A new president and new opportunities in Korea

“A new president and new opportunities in Korea”, published at China.org.cn on May 11, 2017

The election of a liberal, Moon Jae-in, as president of the Republic of Korea presents opportunities for Korean-Chinese relations to move to better ground.

Under the last president, the conservative Park Geun-hye, relations were somewhat rocky. After Park agreed to deploy THAAD, an American missile defense system, China blocked tour groups from visiting Korea and applied other informal economic sanctions. China views THAAD as a threat to its own nuclear deterrent, because the Korea-based long-range radars had the capability to penetrate Chinese territory.

Moon brings to office a desire to improve relations with China and is expected to take a less tough line on North Korea than Park. However, it’s less clear what specific policies will emerge when his stated views are translated into practice.

For example, it had been the position of his Democratic Minjoo Party, and of Moon himself, for the past year to oppose the THAAD deployment. However, when he was campaigning, the position became somewhat muddled. Rather than take an advance position on the issue itself, he simply said the next president should decide.

Now that he is the “next president,” he may very well decide to keep the system, given that it has already been deployed and it could damage relations with Korea’s closest ally, the U.S., to change course.

The fact is, whatever Moon might want to do, he is going to be constrained by the political and security situation. It would be a lot harder for Moon to remove THAAD or to reopen the jointly-operated Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea at a time when the North continues to conduct frequent missile tests and threatens to conduct its sixth nuclear test.

Korean conservatives feared Moon was too weak to take on North Korea. He said he would visit his neighbor before visiting the U.S., and he refused to refer to the North as “the main enemy” during a campaign debate. While conservatives would consider these positions naive at best, his supporters view him as someone willing and able to negotiate a solution through diplomacy.

Much depends on how the U.S. and its irrational president comport itself.

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