Asia's Game of Thrones
Moon Wins in South Korea

After nine years of conservative rule and a months-long political vacuum, a left-of-center president will be taking power in South Korea—and that could spell trouble for Trump’s Korea policy. Financial Times reports:

Exit polls showed Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer, with over 41 per cent of the vote in Tuesday’s historic election, almost twice the share of his closest rival.

“Today’s sweeping victory is the result of our people’s desperate wish for a regime change,” the 64-year-old Mr Moon said as the result become apparent. “I will realise the two main tasks people desire — reform and national unity.” […]

While Donald Trump, US president, has warned of the risk of a “major, major conflict with North Korea”, Mr Moon, a former special forces operative, has promised a new approach to North Korea, based on engagement with Mr Kim’s regime as well as increased pressure.

On Tuesday, he said that South Korea needed to play a more active diplomatic role on North Korea — an issue on which it has been increasingly marginalised by the US and China amid a power vacuum in Seoul.

Moon’s foreign policy views are already sparking fears of a rift opening up with the United States. Moon is an advocate of the old “Sunshine Policy” of economic engagement with North Korea, a skeptic of U.S. hawkishness toward Pyongyang, and an opponent of the THAAD missile defense system. He recently wrote that Seoul needs to “learn to say no to America,” and the events of recent days—with the U.S. military controversially rushing THAAD into place while Trump grandstands about making the South Koreans pay for it—no doubt helped his case.

Still, it is unclear whether Moon can make a full return to the engagement policies of a decade ago. For one, the installment of THAAD is a fait accompli; although Moon has promised to review the deployment, he has shied away from promises to reverse it. And in the nine years since the liberals last held power, public opinion has shifted alongside the deteriorating security situation. As Scott Snyder notes in Forbes, South Korean polls reveal high support for the U.S. security alliance, high anxiety about the relationship with China, and low expectations about the prospects of engaging with the North. As a more practical constraint, Moon’s cabinet choices will be subject to the approval of a National Assembly his party does not control; it is unlikely, then, that he will select anti-U.S. ideologues who would fundamentally change course.

This does not mean that the U.S. should be unconcerned about Moon’s posture. He will certainly explore deeper engagement with Pyongyang, potentially undermining Trump’s push to turn up the heat via increased sanctions. And any more conflicting signals from Trump are likely to be exploited by the new administration to argue that Seoul should go its own way rather than following Washington’s lead in confronting Pyongyang.

Moon is set to be inaugurated tomorrow, so whatever changes he may bring could come quite soon. Let’s hope that the Trump administration is already building bridges.

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