Following the dramatic, Rasputin-esque tale of bribery and corruption that led to the impeachment of South Korea’s president in December, a new leader has emerged. In a convincing electoral decision, South Koreans chose Moon Jae-in, a former human rights attorney.
His progressive politics might lead to a shakeup in the politics of the Korean Peninsula; he has called for reestablishment of diplomatic connections with North Korea, has expressed distaste for the American-provided Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system and wants to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex used by both North and South Koreans.
This more conciliatory tone coming from the Blue House, South Korea’s executive mansion, might clash with the more bellicose White House. However, even though many Americans — the president included — view military solutions to the North Korea problems as the most viable options, President Moon’s fondness for diplomacy could yield results.
In the past, peaceful means of resolving differences have been fairly effective. The Sunshine Policy of 1998 to 2008 saw warming relations between the Koreas, generally fewer military conflagrations and a glimmer of hope for a reunified peninsula.
On the American side, the Clinton Administration set up The Agreed Framework in 1994 that froze North Korea’s nascent nuclear weapons program for about eight years until it collapsed in 2002 under a cloud of accusations from both the Bush Administration and the North Korean government.
The laissez-faire “strategic patience” doctrine of the Obama Administration ultimately has proven unsuccessful, given the test of a spate of missiles and nuclear devices.
After eight years of hands-off politics, the election of Moon Jae-in might be just the catalyst the peninsula needs to soothe rising tensions.
North Korean leaders are generally pleased with the election of Moon Jae-in because they saw his predecessor, Park Guen-hye, as aggressive and conspiring with the United States to overthrow them. They see President Moon’s independent stance towards Washington, particularly regarding his acerbic reaction to the deployment of an American missile defense shield, as a sign he can be a trustworthy partner.
China, North Korea’s most important benefactor, is getting tired of the country’s unpredictability, as it reflects badly on Beijing’s aspirations of global leadership and has become a persistent thorn in their side in dealings with Japan and the United States.
As a result of China’s waning interest in unconditional support for the regime, North Korea might be inclined to work more closely with the South Koreans.
Given North Korea’s warm feelings toward the new South Korean leader and a lack of strong backing from China, now could be the ideal time for the United States to help lay the groundwork for a unified Korean Peninsula.
This is obviously not a likely outcome any time soon, but advocating for the process would be a step in the right direction. Increasing tensions are unquestionably dangerous for the region; the South Korean capital is only about 25 miles from the border with the North, and an outbreak of war could spell disaster for thousands of civilians living in the city.
The United States could lend a hand by facilitating negotiations between the south and the north. Practically, this might amount to Americans doing less rather than more, but in the long run, a negotiated settlement in the current political climate could allow for some stability on the Korean Peninsula, which is definitely in the United States’ interests.
Ian Hutchinson is a Greenfield native pursuing his master’s degree in international affairs in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at email@example.com.