What’s next for South Korea after presidential election?

How much and how was the presidential election campaing in South Korea affected by current tensions with North Korea and what do you expect from the new presidenitial administration (President Moon Jae-in?) towards North Korea? Read few comments. (I have asked those questions before exit poll suggesting that Moon Jae-in won the election).

Lee Jaehyon, Research Fellow, Asan Institute for Policy Studies

To answer your questions, in fact, current tension with NK did not much affect the election campaign. Tension with North Korea or NK issue has been one of the favourite topics of the conservative political force and this time the parties of conservative denomination such as Liberty Korea Party (Mr. Hong as its candidate) and Baruen Party (Mr. Yoo) have tried to play up the issue without much success. The overall election campaign has been dominated by people’s sentiment that this time opposition or progressive parties should be given chance due to all the scandals, corruption cases and impeachment of former president Park, which is from the conservative section. On top of the qualification and personal charm of Moon Jae-in, this sentiment was one of the main reasons that made Moon lead the election with a comfortable margin from the beginning. Put it simply, People are not much convinced by the NK issues played by the conservatives and the aspiration to change political power dominated. I guess, the NK issue would increasingly a non-variable in Korean elections as time goes by.

Moon’s approach towards NK would be far different from two previous government under MB Lee and GH Park. Being from the more progressive political party, The Democratic Party, he is pretty much a successor of so-called Sun Shine Policy of two former progressive presidents, DJ Kim and MH Roh. He himself was chief secretary of Roh and advocate of human right issues while he was a lawyer. He will attempt to re-open space for North-South dialogue, reopening of Jaesung Industrial complex, Mountain Kumkang tourism, and family reunion etc. Two obstacles are expected. first, the US policy towards NK. Anyhow a close coordination with the US is unavoidable given alliance partnership and the need for US force in Korea against NK’s threat. Although working-level coordination channel is in place, the question is Trump’s attitude towards NK – sometimes it is too aggressive, the other times it is too accommodating. For Korea and the new Moon government to coordinate NK policy with Trump government, the goal post (Trump) keeps moving. there might be a bit of worry of policy coordination when Korea has a progressive government, in fact, it is untrue. the partnership has been quite OK under Kim DJ and Roh MH although a couple of unexpected incidents (such as the killing of two girls by US force by accident) made such a false impression.

Another obstacle is the international economic sanction on NK which makes re-opening of the industrial complex complicated. When it resumes operation, the companies having business there have to pay the NK workers employed, but any type of economic interaction is currently banned by UN sanctions against NK. Of course there is room for re-interpretation of the sanction regulation that enables the re-opening, but it would take time.

Craig Mark, Professor, Faculty of International Studies, Kyoritsu Women’s University, Tokyo

Domestic issues of corruption and economic inequality appeared to be the main drivers of the South Korean election campaign (reflected in the arrest of former President Park, and prosecution of senior chaebol executives). However, the recent escalation of tensions between North Korea and the US very much affected the course of the campaign and its outcome.

The presidential candidates starkly differentiated themselves on their policies towards North Korea. The Democratic Party of Korea (DPK)’s Moon Jae-in pledged his willingness to visit North Korea to meet its authoritarian dictator Kim Jong Un, in order to defuse tensions, and potentially re-start cross-border trade and economic cooperation. Moon has also been ambivalent about the US deployment of the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea, and will review the decision to continue its deployment, should he be elected President as expected.

Sim Sang-jung of the Justice Party also broadly shared Moon’s position; but rival candidates Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party, Hong Joon-pyo of the Liberty Party, and Yoo Seong-min of the Bareun Party were firmly for the deployment of THAAD, and for maintaining a confrontational stance against North Korea.

The Trump administration recently chose to escalate its confrontation with North Korea, in response to the latest series of North Korean missile tests, by sending an aircraft carrier task force on military exercises in the Sea of Japan (joined by warships for the Japanese Self Defense Force). An election victory by Moon could therefore also be considered a rejection by the South Korean electorate of this more hostile approach by President Trump, as the majority of South Koreans are hoping a more peaceful approach towards North Korea can be restored, following a decade of conservative governments.

Japan has also been hoping for a united front with the US and South Korea to challenge North Korea, so the LDP government of Shinzo Abe will be disappointed with Moon’s election. One common policy position shared among the candidates was hostility to the compensation package deal made with Japan by President Park at the end of 2015, over the so-called ‘comfort women’ (wartime sex slaves). Relations between Japan and South Korea are thus likely to enter another difficult period, much to the annoyance again of their mutual military ally, the US.

Brian Myers, Associate Professor, Dongseo University

In the past few months North Korea has fired missiles and made bellicose statements, but has not aggressed against South Korean troops. North Korea did not want to do anything that might help a conservative candidate here. Many young South Koreans have therefore fallen back into their customary, comfortable attitude of believing that North Korea’s nuclear crisis is a problem for the US only.

Ironically enough, the conservatives’ fear of North Korea has helped Moon Jae-in. I will explain.

Early in the campaign, the conservative voters were supporting Ahn Cheol-soo as the lesser of two evils. Then conservative media and commentators began to drive home the message that Ahn and Moon were equally soft on North Korea. (It is true that Ahn’s party is full of people who once worked for Kim Dae Jung.) Conservatives therefore abandoned Ahn in order to support Hong Jun-pyo, the conservative candidate.

As a result, what was once a neck-and-neck race between Moon and Ahn turned into an easy race between a candidate with 40% in the polls versus two candidates with no more than about 20% each.

Conservatives are now consoling themselves by pointing out that Moon’s party is in the minority in the National Assembly, and will thus not be able to do anything too drastic.( They also say Moon may end up getting impeached too.)

It’s raining here in Busan now, and they say young people don’t like to vote in the rain. But many young people voted last week already, and Moon has a huge lead in opinion polls, so I don’t think it will make a difference this time.

Ji Young Choi, Associate Professor, Department of Politics and Government, Ohio Wesleyan University

This election has not been much affected by tensions with N. Korea. In the past, a conservative candidate was very positively affected by them, but this time many conservative people had been disappointed by former President Park’s political scandal. Therefore, except some radical conservatives, many conservative voters are willing to support even a leftist candidate (Moon Jae-in).

If Mr. Moon is elected, there is a possibility of political frictions with Washington on how to handle N. Korea. Moon has been a strong supporter of an engagement policy toward N. Korea that goes against President Trump’s and the S. Korean conservative regime’s a hard-line approach. But Moon knows very well the importance of S. Korea-US security alliance and the seriousness of the N. Korea’s nuclear crisis. Therefore, he might take a cautious approach to this issue at the outset and will try to have conversations with both Pyongyang and Washington. If there is any sign that Pyongyang freezes nuclear development, he is willing to open and expand the Kaesung Industrial Complex. He will try to use economic incentives to change N. Korea’s behaviors. But the problem is how to persuade Washington. Without Washington’s support, it will be very difficult to go ahead with this plan. Moreover, he should be able to deal with radical conservatives’ strong opposition against this engagement policy.

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