South Korea steps up as the US steps back

Author: Stephen Costello, Asia East

The South Korean election was a tectonic event in East Asian policy. As Seoul’s former foreign minister Young-kwan Yoon recently noted, this is only the second conservative-to-progressive power shift in South Korea’s modern history. Combined with its unique birth — immediately following Park Geun-hye’s impeachment and a snap election — this shift will require the new government to take up to two months to staff its ministries and ensure that it fully controls the levers of government.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (C) burns incense during the annual 18 May Democratic Uprising memorial at the Gwangju 18 May National Cemetery in the southwestern city of Gwangju, South Korea, 18 May 2017, as the government holds an annual ceremony to mark the 37th anniversary of a pro-democracy uprising. (Photo: Reuters/Kim Min-hee).

This election was a far broader victory for society rather than for one party or ideology. As much as this was a re-taking of the government back from the conservatives, it was also a return to social, institutional and democratic modernisation that was only begun with the previous conservative-to-progressive change 20 years ago when Kim Dae Jung was elected. President Moon Jae-in’s government has the potential to bring significant change to East Asia.

During the past three weeks Moon has answered one of the most important questions lingering after his loss to former president Park Geun-hye in 2012. At that time, his inability to emerge from the shadow of his mentor, Roh Moon-hyun, and put to rest the regional and personal civil war among democrats that Roh had started in 2003, cost him and progressives the presidency.

This time Moon has demonstrated that he is a broad-based leader. His early picks, from Blue House secretaries to cabinet officials and key advisors, include many with deep roots in the Kim branch of the progressive tree. Moon has also made major symbolic statements embracing both the Kim and Roh groups. He reinstated the state’s backing of an iconic song from the 1980 Kwangju democratic uprising, and he paid deep respect to Roh on the 8th anniversary of his death.

These aren’t small symbols or factional achievements. They are at the heart of South Korea’s remarkable evolution from dictatorship to authoritarianism and then to one of the most vibrant civic democracies of any country today. South Korea’s civic environment has become in some ways a co-equal branch of government, along with the judiciary, the parliament and the executive. This is why many of South Korea’s friends, as well as many of its best thinkers, are nervous with anticipation over the question of how broad and therefore how stable a social and political system Moon’s new government will usher in.

The candlelight protesters — who emerged in response to the scandals of Park — are serious people. They are surprisingly knowledgeable about the core issues facing South Korea and they are determinably practical rather than ideological. It will be no surprise if they keep some good walking shoes, a hat and some candles ready by the door in case the new government does not rise to their high expectations of how the country should be making up for its delayed progress.

In view of what has transpired in South Korea, Moon’s summit with US President Donald Trump, planned for late June, should be put off until a later date. Not only are both governments understaffed and unready to consider policy options, but there is no urgency to do so. The rolling ‘crises’ surrounding North Korea have been largely manufactured — it will take years for the country to test and refine capabilities enough to realistically threaten the US mainland. Human rights issues and a long list of illicit government activities by North Korea will need to be addressed, but the priority must be to get a handle on its nuclear and missile programs.

Right now, the quickening pace of US military exercises, statements vowing to force North Korea to its knees and shows of force are driving the rise in tensions surrounding the Korean Peninsula. For Moon to advance his key initiatives, and for Trump to achieve any improvement in the US position, they will have to cease. It is an open question of what role the new Seoul government may have in easing this inevitable pivot to diplomacy. In separate ways, the Japanese and Chinese leaders are indulging Trump in his repetition of mistakes made repeatedly by past US presidents. They may feel they have little choice, and are not directly affected by the sabre-rattling from Washington and Pyongyang.

But South Korea is certainly affected. It is entirely possible that Moon will be unable to change the United States’ view on the North Korea issue. But Moon has several more moves to make and a modest amount of time to develop his strategies. Even if Trump refuses to budge, Moon has options that his predecessors did not. These are based on his large popular mandate and on the quality of his national security and diplomatic team.

In addition, a key difference for Moon will be the instability of his US ally — institutional weakness is spreading and the country’s soft power is rapidly draining. South Korea’s return to alliances and partnerships with fellow middle powers and international peace building and financing institutions is a logical strategic move, made more appealing by the daily news from Washington. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s statement after Trump departed the NATO summit may be a turning point. For South Korea, such a realisation may not have hit home yet. But it will soon enough, and the Moon government may be the least encumbered and best-prepared to take on and meet those expectations of any government in South Korea’s modern history.

Stephen Costello is an independent analyst and consultant and the producer of AsiaEast. He was formerly director of the Korea Program at the Atlantic Council and director of the Kim Dae Jung Peace Foundation. His column appears at The Korea Times.

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Lintong Feng
13 June 2017 1:08 pm

The US Trump Administration may turn out to be the equal of the North Korea leader and the North Korean regime in terms of sabre-rattling against each other and ‘showing off’ to the world. Who is bluffing more loudly to the point that its belly may burst? It will be interesting to see!

15 June 2017 11:10 am
Reply to  Lintong Feng

Dear Lintong Feng – Yes, this competition is playing out now. The South Korea – US meeting in two weeks will give us some guide to who is better at sabre-rattling. I would not bet against NK, which has a different approach. – Costello

Richard and Chihoko Solomon
14 June 2017 11:50 pm

It will be interesting, even crucial, to see how President Moon can stand up to Trump, who has demonstrated a lack of patience when it comes to dealing with complicated diplomacy.

15 June 2017 11:13 am

Dear Richard and Chihoko,
We don’t know much about Moon. Despite his rise, he has not “done” much. He could become a big person, even an impactful leader. But we don’t know. The summit with Trump will be an early test. If only we could be flies on the wall… – Costello