Asia's Game of Thrones
Shakeup in South Korea

Another wrench has been thrown into South Korea’s turbulent political scene, in what could be a game-changer for the upcoming election to replace impeached President Park Geun-hye. FT:

Ban Ki-moon, the former UN secretary-general, has announced he will not run for the presidency of South Korea in a surprise move likely to shake up the election race. […]

“I’ve decided to give up on my desire to achieve political change and unite the country,” he told reporters gathered at the country’s National Assembly. […]

Moon Jae-in, a Liberal party candidate and veteran political operative, is the frontrunner to win the anticipated election.

According to a survey conducted by polling group R&Search this week, Mr Moon has a support rate of 35 per cent. Mr Ban’s approval rate stood at 16 per cent, with much of that coming from Koreans aged over 60.

What the horse-race coverage about Ban’s exit misses, however, is the potential strategic implications for the United States. With Moon Jae-in emerging as the clear frontrunner for the presidency, Washington could face an administration in Seoul that is more skeptical about the American approach to China and North Korea. Whereas outgoing President Park and her party were reliable U.S. allies and pushed for the controversial deployment of the THAAD missile defense system, Moon has taken a different line.

While no enemy of Washington, Moon has cast doubt on the efficacy of sanctions against North Korea, questioned the wisdom of the THAAD deployment, and argued that Seoul should pursue a “balanced diplomacy” between Washington and Beijing. These views are not outside the mainstream; many South Koreans resent the perceived U.S. domination of their country and think that THAAD will needlessly antagonize Beijing without meaningfully mitigating the threat from Pyongyang. Given the growing strain between China and South Korea over THAAD, South Koreans may well vote for a course correction that would mend ties with Beijing.

This does not mean that Moon would radically change course or scrap THAAD outright. He has backtracked somewhat on earlier threats to delay the deployment, and taken a less dramatic stance on U.S. relations than other colorful characters vying for the presidency. Still, as the new Trump Administration makes moves to lock in the THAAD deployment, and as General Mattis seeks to reassure South Korea this week on his first trip as Defense Secretary, any potential shift in Seoul’s stance bears watching.

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