Even before the new president of South Korea entered office, we wrote an article highlighting the problems that awaited the successor to Park Geun-hye’s presidency. And at this point, the author would want to draw the readers’ attention to the fact that in assessing the course of action that the current leader of the Republic of Korea would assume, we must divorce ourselves from pleasant illusions associated with the dual logic that if the past president was bad, it naturally follows that the present one will be good, and that he will definitely try to do things differently and better. The question of how this usually ends is best answered illustratively by the example of Donald Trump, and how the attitude of the public towards him dramatically shifted during his first hundred days in office.
In all fair assessment, Moon Jae-in is more than likely to take a different stance on many issues. However, this is not so much related to ideological differences existing within the state as to the factional struggles. Such a kind of logic and way of thinking requires the opposition to criticize any initiative of the current administration, and on having come to power, they are as a matter of principle always obliged to oppose its decisions.
Besides this, we must remember that some sort of program and over-the-top statements are not identical to their immediate implementation, especially where it concerns South Korea. As a rule, it takes the president between twelve and eighteen months to carry out radical measures aimed at purging the officials in government remaining from the previous administration and placing supporters in key positions and reestablishing a vertical power structure. Here, we should recall that Park Geun-hye failed to succeed in this, and a significant part of her plans collapsed under the fire of criticism from both the left and the right.
In this respect, it would be interesting to look at the most high-profile initiatives of the new president. First, there is his divergent statement that he is going to revise the agreement on THAAD. Moon Jae-in actually spoke about revising the terms and conditions. But what he meant was that it is the new administration that should make the final decision. And when, during a debate, he was asked about a specific strategy, he reduced it to the fact that he will be able to agree with all the parties concerned and somehow (however it happened) to adequately convince China that the deployment of the missile defense system does not pose a serious security threat.
The same goes for his statements about North Korea. Agreed, Moon Jae-in does criticize the tough stance taken by the conservatives and talks about the need for dialogue. It is also true that Moon Jae-in said that the South should accept the people of the North in order to achieve peaceful unity someday. For this, we must recognize Kim Jong-un as their ruler and an important dialogue partner with us. Above all, the goal of sanctions should be to bring the DPRK to the negotiation table.
It is also true that Moon Jae-in promised to make every effort to ensure peace on the Korean peninsula, and talked about his desire to visit North Korea for the normalization of bilateral relations. “I’m ready to fly to Washington immediately if necessary. I will visit Beijing and Tokyo if the necessary conditions are created, and I will also go to Pyongyang.”
However, what is Moon Jae-in really implying? First, North Korea should abandon its nuclear program. Further, it would be very good if it carried out democratic reforms. Later, the South would obviously be willing to help the now-reformed North economically. In fact, both Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye put forward something very similar at the beginning of their terms in office: “money” first. Therefore, despite the possible noise, the author expects little in terms of change. Maybe inter-Korean exchanges will be part of it. There are high chances that South Korean tourists would again be able to visit the DPRK. Or, if we want to be more enthusiastic, the Kaeson industrial complex, where South Korean small and medium-sized business will use a super-cheap North Korean labor force, may even be relaunched. In the most ideal variant, a demonstrative summit could be held at which some sort of loud declaration would be adopted, which in fact is more a protocol of intentions. However, it is very unlikely that something more tangible could be achieved.
As for relations with neighboring countries, the new South Korean president practically said nothing about Russia. Here, it should be noted that under Park Geun-hye, relations between the two countries were not altogether bad. For instance, South Korea officially refrained from imposing the sanctions set against the Russian Federation because of the events in the Ukraine. There is a good likelihood that relations with China will stall around the question of the THAAD system. Relations with Japan can wait for new aggravations, because, within the logic of the factional struggle, on the one hand, and left-wing nationalism, on the other, Seoul will continue demanding Tokyo to cry and repent, thus further strengthening the block of problems that has already resulted in a diplomatic crisis with the resumption of the South Korean discussion on the “comfort women”.
The author would certainly like the new president to implement substantial changes across the entire political and social system of the Republic of Korea. The vicious circle, in which every president of the Sixth Republic, except perhaps Nobel laureate Kim Dae-jung, is initially met with high expectations but leaves office under loud condemning cries of being the worst president in history, has to be broken. The author would very much like the new president of the Republic of Korea not to become a second version of Roh Moo-hyun, whose government in many ways disavowed the wealth that Kim Dae-jung had accumulated, which led to a political crisis that resulted in the Conservative representative winning with a very similar gap. But on what Moon Jae-in has to do in order not to become the second Roh Moo-hyun, the author will most likely write in a separate article.
Against all this background, a number of things are not entirely hopeless to the author. To start with, the security structures obviously need to undergo major changes, followed by a change of leadership in the National Intelligence Service. Sue Hong (who had worked in intelligence for 28 years as a specialist on the North) has already announced his readiness to visit Pyongyang, stressing the need to hold meetings between the leaders of the South and the North and expressing regret over the crisis in which inter-Korean relations have turned out to be.
At the very least, this gives hope that the constant and dense stream of misinformation, related to the attempts of the South Korean conservatives to liquidate the DPRK by means of external intervention will cease. As we have written many times before, the United States does not have the ability to collect information on the DPRK independently, therefore relying on what it is told by Seoul. This source has reported for ten years already that the North Korean regime is on the verge of collapse, in a constant crisis, and about to crash and burn, because it will face a famine tomorrow, and a color revolution beyond. Placing trust in such information seriously increased the probability of adopting decisions with catastrophic consequences. If you think that you have a colossus on clay feet, you can easily be convinced that giving it a good kick would get it all come tumbling down.
Meanwhile, the relaying of truthful information about the DPRK can substantially adjust the course of the United States towards a strategy that is not fraught with a large-scale regional conflict. And with a certain tactic, the Republic of Korea can play a very important role as an intermediary between Seoul and Washington, relaying the plans of each side to the other. This role of an “honest translator” can bring closer the establishment of a mutual dialogue, and here, the author draws the readers’ attention to the fact that the six-party talks were a constructive platform only as long as the Republic of Korea together with China and Russia made efforts to lead Washington and Pyongyang to reach a consensus.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. (History), leading researcher at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.