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In South Korea, Will Moon Bring Back Sunshine?

In South Korea, Will Moon Bring Back Sunshine?

South Korea elected the left-leaning Moon Jae-in as its next president on Tuesday, bringing almost a decade of conservative rule of the country to an end.

Liberal Moon, 64, ran for president against conservative Park Geun-hye in 2012. He lost narrowly — only to win five years later after Park was ousted for corruption.

But though South Korea’s domestic politics likely played the largest role in Moon’s victory, his win will have international consequences — including for President Donald Trump’s policy toward North Korea.

Moon is an outspoken advocate of dialogue with North Korea, and open to returning the Blue House to what used to be known as the “sunshine policies,” of greater engagement with the North. As chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun during Roh’s term from 2003 to 2008, Moon was part of an administration that pursued exactly that, increasing political and economic contact with North Korea in an effort to keep the peace.

Trump, for his part, has vowed a much tougher line on North Korea and its missile and nuclear program, declaring that years of U.S. “strategic patience” are at an end (as Daniel Blumenthal, director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute said, there wasn’t much dialogue involved in U.S. President Obama’s “strategic patience” — it is the shift to impatience that’s new). Trump has also tried to strong-arm and sweet talk China into playing a more helpful role in dealing with Pyongyang — stances that jelled well with the conservatives who’ve ruled South Korea for a decade, but which clash with Moon’s likely approach.

Of course, a lot has changed in those 10 years that could make “sunshine” policies less practical. North Korea’s nuclear capabilities have increased in the meantime, and U.N. sanctions have been put in place, which may make it difficult for Moon undertake some cooperative ventures that he has proposed, such as reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the joint North-South factory project that closed last year. Nevertheless, Moon, the son of a North Korean refugee, has been critical of Park’s hard line toward North Korea, and will likely try to ensure a stronger dialogue mechanism is in place with his country’s northern neighbor.

What does that mean for the future of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system? It’s not entirely clear. Moon hasn’t called outright for the cancellation of THAAD, Douglas Paal of the Carnegie Endowment pointed out, but he has said it needs to be reviewed.

But facts are building on the ground. The THAAD system was deployed to a South Korean golf course in March and is now initially operational. Politics aside, that might make it hard to pull the missile defense system now, said Lisa Collins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

If Trump reiterates his demands that South Korea pay for THAAD, it could create a sore spot in relations.

But a South Korea under Moon will finally bring some stability to politics in Seoul, which have been roiled for months by corruption and scandal. Washington had gotten used to issuing diktats to South Korea — and will have to relearn old habits, Paal said.

The United States needs to “restart the practice of interacting with a government,” he said. “We won’t unilaterally set the agenda.”

Update, May 9, 2017, 12:18 pm ET: This piece was updated to include comment from Daniel Blumenthal.

Photo credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images