAD deployment has been weakened as it has stepped up coordination with the Trump administration. China will not continue to make the THAAD issue worse, and President-elect Moon could resolve it by dispatching a special envoy.
It’s desirable to abide by and respect the existing agreement between the U.S. and the South over the THAAD deployment, but the South Korean President will have to give better guarantees that the operation of the THAAD battery and the ROK – U.S. alliance is not a regional alliance against China.
On the North, China and the ROK are henceforth, in a sense, allies – both now insist on offering carrots, not just waving sticks – but are also rivals for influence in Pyongyang, as was the case before 2007.
Depending on whether Moon Jae-in administration can persuade China to accept THAAD, it will make a big difference on how much China will reflect the voice of Seoul and will side with Seoul in coping with the North Korean issues. And it will also decide whether both can strengthen strategic communication on the issue of the Korean peninsula.
Choi Dong-ju: I don’t think that strained relations between Seoul and Washington will lead to an improvement in Seoul – Beijing relations. In the sense that the Moon Jae-in government follows the political philosophy of the Roh government, it is likely that the Moon government will take a more self-determined and self-reliant stance and pursue an independent policy towards China. Considering that bilateral ties between China and Japan have deteriorated while the U.S. and Japan have boosted relations, the South is also crucial for China. There is a high chance that Beijing will take a favorable stance towards Seoul if the new government is inaugurated.
4. Moon Jae-in has said he would move to reopen – and expand – Kaesong and increase inter-Korean economic cooperation more broadly. How likely is this, and will the push for maximum engagement lead to a clash with the international community?
John Delury: The phrase ‘international community’ sometimes serves a gentle euphemism for the United States. The push for a pressure and sanctions approach to North Korea is driven by Washington. If Moon can help Trump see a better way forward in dealing with North Korea, one in which dialogue and cooperation play a central role, then it is hard to imagine ‘the international community’ opposing the effort.
Cha Du-hyeogn: An election is an election and reality is reality. The operation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) isn’t in contradiction to the UN Security Council Resolution 2270 or 2321. However, the operation of the KIC has been suspended and the Moon Jae-in government will feel the burden of an unconditional resumption of the KIC if Pyongyang doesn’t show any significant change in attitude.
But the government may try to resume the KIC operation as a first step, if Pyongyang agrees to a nuclear freeze and moratorium on missile tests and nuclear weapons.
Of course, it will bring about a disharmony with the Trump’s administration’s policy of “Maximum pressure and engagement” if Moon Jae-in government pushes ahead with the reopening of the KIC from the beginning of its term. Sanctions will only be lifted, and KIC should only be reopened, after the North has shown a sincere desire to denuclearize.
Chris Green: Moon will not be able to reopen, much less expand, Kaesong initially. He is as aware as the next person that the first thing that North Korea will have to do is make a meaningful gesture toward denuclearization and/or peacebuilding on the Korean peninsula. If we are to be brutally cynical, this will just be words. Nothing irreversible, just a declaration of putative intent. From there we would have to wait.
Rather than looking toward Kaesong, or Mt. Kumgang for that matter, we should keep an eye on the soft cultural targets that North Korea might aim for. For instance, will there be separated family reunions at Chuseok, which falls this year in early October, and will North Korea engage positively with the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang next February?
Given the prevailing atmosphere of tension and mistrust, the North Korean government needs to take the strategic decision to empower the Moon administration through ultimately meaningless but symbolic actions. If it does not do so – in particular if it seeks to test the resolve of the new administration – then it matters not one iota how much Moon might wish to engage, as the international community will not acquiesce to it.
Joshua Stanton: U.N. Security Council Resolution 2321, Paragraph 32, requires South Korea to get U.N. approval before providing public or private support for trade with North Korea, including “including the granting of export credits, guarantees or insurance to their nationals or entities involved in such trade.” That’s almost a perfect description of the subsidies that kept Kaesong afloat before 2016. The U.S. can block that approval, and it should.
First, allowing Kaesong to reopen directly contradicts the “maximum pressure” that sanctions are meant to create. Second, Kaesong would be the punchline to every U.S. diplomatic appeal for other nations to cut their diplomatic and commercial ties with Pyongyang. Secretary of State Tillerson has already begun to make those appeals at the U.N.
Third, with the taking of hostages from the Malaysian Embassy and PUST, Pyongyang has shown that every foreigner in North Korea is a potential hostage. Putting large numbers of South Koreans into North Korea risks a North-South military conflict that could draw the U.S. in. Because we’re bound to take South Korea’s side in the event of hostilities, we should have a say in any policy decision – be it South Korean retaliation for provocations, the deployment of defensive systems, readiness and exercises, or a potential hostage crisis – that risks American lives.
Cheong Seong-chang: The aim of sanctions imposed by the international community is to bring about policy changes from the North. Therefore, President Moon should push ahead with the reopening of the KIC while making progress on North Korean nuclear issues, such as getting a declaration from Pyongyang suspending its nuclear tests. If the North accepts a nuclear freeze through negotiations with concerned countries, the international community will have to take additional measures to ease sanctions.
Kim Heung-kyu: There is a high chance of conflict between the South and the international community in the event of maximum engagement, and the Moon government should refrain from reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex immediately. If North Korea enters into the process of the nuclearization on a full scale, the Moon government can revitalize existing inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation in tandem with the international community, and the government can actively seek investment and support for the North’s new economic zones.
Aidan Foster-Carter: Kaesong, and much else, may now be a hot potato in terms of UN sanctions. Expect much fierce debate about this. Given how the SMEs that invested got shafted by both sides, one wonders how many takers there will be? Fingers burnt.
What Moon will do is unban wider North-South trade, and leave firms and NGOs free to do their own thing – as they broadly were in the Sunshine era. It will be interesting to see if either the chaebol or SMEs reckon there is money to be made in North Korea, and whether it’s worth the risk of annoying the U.S. – or even risking secondary sanctions under the new bill making its way through Congress.
Kim Dong-yub: I don’t think Moon can immediately open the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) since the North will not easily accept the decision. Moon will not re-establish inter-Korean relations just for improving bilateral ties, as he will need to consider the international community’s concerns.
But since Moon wants to pursue gradual unification and believes that the South should induce this change, there is a possibility that Moon will actively but gradually push forward the inter-Korean economic cooperation, although it will take time. I believe Moon will attempt to achieve economic unification while finding ways to avoid conflict with sanctions by the international community and dispelling their worries.
Choi Dong-ju: Moon won’t be able to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) at the beginning of his term: the issue should be decided based on variables such as the general situation of sanctions and the progress of the negotiation over nuclear weapons.
A considerable amount of money was invested in the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), and there is a chance that a high level of economic cooperation can be achieved. The KIC was a good start, but the issue is subject to difficult politics, and therefore the easing of tensions between the two Koreas and sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council (UNSC) should be pursued first.