The election of Moon Jae-in as South Korea’s president marks the re-emergence of a major player that had been silenced for five crucial months because of the country’s political paralysis, which ended with the impeachment and arrest of his conservative predecessor, Park Geun-hye.
Moon in many ways is the opposite of Park. He is a liberal who, as a student activist, was imprisoned by Park Chung-hee, the father of the last president.
A former human rights lawyer, he has made known his desire to improve relations with both North Korea and China, while insisting that the alliance with the United States will remain the anchor of Seoul’s diplomacy and security.
Elected May 9 and sworn in the next day, Moon began immediately to tackle issues that had piled up over the previous months.
Ties with China were at the top of the list. He had a 40-minute phone conversation with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, during which the new Korean president said he would send two special envoys to Beijing for talks, one on the North Korean nuclear issue and another to discuss the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system, which has been deployed to defend South Korea from a possible North Korean attack. China, however, is vociferously opposed, saying the system threatens its own national security.
Besides China, Moon also spoke with President Donald Trump, who promised a White House invitation soon. Moon assured Trump that the Korean-American alliance would continue to be at the heart of South Korea’s diplomacy and security, and Trump complimented South Korea as “not just a good ally but a great ally.”
Other phone calls were held with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, during which the two men talked about the “comfort women” accord accepted by the previous Korean administration. While Abe called for following through on the agreement, Moon said that most South Korean people don’t accept the accord. This longstanding thorn in the bilateral relationship is likely to continue to prove intractable.
Other phone conversations were held with the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, British Prime Minister Teresa May, Russian President Vladimir Putin, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The one regional player with whom Moon did not talk was Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader. But Moon was North Korea’s favored candidate during the campaign and the new president, in his inaugural address, said that he would be willing to go to Pyongyang for talks “under the right circumstances”, echoing what Trump had said 10 days previously.
Nonetheless, North Korea is pressing ahead with its nuclear and missile-development program, holding another ballistic missile test on Sunday, one that experts said could be a new type of missile. The test precipitated the first meeting of Moon’s national security council. Moon was quoted as saying that while South Korea remained open to dialogue, it would only be possible “when North Korea shows a change in attitude”.
Nonetheless, there has already been a change in recent emphasis. Trump, who had threatened military action, shifted his stance in the past couple of weeks and has praised the North Korean leader, saying he would be “honored” to meet Kim “under the right circumstances”.
Then, on May 13, a senior North Korean diplomat, Choe Son-hui, head of the foreign ministry’s north America bureau, said her country would be willing to hold talks with the US “if conditions are mature”.
The stage is now set for South Korea to play an active role in the region and, hopefully, produce conditions under which a dialogue, if not negotiations, can be conducted. Already, overall tension has been lowered as the North has refrained from conducting a sixth nuclear test, which it has threatened to hold, although the missile tests continue almost on a weekly basis.
Moon is likely to hold out to Kim the possibility of a future unified Korean peninsula. That won’t happen anytime soon, but the possibility of unification is something that both Pyongyang and Seoul are unwilling to preclude. In fact, in his conversation with Merkel, Moon called Germany “a nation that deeply understands the tragedy and pain of a divided country.”
Events are moving at a rapid pace. Only a week ago, it would have been unimaginable for representatives of the US, North Korea and South Korea to all sit in the same room. And yet, over the weekend, all three countries, together with dozens of others, gathered together in Beijing for the China-sponsored Belt and Road Forum. Change has come to South Korea and the dynamics in the Korean Peninsula are clearly shifting.
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