The Good News and Bad News About South Korea’s New President

Moon Jae-in signals interest in meeting North Korea’s Kim Jong-un

South Korea’s new President Moon Jae-In speaks during his presidential inauguration ceremony on May 10, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

The pro-American political party that dominated South Korean politics has just been defeated. That could very well spell trouble for the United States—and President Donald Trump’s tough stand against North Korea.

There’s a chance that Moon Jae-in might come around to America’s thinking. It all depends on how North Korea responds to the new South Korean leader.

The Bad News About the South Korean Election

New South Korean President Moon Jae-in is no political neophyte. He once served former President Roh Moo-hyun as his chief of staff. And the late Roh Moo-hyun was no friend of the United States.

Roh Moo-hyun extended President Kim Dae-Jung’s “Sunshine Policy” of closer ties with North Korea. And he clashed with then-President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Here’s what Gates wrote about the former South Korean President describing America as a “threat.”

“I really liked Lee [Myung Bak]; he was tough-minded, realistic and very pro-American. (All in contrast to his predecessor Roh Moo-hyun, whom I had met with Seoul in November 2007 and decided was anti-American and probably a little crazy. He had told me that the biggest security threats in Asia were the United States and Japan).”

President Moon Jae-in has already signaled he wants to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. And that’s no small deal. South Korea doesn’t recognize the DPRK to the North because to do so might make the Korean split permanent. Plus, if one were to employ zero-sum game logic, anything that helps North Korea’s standing hurts its rivals. And with the news that North Korea’s grip on its people is slipping, the timing couldn’t be better for Kim Jong-un—especially now that a son of North Korean refugees is in power in Seoul.

Moon Jae-in also disagrees with America’s plans to maintain a THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system to stop a possible missile attack from North Korea. His Democratic Party won almost twice as many votes as the Liberty Korea Party and People’s Party, which took a tougher stance against Pyongyang. Former President Park Geun-hye backed the THAAD, but she was impeached and ousted in a scandal.

It’s Not All Gloom and Doom for America’s Korean Policy

However, there’s a chance that President Moon Jae-in may not be the same type of intransigent leader that Roh Moo-hyun was. The new South Korean president has said that his country must learn to say “no,” but that has more to do with South Korea than the U.S. At a recent conference on North Korea at Columbus State University, a professor of Asian History pointed out to us that South Korea suffers from the perception that the United States controls the country. President Moon Jae-in most likely wants the right to say no, but will not always do so.

Also, President Moon Jae-in’s family came from North Korea, but they were hardly communists. In fact, the story of how they came to South Korea reveals America played a positive role in his life. The New York Times reports, “Mr. Moon’s parents fled Communist rule during the Korean War and were among tens of thousands evacuated from the North Korean port of Hungnam by retreating American Navy vessels in the winter of 1950. They often told him about the Christmas sweets that American troops handed out to those packed into the ships during the journey.”

Moon Jae-in was born the year the war ended. So, he has fond tales of the U.S. in the Korean War and far less positive experiences with North Korea. That’s something for American policymakers to build on.

Moreover, there’s one powerful variable that could drive President Moon Jae-in back into America’s way of thinking: North Korea. Back when liberal President Kim Dae-jung was winning a Nobel Peace Prize for his Sunshine policy, North Korea was secretly embarking on developing a nuclear weapon and shocking its neighbor to the South with provocative tests. Fans of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun blame President George W. Bush for the failure of the Sunshine policy, but there’s no denying that North Korea took advantage of South Korea’s olive branch. It also ended Roh Moo-hyun’s political career, bringing the conservatives back into power in 2008. They’ve held power until now.

Kim Jong-un may welcome the new South Korean president to Pyongyang. They may even sign some sort of deal, like the reopening of the Kaesong Plant. But if North Korea’s paranoid ruler continues his reckless testing and bellicose attacks upon South Korea, Moon Jae-in will likely shift his policies towards those of the United States, something his mentor did not do until it was too late.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.