WASHINGTON — The recently elected liberal leader of South Korea is seeking warmer ties with North Korea, clashing with the Republican in the White House intent on snuffing out the North’s nuclear weapons program.
The election victory of Moon Jae-in in South Korea confronts Washington with a scenario it faced a decade-and-a-half ago, when differences on how to deal with Pyongyang fueled tension with an ally that hosts U.S. forces.
Only now, the stakes are much higher.
North Korea is approaching the capability to threaten America with a nuclear-tipped missile. President Donald Trump wants to tighten an economic vise around the country and has even raised the possibility of military force. Moon has a very different perspective, believing confrontation has done nothing to stop North Korea from expanding its nuclear arsenal.
Moon’s election victory Tuesday presents a “risk of tension and divergence of opinion” between the U.S. and South Korea, said Daniel Russel, who was President Barack Obama’s top diplomat for East Asia.
“But it’s wrong to assume that’s inevitable,” said Russel, now a senior fellow at the Asia Society.
North Korea’s heightened threat could change Moon’s calculus once in power. And he will need to forge political unity at home after months of upheaval, likely slowing any attempt at rapprochement with the North’s unpredictable leader, Kim Jong Un, at a time of broad international support for sanctions.
Hopes of inter-Korean reconciliation have withered since Moon served as chief of staff for Roh Moo-hyun, the last South Korean leader to adopt a “sunshine” policy of diplomatic and economic outreach toward the North.
Roh rose to power in 2002 on a wave of anti-U.S. sentiment after a U.S. military vehicle hit and killed two 14-year-old girls. He endured a difficult relationship with then-U.S. President George W. Bush and North Korea was a central point of contention.
Bush had declared North Korea part of an “axis of evil” along with Iraq and Iran, ditching the engagement policy he inherited from President Bill Clinton. Only in Bush’s second term did he give negotiations an unsuccessful try.
Despite the differing philosophies, the U.S.-South Korea partnership survived. Victor Cha, a Korea expert who served in the Bush White House, said the lack of rapport between the leaders didn’t prevent Roh from sending South Korean troops to Afghanistan and Iraq or negotiating a U.S.-Korean free trade pact.
In the last decade, with conservatives running Seoul, bilateral relations have been smoother. The allies have been lockstep on North Korea, tightening sanctions and refusing negotiations unless the North agrees on the goal of giving up its nuclear weapons. The South recently deployed a U.S. missile defence system. And at Washington’s prodding, Seoul patched up historically tense ties with Japan, another U.S. ally.
Moon’s replacement of Park Geun-hye, who was ousted in a corruption scandal, casts doubt on these positions.
He has called for pressure on Pyongyang to be balanced with engagement, voicing openness to nuclear talks with Kim. He wants to reopen a joint industrial park that was closed last year to deprive the North of revenue.
Moon also has spoken of reconsidering deployment of the U.S. missile defence system known as THAAD that the last government rushed into service. China contends that the system’s radar ranges into its territory and threatens its own security.
Evans Revere, a former senior U.S. diplomat, said if Moon offers such concessions he will be at odds with Trump, potentially causing a worse rift than under Roh. The North’s increasing threat may make the U.S. less tolerant of policy differences with Seoul than in the past, he said.
While Moon has been more conciliatory toward North Korea, he could stoke tensions with Japan. He has suggested revisiting a deal settling the historical dispute related to abuses suffered by Korean women in Japanese military brothels during World War II. That agreement’s collapse would set back security co-operation between America’s two key regional allies. Together, they host tens of thousands of U.S. troops.
The White House said Tuesday it looks forward to working with Moon.
But Trump’s own statements could complicate matters, too. Before South Koreans voted, he demanded a payment of $1 billion for the THAAD system. He also trashed the U.S.-South Korea free trade pact and caused consternation by recounting China’s President Xi Jinping’s comment to him that Korea was once part of China.