Published daily by the Lowy Institute

How would a President Moon Jae-in approach North Korea and China?

If Moon Jae-in wins the Blue House, his stance on THAAD will be a good indicator of how much influence China can have over South Korea’s foreign policy.

Moon Jae-In, presidential election candidate for the Democratic Party of Korea Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Moon Jae-In, presidential election candidate for the Democratic Party of Korea Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Published 6 Apr 2017 

Having narrowly lost his bid for the South Korean Presidency in 2012, Moon Jae-in’s second chance is not far away. What a time to be a left-wing candidate when Park Geun-hye, the conservative who beat him last time around, after her impeachment and arrest, is now passing her days in a solitary cell in a Seoul jail on charges of corruption and bribery. Meanwhile, Moon is topping public polls, and many predict he will win the election to be held on 9 May. If so, Moon is likely to make significant changes to South Korea’s outlook. Obviously the US alliance is an important and polemical issue in South Korean foreign policy, but Moon will also face two other significant issues. Following is a discussion of likely changes to North Korea and China policy under a Moon presidency.

What is Moon’s vision for the North?

Moon has made clear his intention to 'extend an olive branch to North Korea' and to 'embrace and be united with' the North Korean people. He has committed to a 'two-step' process of engagement with Pyongyang, focusing first on economic unification by expanding trade engagement and, secondly, on re-establishing levers of influence in the North, with the eventual goal of political unification. To this first end, Moon has called for an immediate re-opening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (a joint-venture in the North Korean border city that closed in early 2016), regardless of developments in Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Moon’s vision for inter-Korean relations is a revival of the pro-engagement policy of the late President (and Moon’s friend and mentor), Roh Moo-hyun. His vision is akin to that of the Sunshine Policy of the late President Kim Dae Jung, leading some to dub his approach as the 'Moonshine Policy'. For a decade (1998-2008), the Kim and Roh administrations promoted inter-Korean relations through people-to-people and economic exchanges, as well as family reunions, while maintaining a separate bilateral and multilateral dialogue on the nuclear issue.

Conservative critics have long argued the Sunshine Policy did little to remedy the North’s insecurity, but instead provided the regime with the hard cash and time to further develop its nuclear weapons program, while ignoring the North’s human rights issues.

The two consecutive conservative governments of Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) and Park Geun-hye (2013-2017) abandoned the Sunshine Policy, cutting economic and cultural ties with North Korean people as well as direct channels with Pyongyang. The contrast between the two approaches has been so great that inter-Korean football exchanges have been one of the few constants in relations on the Korean Peninsula in the last 20 years.

In their turn, critics of the conservative approach point out that it has presided over a deterioration of the security environment and pushed North Korea to the status of de facto nuclear state. And in the meantime, the 2011 change in leadership in the North has made the task of engagement increasingly difficult. This highlights an important question; if Moon does push a pro-engagement policy with the North, will it be possible for him to gain traction with Kim Jong Un?

This current security environment raises the important question of how the Moonshine Policy might account for new realities on the Korean Peninsula. The geopolitical environment has changed since the end of the Sunshine Policy and the nuclear threat posed by North Korea is now felt more acutely than ever before. North Korea has enhanced capabilities, launching missiles within 200 nautical miles of Japan, and a widely assumed end-goal of miniaturising its nuclear warheads to fit on a long-range missile capable of hitting the US. There is little sign that under Kim Jong Un these priorities will change, having enshrined nuclear capabilities into the North Korean constitution.

Could he restore relations with China?

The THAAD issue has become a defining challenge for all of South Korea’s presidential candidates  as it cuts across the key issues in South Korean foreign policy: the US alliance; the North Korea security threat; and, especially, South Korea’s relations with China.

China has long opposed the deployment on the grounds that it is a US effort to contain it and because the system’s X-band radar capabilities can be used to look deep into Chinese territory. Beijing’s protests against the system have become more belligerent and intensive. A citizen boycott of South Korean products - the equivalent of an  informal economic sanction - is the subject of South Korean complaint to the WTO. The boycott shows little sign of abating, however, and it seems likely that China will keep the pressure on THAAD throughout the short presidential election campaign.

Many in Moon’s camp are sceptical about the deployment of THAAD, however his articulated policy is more nuanced, promising voters that if he were elected, he would review the deployment of THAAD and consult with both the US and China as part of the process.  This approach reflects the care Moon is taking to present a small target on THAAD so this issue doesn’t hold too much weight in deciding his Presidential bid. Public opinion in South Korea has swung dramatically against China and an anti-THAAD stance could be viewed as too lenient toward China and jeopardise his chances of gaining power. Moon is reluctant to publicly voice scepticism about THAAD, especially as his more experienced rival, Ahn Cheol-soo, who has just been nominated as the official candidate for the People’s Party, is waiting in the wings with a centre-left alternative; backing THAAD deployment but willing to re-consider if China exerts its influence over the North.

Moon’s handling of China and North Korea will have a far reaching impact. If he wins the Blue House, his stance on THAAD is likely to give some indication of how much influence China can have over South Korea’s foreign policy. This could be an important precedent, not just for South Korea, but for  all of China’s neighbours. And his approach to North Korea will play a significant role in setting up the dynamics on the Korean Peninsula for the next five years to come.

You may also be interested in