Commentary | 11 May 2017

What South Korea's election result could mean for the region

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald

  • Merriden Varrall

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald

  • Merriden Varrall

Despite South Korea's new President Moon Jae-in being a former human rights lawyer, the results for this week's election will be welcomed in Beijing.

Firstly, it will be a great relief that there is someone in the role. Despite acting president Hwang having done a reasonable job, and given Beijing's legendary distaste for uncertainty, policymakers in China will be glad to know who they will be dealing with.

Additionally, President Moon has promised he will "review" the installation of the Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defence (THAAD) system that has been a source of enormous tension in China. Although South Korea and the US argue the system is designed to defend against North Korean missiles, the Chinese argue they fear it could be used against China (although most non-Chinese analysts argue this is not the case.)

Given the 2014-2016 "honeymoon period" between China and South Korea, which resulted from a campaign to bring the two nations closer together, China's inability to pressure South Korea into reconsidering THAAD has been viewed by Beijing as a betrayal. It is too early to say how far President Moon will go in reviewing THAAD, and whether the hopes of Beijing will be realised. But suffice to say, a lot will ride on Moon's approach.

Another reason President Moon's victory will be mostly welcomed by China is his commitment to engaging with North Korea is more aligned with Beijing's own policies towards the peninsula than Moon's predecessor, Park Geun-hye. Ms Park and conservative president Lee Myung-bak before her, took a tough line on North Korea. In 2016, Seoul shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex, one of the few symbols of co-operation between north and south, in response to North Korea's escalating missile program.

President Moon has argued that the hawkish approach adopted by his predecessors has done nothing to prevent North Korea expanding its nuclear program, and he has called instead for engagement and talks. Similarly, and diametrically opposed to the US approach, China has long held that taking a hardline stance on North Korea would only force the regime into a defensive corner. It has suggested that treating North Korea as a legitimate international player would better serve the goal of denuclearisation. As an example, China has invited North Korea to participate in the upcoming Belt and Road Initiative Summit to be held in Beijing next week – which has some US commentators slapping their foreheads in frustration.

Above all, China's priority for North Korea is stability. China does share a goal of denuclearisation with the US, but this is as far as the two countries' interests overlap. Beijing does not currently have a good relationship with Pyongyang - the days of "as close as lips and teeth" are over, but the dislike of Kim Jong Un does not equate to a desire for regime change. For political reasons, China does not want instability in North Korea (specifically for fear of refugees spilling over into the mainland). For strategic reasons, China does not want anything pro-US on its north-eastern border: even a bad relationship with a pariah nuclear power is better than that.

China has proffered a couple of policy options for how concerned countries can deal with North Korea, namely, the "double suspension" and the parallel track dialogue approaches. Recently there have been unusual levels of debate in China about whether its approach towards North Korea has been effective, but there is little evidence of a change in policy towards anything more hawkish. With South Korea now looking as if it will be working alongside China to carefully engage with North Korea as a means to manage (if not resolve) its increasing belligerence, a more substantial policy shift by China will be even less likely.

This may all add up to the US being left out in the cold, given its tough rhetoric on North Korea recently. On the other hand, perhaps it will all mesh rather nicely with President Donald Trump's offer to meet with Kim Jong Un. China will certainly see the election of President Moon as an opportunity for international approaches to North Korea to be reset in a more friendly way, with the hope that doing so could ameliorate some of Kim Jong Un's existential angst and cool his ambitions for North Korea's nuclear program.