Soon after becoming the president of South Korea on May 9, Moon Jae-in vowed to unify the Asia-Pacific nation.
Moon, the liberal leader who backs talks with North Korea, thanked his countrymen for allowing him to serve as the president, saying that he would try hard to bring lasting peace to the Korean peninsula. The newly-elected president also said that he would be willing to visit Pyongyang and to meet his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un in order to ensure regional peace.
Moon’s election as the head of state is widely considered as a significant political change in South Korea that was rocked by the impeachment of the previous president. Moon is touted as a negotiator and his skills will come in handy to defuse tensions on the Korean peninsula. He knows that there is no quick fix to the current situation, as things stand neither is North Korea likely to give up its nuclear weapons, nor is China particularly inclined to help the US. He is also aware of the fact that there is no immediate danger from North Korea (if the country is left alone) and, strategic patience and dialogue could help resolve the crisis.
Meanwhile, Moon admitted that it would be a difficult task to addressing North Korea’s advancing nuclear ambitions and soothing tensions with America and China. Delivering his first speech as president, he stressed that Seoul would negotiate with Washington and Beijing before holding talks with Pyongyang. It is important to ease the row over a US missile defence system being deployed in the South, he added.
The son of North Korean refugees, Moon appointed two liberal veterans as the prime minister and spy chief in an attempt to promote the ‘Sunshine Policy’ of engagement with North Korea. While Suh Hoon, a career spy agency official and a veteran of inter-Korea ties, will head the National Intelligence Service, Lee Nak-yon will serve as prime minister. The president also urged the South Korean Parliament to approve their appointments, insisting that his first priority would be to solve the security crisis. “If needed, I will fly straight to Washington. I will go to Beijing and Tokyo and, if the conditions are right, to Pyongyang also,” stressed the president-elect.
Although China and Japan congratulated Moon on winning the South Korean presidency, neighbouring North Korea made no immediate reaction. Even the North Korean state media made no mention of his victory on May 9. Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a message to Moon, saying that Beijing was willing to handle disputes with Seoul “appropriately” on the basis of mutual trust and understanding. President Xi expressed hope that South Korea would pay “attention to China’s security concerns” and deal “appropriately” with the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system issue. In a separate message, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that he looked forward to working with Moon to improve bilateral relations. Premier Abe even described South Korea as one of Japan’s most important neighbours.
However, it is difficult to predict the future of America-South Korea ties. While Washington wants to increase pressure on Pyongyang through further isolation and sanctions, President Moon stresses on greater engagement with the reclusive North. So, the newly-elected president will have to find a way to coax an increasingly belligerent North Korea to ease its nuclear and missile threats. Then only, it will be possible for him to maintain cordial ties with the US. How his plan to visit Pyongyang squares with American President Donald Trump taking an aggressive approach to North Korea remains to be seen.
After America decided to deploy an aircraft carrier strike group to the region to counter North Korea’s nuclear build up, President Trump asserted that a major conflict with Pyongyang was indeed possible. His position is beset by many contradictions. Washington wants Beijing to do more to rein in North Korea – Beijing is Pyongyang’s main economic lifeline – which doesn’t factor in that China, with its heart set on hegemony in Asia, considers America its principal strategic rival and feels there is no particular reason to oblige it. Moreover, even as Washington sets Beijing’s teeth on edge by deploying the THAAD anti-missile defence shield to South Korea, it now wants Seoul to pay for the shield. Moon has already hinted that he will try to cool tempers in the region by returning to the negotiating table.
The 19th South Korean Presidential Election took place on May 9, after the impeachment and dismissal of incumbent Park Geun-hye. The election was decided in a single round on a first-past-the-post basis. The National Election Commission (NEC) announced that Moon managed to get 41% of the votes, while his conservative rival Hong Joon-pyo bagged 24% votes and centrist candidate Ahn Cheol-soo gathered 21%. NEC Chairman Kim Yong-deok said in a statement: “The commission, based on the first clause of Article 187 of the Public Official Election Law, determines that the Democratic Party’s Moon Jae-in, who gathered the largest number of valid votes, was elected as president.”