Seoul (GPA) – With the election of Moon Jae-In from the liberal opposition in South Korea, a major hindrance on US power projection in Asia may come from Seoul.
As Trump has continued escalating tensions in Southeast Asia, it was almost impossible that the issue of cooperation between the US and South Korea wouldn’t become a major question in the latter country’s recent election. After all, this is the country most likely to pay the highest price for a US misstep in the region.
Between the Trump’s regimes’ recent actions concerning a misplaced “armada,” the deployment of an unpopular missile defense system and talk of scrapping a crucial US-Korea trade deal, trust between the two allies seems to have reached an all time low. As a result, the long time alliance between the two countries has become one of the top issues discussed in the lead up to today’s presidential election in South Korea.
It’s likely that Trump’s rapid escalation of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula was in part caused by this election as the predicted front runner, Moon Jae-In, has achieved his expected victory on policies opposed to the US agenda. This became obvious when the Trump administration rushed to deploy the THAAD missile defense system to South Korea before a new president could take office.
The THAAD deployment was highly unpopular in some sectors of South Korea who worry that not only will this make a bad situation with North Korea worse, but also damage relations with Beijing, which sees the missile system as an infringement on China’s right to self defense. On top of that, as if intentionally trying to make things worse, Trump also proposed that South Korea “pay” for the deployment of the system to the tune of a billion and a half dollars.
The fallout from the THAAD deployment and the confusion surrounding payment for it, along with the mix up concerning the location of a US Navy strike group and talks of cancelling a free trade deal, may have been handled by South Korea’s interim government but they also provide plenty of opportunity for Moon and his liberal opposition party. Combining this with the fact that the conservative parties in South Korea now have a major mark on their record, thanks to the corruption of recently impeached president Park Geun-hye, it seems South Korea’s policy may be changing for the better.
After nearly a decade of militant conservative rule, Moon has pledged to make some major changes. The most significant of these changes is reviving the “sunshine policy” of diplomacy with North Korea that moon advocated for previously when he was an assistant to former president Kim Dae-jung.
The sunshine policy has many implications, but arguably the most significant is that it may close the window on Trump’s dreams of a possible military solution to the question of North Korea. Moon has already spoken of removing the THAAD system during the election, and if this were to happen in combination with rapprochement with North Korea, it could be a new day on the peninsula.
The sunshine policy is one of cooperation between the two Koreas, including possible diplomatic and economic partnerships that could change the dynamic of fear mongering in Seoul. It’s unlikely that the THAAD system will go (which is why its deployment was rushed to begin with) but at the same time, Moon might hopefully find a way to make it unnecessary.
Moon has also expressed a desire to improve ties with Beijing, since China is one of South Korea’s closest trading partners. With China added into the mix it’s unlikely that this region will continue to allow the US to dictate policies (like toppling Pyongyang) for the region that could end up causing massive economic harm to all the countries or worse – as in nuclear weapons worse.
If Moon only keeps some of his campaign promises – which he’ll likely be able to thanks to the embarrassing fall of the conservative opposition – the dynamic between South Korea and their regional neighbors could change the whole equation. While Trump was busy blustering about destroying Kim Jong-Un, it seems he forgot to ask what the people actually living near North Korea want.
Obviously, it’s highly unlikely Moon would do anything like end the military alliance between his country and the US – after all, this would mean South Korea would have to greatly boost military spending – but this may signal a change in who makes decisions concerning North Korea. If Moon’s policy promises go into effect, the people of South Korea are likely to have a greater say in what happens with their nuclear armed neighbors.
James Carey is an organizer based in Detroit, Michigan, founder of Geopolitics Alert, and an experienced analyst on Middle Eastern affairs with a particular focus on Turkey. He also covers topics ranging from Latin America and Asia to Europe. You can also hear James in his weekly podcast; The Left is Dead which he co-hosts with investigative journalist Jake Anderson.