On May 10 last year, Moon Jae-in became President of South Korea. His election marked the first victory in a presidential election by a liberal party since 2002, returning the political left to power after nine years of conservative rule.
President Moon took office in turbulent times, as Pyongyang’s continued launch of ballistic missile tests strained inter-Korean relations and regional security.
As expected, three items which have dominated Moon’s agenda in the past year have been THAAD, and South Korea’s relations with Beijing and Pyongyang respectively. How has Seoul’s approach to these issues unfolded in his first year in office?
THE THAAD CONTROVERSY
The security alliance between South Korea and the United States certainly weighs into any analysis of ROK foreign policy. This is particularly the case given the atmosphere related to North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests.
As a candidate, Moon Jae-in pledged to review the deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), agreed to be deployed in 2016 and which first arrived on site in March 2017. Obviously, this took place under an agreement made between the United States and South Korea’s previous conservative administration.
Further missile tests conducted by North Korea, which accelerated in both size and scope over the summer, changed the security situation quickly
The system became operational days before the election in which Moon triumphed. As expected, he initially sought to obstruct THAAD. His initial actions were to call for a review of THAAD deployments and his administration suspended further deployment in June.
Impeding THAAD may have been a precursor to ceasing its use. However, further missile tests conducted by North Korea, which accelerated in both size and scope over the summer, changed the security situation quickly. Facing this state of affairs, the Moon administration reversed course.
By the end of July as the threat level increased, deployment of the full THAAD system was requested by the Moon administration. While this settled the THAAD issue in the short term, it by no means put an end to the issue.
MAKING FRIENDS WITH THE CHINA
As predicted, working to repair strained relations with Beijing to improve the domestic economic situation that he inherited was another important issue for President Moon. China is, after all, South Korea’s number one trading partner in both imports and exports.
Having inherited souring relations and recognizing the importance of the Chinese market, the Moon administration sought to improve relations quickly. The first meeting between the current Chinese and South Korean presidents took place in July, shortly after North Korea conducted its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test.
Earlier that same month, both China and Russia again emphasized their opposition to the deployment of THAAD. Balancing security concerns with the desire for economic growth and harmonious trade relations was proving to be a great challenge. A solution to the situation that benefitted Seoul and repaired ties with Beijing was sought, even as the security situation remained fluid.
In late October, both sides came to an agreement on the issue that led to the resumption of normal economic relations. Seoul agreed to no additional THAAD deployments, while assuaging Beijing’s concerns related to the issue. In tourism alone, billions of dollars of revenue were lost and the deterioration of economic relations also led to a decline in expected economic growth for South Korea.
Candidate Moon proposed meeting with Kim Jong Un, even as the situation prior to last year’s election looked bleak
REACHING OUT TO THE NORTH
Inter-Korean relations were also a critical issue during last year’s South Korean presidential election. As a candidate, Moon ran on an approach that was reminiscent of his liberal predecessors in Blue House: engage Pyongyang and remain willing to meet with North Korea’s leader. Candidate Moon proposed meeting with Kim Jong Un, even as the situation prior to last year’s election looked bleak.
Once in office, he had the opportunity to give his approach a try.
Amid the allocation of limited humanitarian aid to North Korea and the expressed desire to work towards peace was the implementation of sanctions and the previously mentioned security actions. The carrot and the stick were in full use on the South Korean side as the larger geopolitical players also sought to address the issue by enforcing tougher sanctions on North Korea.
President Moon called for denuclearization by Pyongyang, as did other world leaders, and it should be noted that a global effort to bring North Korea to the table has played an important role in what has recently transpired.
The North Korean leader’s New Year’s address, however, provided a change in tone after months of amped up rhetoric and missile tests. Appearing to open the door to Seoul’s policy of engagement, it seemed that President Moon’s preferred approach to inter-Korean relations would at least be given a chance.
This took a more definitive form after talks relating to the Winter Olympics began to take place between the two Koreas. The Winter Olympics being held in PyeongChang were initially under a cloud due to the uncertainty of the geopolitical situation. But, after negative headlines reigned throughout 2017, it appeared that North Korean participation and the thaw that started with the New Year created an environment for South Korea to successfully host the Winter Olympics.
The event was a boon for South Korea and its president and the Olympic thaw opened the door for further talks between the two Koreas. Allowing North Korean officials to attend the games led to the agreement that the Korean leaders would meet for the first time this decade.
The great challenge for President Moon’s second year in office will be seeking to continue to improve inter-Korean relations
A THIRD SUMMIT
The April 27 meeting between Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in marked the first meeting between the two Korean heads of state since 2007. The meeting itself was a sign that President Moon’s approach to inter-Korean relations was capable of making progress, and the implementation of the Panmunjom Declaration will be critical in examining if substantial progress is made in inter-Korean relations over the next year. At least in principle, a more peaceful and denuclearized peninsula was agreed to by both leaders. This is a very different situation compared to one year ago.
The great challenge for President Moon’s second year in office will be seeking to continue to improve inter-Korean relations. If there are no hostilities between the two sides, then part of the declaration would have been successful.
As both sides have agreed to work to remove all nuclear weapons from the peninsula and pursue a peace deal in the next year, how substantial any progress towards these aims are will determine if this agreement is deemed successful in the future. If concrete gains from the recent meeting can be made is something that only time will tell.
Much has changed during President Moon’s first year in office. While initially reviewing the THAAD deployment, the Moon administration then opted to accept THAAD. But, with acceptance came limitation, a compromise on the issue overall. With regards to his administration’s foreign policy, working to smooth over relations with China and seeking a new opportunity to work with North Korea have clearly been priorities.
The success in bringing a return to normal relations with Beijing was an achievement for Moon in the first six months of his presidency. It should be noted that a global effort to bring North Korea to the table appears to have succeeded. In conjunction with global pressure, South Korea used its influence to implement a carrot and stick approach.
An open posture towards inter-Korean dialogue has proven useful given the Olympic thaw which led to the historic April 27th meeting between the Korean leaders. While it is too early to conclusively analyze what transpired at the end of April, it’s clear that within his first year in office, inter-Korean relations improved greatly.
Being able to build on that momentum is the biggest challenge for President Moon in his second year in office.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Blue House
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