The South Korean Election: What Happens Next?
The sweeping victory of Emmanuel Macron in the recent French presidential election should not eclipse the result of the South Korean presidential race, in which the human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in won a decisive victory. Indeed the South Korean outcome may well prove to be far more important, since it might fundamentally alter the US strategic position in the Pacific.
Moon comes to power in the wake of the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye, a staunch ally of the US who was removed from office last March and thereafter indicted for bribery. Under Park, South Korea took a hard line against North Korea, even agreeing, over China’s objections, to the installation of a US anti-missile system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (or THAAD). Further, in the run-up to Moon’s election, South Korea has played a relatively subdued role in the confrontation between the US and North Korea over the latter’s nuclear test program. That may well be about to change.
Although South Korean voters were primarily occupied with issues (like public corruption) other than national security, Moon made it plain during his campaign that he was not about to permit the US to decide the fate of the Korean peninsula without extensive consultation with his government. Thus, he opposed the THAAD deployment and urged the National Assembly to vote on it after public debate. Moon also stated in an April 13 debate that if the US plans to respond with military action to another North Korean nuclear test, he will call Washington about that intervention before he talks to North Korea. As the first non-conservative South Korean president in nearly a decade, Moon is likely to resume the policy of engagement and negotiation with the North that was characteristic of his more liberal predecessors, rather than maintaining the more confrontational of the conservatives.
Moon also represents an important generational change in South Korea. His attitudes seem to reflect the prevailing opinions of younger voters with no personal memory of the Korean War – voters accustomed to peace, affluence and democracy, with little apparent interest in, or knowledge of, the harsh conditions of life in the North. For these voters, the overriding question of foreign policy is the preservation of peace and prosperity. Any chance of war on the Korean peninsula – especially if it seemed to be provoked by an outside power like the US – would be sure to be feared and resented.
Thus, Moon’s election may signal the beginnings of a rift in the longstanding US-South Korean alliance. And the US may also feel dissatisfaction with the alliance too, if South Korea proves to be edgy. During the first debate in the US presidential campaign last year, candidate Donald Trump talked about the possibility of closing US bases in South Korea, where currently some 29,000 US military personnel are stationed.
One can even foresee Moon taking advantage of inconsistencies in President Trump’s stance to develop an independent policy respecting the North. Thus he might leverage President Trump’s offer to meet Kim Jong Un of North Korea to stage his own summit meeting with the reclusive leader. Similarly, he might exploit President Trump’s suggestion that the South Koreans pay for the installation of THAAD to refuse to cooperate with this system’s operation.
Far more problematic than these issues, however, the Trump Administration may come to realize that the US need only feel threatened by North Korea’s nuclear program because of the US alliance with, and military presence in, South Korea. If the US were to leave the South to its own devices – a prospect made more likely if Moon proves to be a refractory ally – the US would have much less reason to fear a North Korean nuclear strike on Hawaii, Guam or the West Coast. If South Korea can find a way to accommodate North Korea, then the US can do so as well.
It is not hard to imagine the terms of a bargain between the two Koreas. The South would provide the North with investment capital, sophisticated technology, and political legitimation for the Kim dynasty. The North would permit the South to maintain its peace, prosperity and democratic institutions – though without the US alliance, the South would be appreciably more vulnerable to Northern invasion. In effect, the relationship would be a predatory and exploitative one, in which the South bought peace by becoming a kind of tributary of the North.
US withdrawal from South Korea – if it comes to that – would be highly welcome to China. A neutralized South Korea could still be a major trading partner for China, while posing a vastly reduced security threat. (Indeed, the military threat to China from North Korea – a greatly underestimated risk – would also be lessened.) Further, if the two Koreas reached agreement on a kind of condominium over the Korean peninsula, China would face little chance of being drawn into a war there. And South Korea – not China – would become more likely to shoulder the burdens of sustaining and modernizing the North Korean economy. Perhaps most important of all, China could see the US’ withdrawal from South Korea as a palpable sign of the continuing decline of US influence in East Asia, and as a portent of the restoration of China’s historic dominance of the region.
Thus, Moon’s victory may signal that a fundamental restructuring of the East Asian strategic environment is in the wings. The consequences for the region, and for the future of the US as a Pacific power, could be incalculable.
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