South Korea’s presidential elections held on 9 May 2017 marked a turning point for South Korea as to whether and how the country will modify future domestic and international policies. Domestically, there is an investigation into how the next government is going to deal with the scandals that erupted during Park’s government and tackle the recession. Internationally, there are uneasy tasks related to relations with neighbouring countries: regarding the wartime history with Japan, North Korea’s nuclear program, and tensions with both China and the US stemming from the deployment of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence).
Some Chinese and Korean experts argue that THAAD has limited capabilities against North Korea and its real target is therefore China
Surrounding former President Park Geun Hye’s impeachment, candlelight protests urged the next government to tackle and eradicate the so-called Korean disease (Jeok-pye Cheong-san, or ‘deep-rooted evils’) which has long been tolerated – leading to corruption, bad administrative practices, and an abuse of authority. During Park’s government, the Park-Choi scandal was the catalyst for public outrage, yet the government’s response to both the Sewol ferry disaster in 2014 and the Mers outbreak in 2015 had already contributed to Korean dissatisfaction.
In this week’s unprecedented snap-presidential election, candidates represented the full spectrum of parliamentary politics, from the strong right to left-wing parties. But it was President Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party who appealed most to the Korean voters with his centre-left stance. As the new South Korean president, Moon must deliver on the promises he made in the campaign. These include: welfare system reform which will bring Korea in line with other OECD members, tackling high unemployment rates among young adults, creating more public sector jobs, ensuring LGBT rights amid a crackdown on gay soldiers, and addressing environmental issues.
Moon must also adress South Korea’s daunting national security agenda. Top of the list is the issue of the THAAD deployment, which has caused problematic relations with China and the United States. Many Koreans do not know exactly why THAAD was abruptly deployed following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, or what factors were taken into consideration in making the decision. China retaliated to former-President Park’s decision by restricting the operation of South Korean firms in China, Chinese travelling to Korea, and cancelling tours from K-pop stars.
The South Korean Defence Ministry has reiterated that THAAD will only operate in response to the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles. Nevertheless, Beijing seems concerned that it is a platform which will allow South Korea – alongside Japan – to aid the US in containing China. Some Chinese and Korean experts argue that THAAD has limited capabilities against North Korea and its real target is therefore China: South Korea does not need to intercept high-altitude missiles heading for a target beyond South Korea. In addition, Donald Trump has recently sought to apply leverage through THAAD to both North and South Korea.
In South Korea, the deployment of THAAD is politicalised by the conventional understanding of national security in relation to North Korea. The progressive camp recognises the need for managing tensions in a soft way – such as under the Kim Dae-jung and Rho Moo-hyun’s governments – through summit meetings, cultural exchanges, and economic cooperation. The conservatives, by contrast, are part of an older generation with strong anti-communist memories, and are thus likely to distrust North Korea and support the use of THAAD to increase pressure on Pyongyang. Both the soft and hard approaches have yielded little progress: neither has been adequate to stop the North Korean nuclear programme over the last twenty years.
Given Moon Jae-in’s ties to former President Rho Moo-hyun, it is of little surprise that Moon has called for dialogue with North Korea. Moon has announced that he will review the restrictive policies implemented by previous conservative governments, including the deployment of THAAD and by opening the possibility of summit meetings with Kim Jong-un. Even though he has not clearly articulated how such a strategy will be executed, he seems to be more dovelike in his approach to North Korea than recent administrations. However, given the conflict of interests among world powers, it is doubtful whether he can play a key role in managing the North Korea threat.
At this point in time, Koreans are looking ahead to how South Korea should hold its place on the world stage. At the domestic level, Koreans are aware that the new president faces staunch opposition from the National Assembly where no single party commands a majority. The fast paced international challenges will be evaluated in next year’s local election; so, too, will the Moon administration’s ability to disentangle the puzzle of peace on the Korean peninsula.
Joonhwa Cho is a PhD candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant at the Department of Politics and International Studies, SOAS University of London. His research project examines South Korea’s foreign aid policy and analyses its modalities through the cases of Rwanda and DRC. Lauren Dickey (@lfdickey) is a Ph.D. candidate in War Studies at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore, where she focuses on China’s strategy toward Taiwan. Image credit: CC by Republic of Korea/Flickr.