New pres­i­dent, new chap­ter on Korean Penin­sula

Frosty re­la­tions be­tween South and North thaw­ing?

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - Thomas Walkom’s com­men­tary ap­pears in Torstar news­pa­pers. THOMAS WALKOM

South Korea has elected a new pres­i­dent. This may not seem of much im­por­tance to Cana­di­ans. But it is. Last Tues­day’s elec­tion adds a new dy­namic to the nu­clear cri­sis grip­ping the di­vided Korean Penin­sula.

Sim­ply put, in­com­ing pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in wants more talk and less con­fronta­tion with North Korea. He’s not nec­es­sar­ily op­posed to the eco­nomic sanc­tions lev­elled against the North, be­cause of its de­ci­sion to de­velop nu­clear-armed mis­siles. But, in his cam­paign at least, he ar­gued that the aim of these sanc­tions must be to bring North Korea back to the bar­gain­ing ta­ble.

That puts him at odds with the ad­min­is­tra­tion of U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, which has de­manded that North Korean dic­ta­tor Kim Jong Un aban­don his nu­clear pro­gram be­fore talks — or in­deed any­thing else — can hap­pen.

(It may or may not put him at odds with Trump him­self, who re­cently said that if the con­di­tions were right, he would be hon­oured to meet dic­ta­tor Kim.)

For Moon, 64, this elec­tion vic­tory is a chance to put South Korea back at the cen­tre of the Korean drama. . Moon Jae-in de­clared vic­tory in South Korea’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, which was called seven months early af­ter for­mer pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye was im­peached for her in­volve­ment in a cor­rup­tion scan­dal.

The pres­i­dent-elect has com­plained that too much at­ten­tion is be­ing paid to what oth­ers — pri­mar­ily the U.S., Ja­pan and China — want from the two Koreas. He has ques­tioned the Amer­i­can de­ci­sion to stage an­timis­sile de­fences in South Korea that are pri­mar­ily aimed at pro­tect­ing Ja­pan and the con­ti­nen­tal U.S. The child of North Korean refugees, Moon — like many in the penin­sula — says he longs for the re­uni­fi­ca­tion of a coun­try di­vided by war since 1950.

The North and the South do dif­fer over what form that re­uni­fi­ca­tion will take.

But Moon’s elec­tion ap­pears to her­ald the re­birth of the South’s so-called sunshine pol­icy to­ward the North. In­sti­tuted in 1998 by for­mer pres­i­dent Kim Dae-jung, the sunshine pol­icy rep­re­sented a rad­i­cal change in di­rec­tion for two regimes that are still tech­ni­cally at war with one an­other.

For the first time since 1950, there was trade and in­vest­ment across the bor­der. For the first time since the Korean War, the lead­ers of North and South met, talked and em­braced. South Korean busi­nesses set up fac­to­ries in the North to pro­duce goods made by work­ers in the North.

The South never aban­doned its al­liance with the U.S. Thou­sands of Amer­i­can troops re­main in the coun­try on high alert.

Sim­i­larly, the North did not aban­don its provo­ca­tions. It con­tin­ued its nu­clear pro­gram apace. In 2006, with the sunshine pol­icy in full swing, it thumbed its nose at the world by test­ing its first atomic weapon.

But in other day-to-day ar­eas, ten­sions be­tween the two Koreas did abate. In 2000, Kim Dae-jung won a No­bel Peace Prize for his ef­forts. In 2003, South Kore­ans voted in a new pres­i­dent ded­i­cated to con­tin­u­ing the sunshine pol­icy. It was dur­ing this pe­riod that Moon, a hu­man rights lawyer and for­mer spe­cial-forces com­mando, en­tered the world of na­tional pol­i­tics.

The sunshine pol­icy was killed in 2008 when right-winger Lee Myung-bak won the pres­i­dency. It stayed dead when an­other con­ser­va­tive, Park Gyun-hye, suc­ceeded him in 2013.

It is com­ing back to life now only be­cause Park’s im­peach­ment for cor­rup­tion ne­ces­si­tated a spe­cial pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Still, any ef­fort by Moon to ease the re­la­tion­ship be­tween North and South Korea can only help. Sanc­tions haven’t worked. Nor has sabre-rat­tling.

In the­ory, China could use its eco­nomic clout to force the col­lapse of the Korea. But for its own rea­sons, it is un­likely to do that.

Hawks in both Seoul and Wash­ing­ton say Moon is naive to call for more talk. His­tory sug­gests he would be naive not to.

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