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Dialogue
Triple Challenge
Can South Korea's new president press forward with an independent foreign policy to bring peace in the Korean Peninsula?
By Shi Yongming | NO. 22 JUNE 1, 2017

North Korean military forces display submarine-launched medium-range ballistic missiles during a parade commemorating the 105th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang on April 15 (XINHUA)

South Korea's newly elected President Moon Jae In said he would address the economy and unify a society divided by the corruption scandal of his impeached predecessor Park Geun Hye in his first presidential speech. Moon, 64, was sworn in as the 19th president on May 10.

But the new president faces a number of grave tests. The world has been dramatically changing with constant reshaping of the global power structure. The Korean Peninsula has been pushed to the brink of war after waves of tension. Moon stands at a critical crossroads where he must make the right choice. He needs to discern which way the world is developing and save his country from another future Korean War.

To achieve these two goals, Moon's major task in making his policy is to find the right national identity for his country.

A shifting world

In the recent past, the world has been stunned by some major events in the West throwing up unpredictable results. Britain decided to leave the European Union (EU) while populist Republican candidate Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election. Though EU supporters heaved a sigh of relief when the French presidential election saw the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen defeated by centrist Emmanuel Macron, the social division in France has widened. All in all, the rising populist sentiment in the West has dealt a heavy blow to elitist politics which dominated the region for long. There is now an unprecedented rise in concerns about economic globalization.

In such circumstances, China hosted the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing on May 14 and 15, with participation of heads of state and government leaders from 29 other countries. The United States and Japan also sent delegations though the two governments have maintained an ambiguous attitude toward the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road, known collectively as the Belt and Road Initiative, through which China is offering a new impetus for globalization and common development.

After the end of the Cold War, neoliberal politicians misguided the West and globalization. They projected their values as superior to other states' and as being universal. They trumpeted free trade around the world in such a way that it favored their own economies. What they sought was to secure Western hegemony. Every U.S. president put U.S. leadership first in their policies.

With such a goal, the West expanded its interference in the Middle East and North African affairs and created tension in the Asia-Pacific region. As a result, many EU states have been affected by the refugee influx caused by war and conflict in Iraq, Syria and Libya in recent years. Terror threats are another spillover effect of the Western military interference in the Middle East.

Many believe that the world is undergoing a power shift, reflecting the plight of the West-centric theory. China is calling to jointly build a community of shared destiny, featuring extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits, which has been resonating around the world.

Therefore, Moon needs to see the direction of the future and get out of the old pattern of choosing between either China or the United States.

Nuclear issue

Currently, North Korea's nuclear program is one of the biggest concerns for Moon. The Korean Peninsula remains in a state of confrontation between the North and the South as a continuation of the Cold War in the region. Since the confrontation continues, North Korea believes that it is only fair for it to develop a nuclear program. So all parties should put an end to the confrontation, creating conditions to solve the nuclear issue.

To defuse the tension, South Korea should abandon its idea of annexing the North. On the surface, the nuclear issue looks like a political confrontation between North Korea and the United States but fundamentally, it is rooted in the peninsular conflict between the North and the South.

South Korea may blame North Korea for the outbreak of the Korean War but Seoul can't deny its involvement in provoking a series of armed conflicts since the two states were founded. Even today, South Korea has not signed the Korean War armistice agreement of 1953. The South Korean Government has a history of looking down upon the North and appearing arrogant in its dialogues with Pyongyang.

The inter-Korean relationship improved between 1998 and 2003 when then South Korean President Kim Dae Jung adopted the Sunshine Policy to start direct top-level dialogue with North Korea. Kim's successor Roh Moo Hyun tried to do more to improve relations with Pyongyang but found the policy restricted by the enmity between North Korea and the United States. Only if South Korea and the United States coordinate their engagement with North Korea can it be possible to avert confrontation in the peninsula.

Inter-Korean relations soured dramatically after Lee Myung Bak became South Korean president in 2008 and made a tough policy on North Korea. Five years later, Park Geun Hye won the presidential election and openly advocated "unifying" the Korean Peninsula the way Germany's reunification was achieved, which further antagonized North Korea. At the same time, the Barack Obama administration followed its North Korea containment policy, which intensified the enmity between the North and the South.

Today, Obama's successor Trump looks set to readjust the U.S.-North Korea policy. He has mentioned the possibility of holding direct talks with Pyongyang and even a meeting with Kim Jong Un, North Korea's top leader. Trump has also said that his administration would not seek a regime change in North Korea. With Moon expressing his willingness to talk with Pyongyang, it is a big test for him to try to improve the strained relations with North Korea.

 

Soon after swearing in, South Korea's new president Moon Jae In (first left) appoints a new prime minister, intelligence agency chief, and presidential chief of staff and chief of the presidential security in Seoul on May 10 (XINHUA)

National identity

South Korea's real dilemma is its ambiguous national identity, the foundation on which the government formulates its national strategy. In the process of pursuing independence from Japanese occupation and after the founding of the new republic, South Korea has been highly dependent on the United States in terms of its political system, economic structure and culture. After the Korean War, the dependence expanded to military cooperation.

After the Cold War ended, there was a rift between the right and the left in South Korean politics. On the diplomatic front, they have been struggling over whether South Korea's national strategy should be more independent or dependent on the United States. At the same time, the United States, as part of its world strategy, decided to upgrade its bilateral defense alliance with South Korea to the global level. Simply put, the United States wants to reduce South Korea to a pawn on its global chessboard. Yet some South Korean politicians have responded positively to this as an opportunity to boost their international status.

But South Korea's cooperation with the U.S. strategy has further deepened Seoul's national identity dilemma. The two countries have consolidated their military alliance and the bilateral military exercises have expanded in scale. All these measures and the U.S. threats to use force against North Korea have raised tension in the peninsula, thus weakening South Korea's own security.

Roh tried to get rid of the insecure attachment to the U.S. and looked to seeking a balanced relationship in Northeast Asia. But the United States responded with a tougher stance on North Korea. The sharp antagonism between Washington and Pyongyang left no room for Roh's independent policy. Moreover, the conservatives blamed him for failing to stop North Korea's nuclear program.

In the early period of her presidency, Park seemed independent in her foreign policy. In fact, she was trying to leverage China to promote her unification strategy. But finding her goal unattainable, Park turned to radical policy and sided with the United States. Her administration allowed the United States to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea, which could destroy the strategic balance in Northeast Asia.

Moon seems to show that he is capable of making important decisions based on the security concerns of his country while not being influenced by outside forces. He had indicated he would consider scrapping the deployment of THAAD. But so far, Moon has not used his presidential power to abort the deployment. Instead, he preferred to leave the question in parliament, where the opposition parties have majority. In this way, the deployment of THAAD is unlikely to be scrapped.

As for how far the new president will go to redefine South Korea's independent foreign policy, only time will answer the question.

The author is an associate researcher of Asia-Pacific issues, China Institute of International Studies

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

Comments to liuyunyun@bjreview.com

Related:
South Korea's Winter of Discontent
Resurfaced Dispute
Tensions Rise Again
Uncle Sam's Hidden Agenda behind THAAD Deployment
Review and Prospects
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