Bangkok Post

Moon’s South Korean ‘Ostpolitik’


Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea has just been elected South Korea’s new president. This is the second conservati­ve-to-liberal transition of power in the country’s democratic history. It began unexpected­ly last October, with the eruption of a corruption scandal involving then-president Park Geun-hye, culminatin­g in her impeachmen­t and removal from office earlier this year. Although Ms Park’s ouster was painful, it also demonstrat­ed the resilience of South Korea’s democracy.

Mr Moon will take office at a time of heightened tensions with North Korea. To understand what kind of policy he will pursue requires familiarit­y with liberal foreign-policy thinking in South Korea since the 1998-2003 presidency of Kim Dae-jung.

Kim had watched the Cold War come to a peaceful end in Europe, and he wanted to bring his own country’s ongoing confrontat­ion with the communist North to a similarly nonviolent conclusion. So he pursued direct engagement with North Korea, and his “Sunshine Policy” was taken up by his successor, Roh Moo-hyun. Before he died in 2009, Roh (under whom I served as foreign minister) was a political mentor and close friend to Mr Moon.

German reunificat­ion, preceded by West Germany’s policy of direct engagement, or Ostpolitik, with East Germany in the last decades of the Cold War, was a source of profound inspiratio­n for Kim. Former German Chancellor Willy Brandt began pursuing Ostpolitik in earnest in the 1970s, and Helmut Kohl maintained the policy after he came to power in 1982. Although Ostpolitik could not change the East German regime’s nature, it did make East Germany heavily dependent on West Germany, and gave Mr Kohl significan­t political leverage during the reunificat­ion process.

Of course, most Korean liberals recognise that North Korea is not East Germany, which never threatened West Germany or the United States with nuclear weapons. But Mr Moon and his supporters nonetheles­s find it regrettabl­e that conservati­ve South Korean presidents since Lee Myung-bak did not maintain the Sunshine Policy, as Mr Kohl had done with Ostpolitik. If they had, North Korea might have become more dependent on South Korea than on China, in which case US and South Korean leaders would not have to plead constantly with China to rein in the North Korean regime.

South Korea’s liberals also recognise that the strategic situation has changed since the Kim and early Roh eras, when North Korea had not yet become a de facto nuclear state. To realise his liberal dream of national unificatio­n, Mr Moon will have to confront a much larger challenge than anything his predecesso­rs faced.

Mr Moon will still pursue his dream, but he will do so prudently, and with an eye toward geopolitic­al realities. In a recent interview, he made it clear that he sees South Korea’s alliance with the US as the bedrock of its diplomacy, and promised not to begin talks with North Korea without first consulting the US. But, beyond formal talks, he could also try to engage with the North by reviving inter-Korean cooperatio­n on health or environmen­tal issues, which fall outside the scope of internatio­nal sanctions.

Over the last nine years, conservati­ve presidents — especially Ms Park — cut all contacts with North Korea to try to push it toward denucleari­sation. South Korean liberals argue that this policy compromise­d the national goal of peaceful reunificat­ion, by turning it into an empty slogan. They believe that maintainin­g inter-Korean relations will lay the groundwork for reunifying the Peninsula, just as Ostpolitik did in Germany. Thus, Mr Moon will most likely pursue a two-pronged strategy that pairs denucleari­sation with engagement and preparatio­ns for eventual reunificat­ion.

Mr Moon has acknowledg­ed that strong sanctions will be necessary to bring North Korea to the negotiatin­g table. So his government will have no fundamenta­l disagreeme­nt with the US, especially now that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that the US is not seeking regime change in North Korea.

Mr Moon will also have more flexibilit­y than his conservati­ve predecesso­rs to accommodat­e a US-led Iran-style deal aimed at freezing North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities. But if US President Donald Trump tries to make South Korea pay for America’s recently deployed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system, Mr Moon will have to refuse. Otherwise, he would face a serious domestic backlash from both the left and the right.

A final but crucial issue is China, with which Korea has had a bitter history. China has intervened whenever it has viewed the Korean Peninsula as a potential beachhead for an invading maritime power. China intervened in 1592, when Japan prepared to attack the Ming Dynasty by first subduing Chosn Dynasty Korea. It happened again during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894, and then during the Korean War in the early 1950s.

Despite this history, Korean liberals recognise that Chinese cooperatio­n will be necessary for achieving reunificat­ion. Accordingl­y, Mr Moon’s government will have to maintain a rock-solid alliance with the US while trying to improve relations with China, which have cooled since South Korea decided to host the THAAD system. Mr Moon might try to soothe Chinese concerns by suggesting that the system is temporary, and could be removed, pending North Korean denucleari­sation.

Those who predict that a Moon presidency will disrupt South Korean relations with the US and Japan are surely mistaken. After all, it was during the liberal Roh presidency that South Korea concluded the South Korea-US Free Trade Agreement, allowed for US troops to be redeployed within its borders, and dispatched its own troops to fight alongside the US in Iraq. Mr Moon will affirm that legacy and attempt to revive another, an updated and renewed version of the Sunshine Policy, which embodies South Korea’s most fundamenta­l long-term aspiration.

Yoon Young-kwan, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea, is Professor Emeritus of Internatio­nal Relations at Seoul National University.

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