BY: NATE KERKHOFF
While Northeast Asia watchers were intently focused on the Kim Jong Un-Donald Trump summit on February 27-28 in Vietnam, political events with less direct, though significant regional repercussions, were unfolding in South Korea.
The main right-wing party, the Liberty Korea Party, concluded its national convention on February 27th in an environment of fierce infighting over dealing with the ghosts of conservative past and present.
The result has been persistent low public approval ratings for the conservatives and a sustained period of progressive mandate for the government in Seoul. Moon Jae-in easily won the presidency in 2017, and his Democratic Party achieved an overwhelming victory in the 2018 National Assembly elections.
The chaos engulfing one of South Korea’s major political parties has regional implications. An issue that starkly divides South Korea’s conservatives and progressives is their respective policies towards North Korea. The liberal approach favors engagement, while conservatives have traditionally taken a harder line towards Pyongyang.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has made it one of the globe’s most volatile flashpoints. Given its geography and tumultuous history with its northern neighbor, which straddles a blurred line of both South Korea’s domestic and foreign policy; whichever party controls the government in Seoul has considerable influence on regional security. These days, with the conservative party in disarray, President Moon has been able to forge ahead with his vision of diplomacy with Pyongyang nearly un-impinged by domestic constraints.
An important component of the South Korean leader’s grand vision to fundamentally change the nature of inter-Korean relations from periodic confrontation to permanent peace is through inter-Korean projects. But these ventures are not limited to the Korean Peninsula. The Moon administration has been formulating plans to integrate North Korea commercially with greater Northeast Asia through the ambitious Northern Policy.
With China, President Moon began by attempting to reset bilateral relations frayed throughout much of 2016-2017 due to the THAAD issue. Beijing then used rapprochement with Seoul as an opportunity to advance its own interests of asserting regional stability and influence by strongly advocating the inter-Korean detente and receiving assurances from Seoul that it would not install more THAAD systems or expand security links with the United States outside the scope of the current alliance. South Korea hopes that through joint railway projects with North Korea, the South will be able to join China’s colossal One Belt One Road initiative.
President Moon was also quick to reach out to another major actor in the plan, Russia. Seoul regards Russia as an important strategic partner in the realm of connecting energy lines and railroads throughout the Korean Peninsula. To foster bilateral development, the two formed the Nine Bridges policy in late 2017. In June of 2018, President Moon became the first South Korean president in 20 years to make a state visit to Moscow and give a speech at parliament. In turn, Russia hopes to play an active role in both the economic and nuclear issues of North Korea. Similar to China, Moscow strongly encourages dialogue between the two Koreas in order to keep American military in the region at bay.
The South Korean leader is not just making efforts with North Korea’s traditional security backers. Given its persistent suspicions of Pyongyang and current re-militarizing efforts, President Moon recognizes that Japan has a part to play in multilateral diplomacy as well. Even in the current bout of rising diplomatic tensions, Seoul has not shut the door on Tokyo. In a speech commemorating the 100-year anniversary of South Korea’s March 1, 1919 Independence Movement against its Japan colonizers, President Moon stated that despite historical grievances, relations with Tokyo should be strengthened going forward. He sent a major signal by not using the platform to stir anti-Japanese sentiment domestically or publicly call on Tokyo to relent in the countries’ ongoing spat. Instead, he framed productive relations with Japan as a component of peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Most significant to regional security architecture has been President Moon’s interactions with the United States. Past progressive leaders of South Korea have clashed with conservative American administrations over political differences with regards to North Korea. However, President Trump, already an unconventional Republican, has made it a personal mission to ‘solve’ the nuclear issue with North Korea. President Moon has effectively complemented Trump’s style over substance approach with his own method of heavy substance and lighter style. Despite disagreements over each side’s scope of engagement with Pyongyang, so far, the South Korean leader has been prudent in his public statements, recognizing the significance of demonstrating a united front with Washington during the denuclearization process.
The United States is still South Korea’s chief security guarantor and generally remains popular among the South Korean public. President Moon has stated that the US troops stationed in South Korea are not connected to diplomacy with North Korea and thus are not on the negotiating table.
It is clear that by giving all countries involved a stake in the process, the South Korean leader is methodically creating an environment for a regional security structure conducive to a foundational change in relations with North Korea. He has reassured the Chinese that South Korea will not join an American-led regional defensive network; simultaneously, he has also promised Washington that the American military in South Korea will not be affected by inter-Korean relations. He has reached out to Russia for commercial opportunities on the Korean Peninsula, and expressed a desire to resolve historical issues in order to include Japan in overall diplomacy.
Foreign relations are fluid, especially in a region with as many competing interests as Northeast Asia. Factors outside of President Moon’s control, such as the no-deal outcome of the most recent Kim-Trump summit, may throw a wrench in his tactical decisions. However, he has been keen to learn the lessons from the last period of progressive rapprochement with Pyongyang, which came to an abrupt end with the election of conservative Lee Myung Bak. The relentless yet strategic pursuit of diplomacy with North Korea during the current progressive political mandate has left President Moon’s domestic opponents with few counter-options.
South Korea’s conservatives identified more with Washington’s ‘fire and fury’ stance towards Pyongyang in 2017 than the summitry of 2018. Now, the Republican administration in Washington is holding leader summits with North Korea, and younger South Koreans are in favor of the current diplomacy as well. As the Liberty Korea Party embarks on forming a platform, an aggressive posture towards Pyongyang to defy the current progressive government would undermine not only domestic political trends, but regional ones as well. If the two Koreas, China, and the U.S. end up agreeing on a formal peace regime to lay the groundwork for officially ending the Korean War, a unilateral effort by South Korea’s right-wing politicians to dismantle President Moon’s agenda would be all but impossible.
The next National Assembly elections take place in 2020 and presidential elections in 2022. If the conservative party manages to piece itself together and wrestle back power in Seoul, it will most likely be facing a different regional security structure, centered on a new era of diplomacy with North Korea. If President Moon and his progressive government continues executing their strategy, the roots of the new structure may be too deep to yank out.
Nate Kerkhoff has an MA in international relations and security from the Graduate School for International Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea. He focuses on political, economic, and security aspects of Northeast Asia. He is also a Young Scholar at the Pacific Forum.
Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.