Now that former president Park Geun-hye has left office, the pendulum of South Korean politics is set to swing back to an era of liberal governance. If current polls and predictions hold, the next president, Moon Jae-in, will push an agenda on the foreign-policy front that will look with skepticism at the country’s alliance with the US, seek to placate Chinese sensibilities, and, most worryingly, attempt to realize rapprochement with North Korea.
In other words, South Korea is about to experience, in Pyongyang propaganda parlance, a “thrice-cursed” period of geopolitical uncertainty and volatility.
The US-South Korean partnership is one of the enduring crown jewels of the United States’ post-World War II efforts to establish a new liberal order that would sow the seeds of peace, stability and democracy around the world. The two countries have mutually benefited from this alliance, with South Korea in particular, under the protection afforded by the US security umbrella, rising like a phoenix from the devastation of total war to the pinnacle of prosperity in just over a generation – a feat unprecedented in world history.
A prospective Moon administration appears poised to question some of the most fundamental premises of one of the most successful nation alliances in existence. From the location of US troops along the Demilitarized Zone to the presence of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile batteries in the country, Moon is expected to upset the applecart of an almost 65-year-old security arrangement, a move that risks emboldening a belligerent North Korea and empowering an ascendant China-Russia axis.
Moon seems ready to relinquish South Korea’s sovereign prerogative to defend itself to Beijing’s China-first worldview, apparently for the dubious privilege of being able to continue selling goods and tour packages to the Chinese market. To allow South Korea’s security needs to be subsumed under China’s strategic imperatives is not only craven, but is disrespectful of the legacy of those Korean and American soldiers in whose blood South Korea’s independence was forged.
A country that is prepared to barter its existential priorities for base economic considerations has already begun the process of forfeiting its status as a state and selling its soul.
If the image of Seoul genuflecting at the feet of China’s oligarchs doesn’t provide food for thought, then picturing the new South Korean president glad-handing the fratricidal despot in the North should have one reaching for the sick bag.
The reason has nothing to do with whether one considers direct diplomacy with North Korea a good idea. Given Pyongyang’s sprint toward an operational intercontinental ballistic missile and a reliable nuclear-weapons delivery capability, it would be derelict for the US not to employ its full arsenal of diplomatic and coercive options that includes sanctions, deterrence and, yes, direct engagement. It does, however, have everything to do with the sordid legacy of Seoul’s prior foray into Sunshine summitry during the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations.
Moon seeks to reboot Sunshine diplomacy with Kim Jong-un, with all the one-way, open-checkbook obsequiousness toward the North that would entail.
One sign of coming events is Moon’s call for the reopening of the shuttered Kaesong venture. A program born under the warm glow of the Sunshine Policy, its purpose was to marry South Korean industrial know-how and North Korean labor in a proto-reunification experiment in economic cooperation that was supposed to lead to cultural openings between the two Koreas. Well, South Korea got cheap labor, while North Korea got all the workers’ salaries. It is not difficult to imagine what that money might have funded.
Moon came of age during a period of heightened civil unrest fomented by South Korea’s repressive military dictatorships. His worldview and skepticism toward US hegemony was greatly influenced by the work of Rhee Young-hee, a dissident journalist, who wrote a scathing critique of the Vietnam War (a wayward Cold War scrimmage that, ironically, was a failed projection of a US containment policy that, in the light of history, found its greatest success in the example of a free and prosperous South Korea). These experiences turned Moon into the critic of US policy he is today.
The question now for South Korea is how Moon will change the course of a country that has come so far in so short a time despite being buffeted by the winds of Great Powers struggles. One can only hope that his leadership will be defined by strength in crisis and not servility in search of expedience.
As for the United States, the paradigm shift a Moon administration may represent has the potential to upend a decade-long relationship where both US and South Korean engagement and deterrence doctrines toward the Kim regime operated in complement with each other. President Donald Trump may soon have to try to cultivate common ground with a new South Korean president whose history illuminates a worldview that, in key respects, stands in opposition to the foundational premises supporting the White House’s nascent North Korea policy.
This is certainly not the geopolitical flank the Trump administration expected it would have to reinforce as it moves to confront an increasingly provocative Pyongyang.
For the sake of their mutual security interests, it will be incumbent on both the United States and South Korea to remind themselves of the unique friendship their alliance represents and the hopes and dreams both countries share for a true and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.
This article was originally published by the Washington Examiner (www.washingtonexaminer.com). It is reposted here with permission.