Liberal Moon Jae-in won the Asian country's presidential election Tuesday, exit polls showed, likely setting South Korea up to take a more conciliatory tone in dealing with North Korea and contrasting with a more aggressive turn in the U.S. approach.
"Moon will almost certainly pursue a more conciliatory policy towards Pyongyang, which will make it more difficult for the United States to isolate North Korea with sanctions," said Isaac Stone Fish, senior fellow at Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations. "And it could make Trump's offer of meeting with Kim [Jong Un] less attractive, if Pyongyang feels more able to get what it needs from Seoul."
Late last month, Trump shocked the longstanding U.S. ally and trading partner in an interview with Reuters with two unexpected announcements: He wants Seoul to pay for a missile defense system the United States is deploying there, and he wants to renegotiate the existing free trade agreement between the two countries.
The comments came against a high-stakes backdrop: Tensions are rising around North Korea's nuclear threat, and the South Korean election stands to mark a significant shift from nearly a decade of conservative rule. That puts a lot at stake, not just for South Korea, but also for the shape of its future alignment with the United States.
"In terms of South Korea's diplomatic politics, this came at a very bad time," said Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It creates an opportunity for [the missile defense] issue to be even further politicized in South Korea in ways that will not serve U.S. or South Korean interests."