Asia-Pacific News

South Korea may get friendly with its nuclear-armed neighbor

What to watch during the South Korean presidential elections

South Korean foreign policy is set for a broad revamp under the next president amid expectations for friendlier ties with Pyongyang and delayed deployment of a controversial missile defense technology — two areas of paramount concern for U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when he visits the country later this week.

As Asia's fourth-largest economy continues to reel in the aftermath of Friday's landmark ruling that made Park Geun-hye the country's first president to be ousted via impeachment, attention has partly shifted from Park to the question of her successor. A presidential election to replace the former leader will be held by May 9 at the latest and many political pundits say the public will elect the nation's first liberal president in a decade.

The ruling conservative party, which was newly renamed from Saenuri to the Liberal Korea Party, has yet to produce a strong contender after being damaged by the Park scandal, leaving left-leaning opposition parties in the lead.

Moon Jae-in from the Democratic Party, has been topping polls so far, with a 29.9 percent approval rating, according to a weekend survey of 2,046 citizens by the Korea Research Center — the highest figure among presidential hopefuls. A separate survey by Realmeter on Saturday showed the Democratic Party, who has four presidential candidates in total, obtaining 45.7 percent support, the most of any political group.

Traditionally, liberal governments have pursued different foreign policy agendas from their conservative peers. If such a policy shift were to occur, it would be particularly significant amid North Korea's recent missile launches and Chinese retaliation over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), an anti-ballistic missile system designed to protect South Korea from North Korean weapons.

Moon Jae-in, former leader of the Democratic Party and front-runner for the 2017 presidential election. He previously ran for the country's top job during the 2012 election but conceded the race to Park Geun Hye.
SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg/Getty Images

"If Moon is elected, we will see big changes in South Korean policies towards North Korea, China and the U.S.," summed up Woo Jung-Yeop, visiting fellow at Sejong Institute, a Seoul-based think tank.

"One of the outcomes of this current situation in South Korea is going to be different foreign policy, regardless of who takes office," echoed Jonathan Berkshire Miller, international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

North Korea engagement

Liberal presidents are widely known for their dovish stance on North Korea, compared to the heavy-handed, pro-sanction approach by conservatives, and Moon will be no different. A 64-year-old former human rights lawyer, he has criticized former conservative presidents, including Park, for worsening inter-Korean relations and has publicly called for economic, political and military unification with Pyongyang.

"Moon has gone on record saying he's going to put friendlier relations with the North as a higher priority. He's gone as far saying he will visit China first in order to discuss North Korea strategies," said Yang Jun-seok, professor at Catholic University of Korea. "We (South Korea) haven't tried a softer approach since Kim Jong-un came to power."

But amiable ties with Pyongyang would have broad implications for South Korea's other bilateral relationships. Washington and Beijing, in particular, may be affected, according to Miller.

South Korea's potential foreign policy reset

President Donald Trump has said that he will not tolerate North Korean nuclear provocation and if his administration decided to initiate fresh sanctions against Pyongyang, that could clash with Moon's strategy. It was not yet clear if Tillerson will be meeting with Moon during this week's visit.

China meanwhile has reset ties with Pyongyang, a traditional ally, in recent years by choosing to participate in Western punishments against the rogue nation. Last month, Beijing announced a suspension of coal imports from North Korea to comply with U.N. sanctions.

Delaying THAAD

Washington has already started deploying parts of THAAD in South Korea, but if a leftist candidate is elected, that process could stall.

"If the liberal side gets into power, they will try to delay things as much as possible to see what's going to happen," explained Yang.

Moon has repeatedly questioned THAAD implementation and has promised to review deployment if elected. The controversial system has angered China so much that the mainland has boycotted South Korean brands and even cancelled visits by Beijing tour operators.

"If Moon comes in, you're likely to have a more accommodative China political policy," said Tony Nash, chief economist at Complete Intelligence. "The South Korean economy is very entrenched to Chinese supply chains so they need to be accomodative to China if they want to succeed."

Again, that could be problematic for South Korea's other relationships.

Washington could lose a trusted political partner to more Chinese influence, explained Nash. Meanwhile, any delay or disruption of THAAD could be fertile ground for North Korean exploitation, said Miller.