South Korea's Moon Seen Bringing 'Inflection Point' in Korean Peninsula Diplomacy

korea-moon-05092017.jpg South Korean presidential candidate Moon Jae-In stands on a stage to greet supporters after exit polls suggested a landslide victory, in the central Gwanghwamun district of Seoul, May 10, 2017.

Liberal politician Moon Jae-in's decisive victory in South Korea's presidential election on Tuesday adds potential volatility to an already unstable environment on the Korean peninsula, where North Korea is ramping up its nuclear and missile programs and Seoul's ally the United States is tightening sanctions on Pyongyang.

Moon, who is expected to be sworn in on Wednesday, campaigned on taking a more conciliatory approach toward North Korea than the two previous conservative South Korean presidents who ruled the past nine years.

Among policies that hark back to the 1998-2008 "Sunshine Policy" era of his late liberal predecessors Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun that Moon has spoken of reviving are the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a South Korea-subsidized zone employing cheap labor to make consumer goods and a cross-border tourist project.

Both projects, which were touted by supporters as signs of inter-Korean reconciliation and decried by critics as cash transfers to Pyongyang that subsidized leaders' lifestyles and weapons programs but failed to change North Korean behavior, were shuttered years ago as inter-Korean tensions spiked after North Korean atrocities and provocations.

A new attempt by Moon to reopen those channels comes at a time of high tension with North Korea, which is believed to be preparing for a sixth nuclear test and has said it will test an intercontinental missile that can reach the United States.

North Korea is also under a growing list of United Nations and other economic sanctions, some of which would bar the largesse Seoul used to extend to Pyongyang under the Sunshine Policy.

"At least in his campaign statements, (Moon) wants to renew many of these policies," said Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Jonathan Pollack.

This would come at time when "Trump administration is trying to increase all kinds of pressures against North Korea, given its nuclear and missile development," he told reporters on a conference call on Tuesday.

"The new government in Seoul would seem to be working very much in opposite directions from what President Trump seems to be pursuing with respect to North Korea," he said.

Limited maneuver room?

The tense regional conditions could limit Moon's room to maneuver, however.

"I suspect that Moon Jae-in will take a cautious, but forward-leaning policy toward North Korea. He will want to continue to support sanctions, but open the aperture for engagement. This probably will take some time to unfold and be dependent on Pyongyang's actions," said Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at the CNA, a research outfit in Virginia.

"Right now, North Korea has signaled another diplomatic charm campaign to see what Seoul will offer. If Moon is slow to respond, more provocations could follow," he told RFA's Korean Service.

"If Moon is too quick to reach out to North Korea, this could cause tension with Washington. I expect that Moon will try to secure a meeting with the Trump administration to better understand U.S. red lines," added Gause.

One early challenge for Moon and U.S. President Donald Trump will be the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, which was agreed to by Moon's predecessor and the U.S. military last year and is currently being installed in rural South Korea.

Moon has shifted from opposing THAAD outright to saying the decision was made in undue haste and without transparency.

"Moon might also try to slow roll THAAD or use it as a bargaining chip to get more latitude to reach out to Pyongyang. Depending on the U.S. reaction, U.S.-ROK relations will thrive or take a major step back," said Gause.

"We are at an inflection point. But it will take months to unfold," he added.

China and THAAD

The THAAD deployment has also drawn the wrath of Beijing, which has launched an intense propaganda and economic warfare campaign against Seoul, halting Chinese package tours to South Korea and blocking South Korean pop stars from touring in China.

"China will be cheering on the sidelines if President Moon tries to restrict further missile defense development," said Pollack.

Daniel Sneider,  associate director for research at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, says Moon and his team are more realistic about a Sunshine Policy redux than widely perceived.

"South Korean progressives understand that they cannot simply return to the past, that North Korea’s advance toward nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems has limited the prospects of fostering change simply through engagement.

“But they remain committed to the idea that such engagement is essential to averting conflict," he wrote in an essay published by the National Bureau of Asian Research, a Seattle-based think tank.

"Implicitly, this blueprint runs counter to the current policy of tightening economic sanctions against North Korea and cutting the flow of capital into Pyongyang’s coffers. Moon is also skeptical of the current U.S. approach of relying on China to bring about a change in North Korean policy, though he is careful to stress a desire to coordinate closely with Washington," added Sneider.

Park Young-ho, a professor at South Korea's Kangwon University, predicts an initial low-key approach to Pyongyang by Moon.

"To reopen the inter-Korean dialogue channel, first of all, the informal channel needs to be connected. The new government is expected to use secret contact with North Korea or dispatch a special envoy," he told RFA.

Reported by Sungwon Yang for RFA's Korean Service. Translated by Park Bong. Written in English by Paul Eckert.

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