Published daily by the Lowy Institute

No honeymoon for South Korea’s post-election security posture

Even under revitalised leadership, there are significant geopolitical and domestic constraints on Seoul’s room for manoeuvre with North Korea.

Photo: Flickr/Republic of Korea
Photo: Flickr/Republic of Korea
Published 24 May 2017 

With a left-leaning leader back in command in the Blue House following two consecutive conservative administrations, South Korea's new President is crafting an approach to North Korea that will attempt to reset the antagonistic course of inter-Korean relations during a critical moment of escalating tension on the Peninsula. Even under revitalised leadership, however, there are significant geopolitical and domestic constraints on Seoul's room to manoeuvre with its neighbour to the north.

North Korea has already conducted two ballistic missile tests in the short period since Moon Jae-In's inauguration on 10 May. Coming as they did after a prolonged pause in missile flight testing from October 2016 until February of this year, the latest tests were a clear signal inter alia that there is to be no honeymoon for the new President. There will be more missile tests in the weeks and months ahead, and a very strong likelihood that North Korea will resume nuclear testing sooner or later.

During the campaign Moon talked about regaining ownership of the North Korean nuclear issue. His essential challenge, which confronts all Blue House incumbents, is to avoid lapsing into a reactive posture to North Korea's 'provocations' that stymies Seoul's strategic room for manoeuvre, ceding the initiative to Pyongyang and the external powers active on the Peninsula. Augmenting this challenge, South Korea lacked a presence and a voice on the international stage in the prolonged lead-up to former President Park Geun-hye's impeachment in March. Now, at least, South Korea has an elected leader able to articulate its preferences and concerns at the international level.

Moon's pro-engagement preferences for dealing with North Korea are well known from his time as former President Roh Moo-hyun's (2003-08) Chief of Staff, thus the assumption that he will seek to resume inter-Korean exchanges on a similar scale to the 'Sunshine' policies of his progressive forebears. This potentially puts Seoul at odds with Washington's hard-line approach under US President Donald Trump in the context of international efforts to curb Pyongyang's accelerating advance towards a long-range nuclear missile capability. While Washington and Seoul share the common goal of de-nuclearising North Korea, such variance in their approaches towards North Korea carries the risk of friction within the US-South Korea alliance during Moon and Trump's coincident terms. However, the gulf may not be as wide as feared.

Two key aspects of South Korea's policy approach under Moon have thus far emerged.

1. 'Conditional Dialogue'

Moon's approach to engaging North Korea has been framed as a policy of 'conditional dialogue'. This is consistent with Moon's statements in the presidential campaign. During the debates, Moon stated 'there cannot be a dialogue with Kim Jong-un for the sake of a dialogue', and that he intended to go to Pyongyang only under the right circumstances, once the nuclear issue is in the process of being resolved. Moon's firm responses to North Korea's most recent missile tests have reaffirmed conditionality in his approach to dialogue, and also appear designed to dispel the accusation raised throughout the election campaign that he is 'soft' on Pyongyang.

It is therefore questionable whether the mothballed Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang tourist zones will be reactivated by Seoul unless Pyongyang gives a clear signal on de-nuclearisation. Moreover, Pyongyang's acquiescence is far from assured, given the overriding priority of nuclear development. If Pyongyang continues to show its teeth, Seoul will have no choice but to prepare its deterrent military capabilities. In the face of renewed North Korean missile launches, Moon has already ordered the speeding up of the mostly indigenous KAMD (Korean Air and Missile Defence) system. One interpretation is that Moon is politically preparing the ground to acknowledge the need for the US-supplied Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. Moon studiously avoided taking a fixed position on THAAD during the debates, even as the system was hurriedly deployed to South Korea just ahead of the election. Alternatively, by stressing KAMD as Korea's frontline missile defence system, Moon could be leaving his options open on whether to proceed with THAAD, with a view to resetting frayed relations with China. Beijing has conducted a sustained a campaign of informal economic sanctions in protest at THAAD's deployment, alleging that it undermines China's nuclear deterrent. It remains too early to tell which way the Moon Administration will go. President Trump's intervention, late in the campaign, suggesting that Seoul foot a $1 billion bill for THAAD's deployment has unfortunately made it a 'toxic' issue within the alliance.

2. Diplomacy first

The second aspect of Moon's unfolding North Korea policy suggests a greater role for diplomacy may supplement Seoul's traditional reliance on the US alliance and South Korea's own defence capability. Shortly after North Korea launched its first missile, Moon designated a group of special envoys to the US, China, Japan, Russia, Germany and the EU. While it is customary to appoint special envoys to major countries, this was the first time that such a team was assigned to Europe. The envoys, largely consisting of former ambassadors and security specialists, collectively signal an effort to reconnect independent diplomatic ties to the major powers, and to emphasise diplomatic levers as Moon's preferred solution to an impending security crisis.

Moon's senior appointments amplify this focus on diplomacy as means to resolve relations with North Korea. Chung Eui-yong, former ambassador and permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, has been appointed as National Security Adviser, a role typically given to military defence specialists. Kang Kyung-wha, a career diplomat and former assistant secretary-general in the UN, has become South Korea's first female nominee for foreign minister (despite her relative inexperience dealing with regional or nuclear issues). Among Moon's advisers for unification, foreign affairs and national security, Moon Chung-in is a Yonsei University professor intellectually close to Moon's political mentor, the late Roh Moo-hyun.

Another key appointment is that of Suh Hoon, nominated to head the National Intelligence Service (NIS). Suh's specialist North Korea background, including laying the groundwork for the 2007 inter-Korean summit, is a clear indication that Moon intends the new designated NIS director to take a leading role in dealing with Pyongyang. His appointment hearing will be held by the National Assembly on 29 May. Parliamentary approval is not required for the director of NIS (unlike the nominee for foreign minister, who must be confirmed by the National Assembly). This line-up of appointees from non-traditional spheres signals Moon's intention to distance his administration from previous corrupt practices, but it also points in the direction of a negotiated approach towards resolving North Korea's security challenges. Diplomacy over hard-line defence measures will be the ruling principle of Moon's North Korea policy.

Reflecting a somewhat hopeful national mood after impeaching a corrupt administration, public opinion in South Korea is looking favourable for Moon in these early days of his administration. However, his ability to shape events is already being tested by Pyongyang, which can be relied upon to exploit friction points between Seoul, its currently unpredictable ally America, and an increasingly assertive China. Managing these overlapping problems on top of the immediate security challenge posed by North Korea will quickly test the dynamism of Seoul's new President and his administration.

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