South Korean Elections Could Derail Trump’s Plans to Get Tough on North Korea

South Korea’s next president will almost certainly favor a more cautious approach to Pyongyang, just as the White House is trying to pile pressure on the regime.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - APRIL 03:  Moon Jae-In, presidential election candidate for the Democratic Party of Korea speech during the primary election on April 3, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. The Democratic Party of Korea held the last round of its primary election to name its candidate Moon Jae-In for the upcoming presidential election.  (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - APRIL 03: Moon Jae-In, presidential election candidate for the Democratic Party of Korea speech during the primary election on April 3, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. The Democratic Party of Korea held the last round of its primary election to name its candidate Moon Jae-In for the upcoming presidential election. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

The Trump administration’s threats to ratchet up pressure on North Korea over its nuclear weapons program could face a major setback next month if South Korea elects a more progressive president who has argued for a less confrontational approach to Pyongyang.

The imminent political shift in Seoul, after a decade of close alignment with Washington, will require a deft diplomatic touch from a White House that has so far shown a preference for improvising policy and military operations on the fly, and which has yet to name an ambassador to South Korea or fill key senior posts overseeing Asia policy at the State Department and the Pentagon.

“There is definitely a risk of more disagreement between Seoul and Washington,” said Ely Ratner, who served as deputy national security advisor to former Vice President Joe Biden.

The two leading candidates for the May 9 vote are both to the left of the former conservative President Park Geun-hye, who was impeached and forced out of office last month for her alleged role in a multimillion-dollar bribery scandal linked to major Korean conglomerates.

Former human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party, who is leading in most polls in a suddenly tight race, is a disciple of the so-called “sunshine” policy of engagement pursued by previous liberal presidents between 1998 and 2008, which conservative critics argue failed to stop the North’s nuclear and missile programs. Software tycoon Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party, who also favors reaching out to the North, is running a close second and is threatening to overtake Moon, while two conservative candidates trail far behind.

For the past ten years, Park’s conservative party had been in lock-step with Washington, favoring a tough approach to the North and showing skepticism of diplomatic outreach or other initiatives designed to persuade Pyongyang to come in from the cold and abandon its nuclear weapons.

Moon, in contrast, has long advocated a softer line on North Korea, backing investment, aid, and diplomacy along with sanctions to try to coax Pyongyang to back off of its belligerent stance. Moon has also expressed caution on the introduction of the U.S.-made THAAD radar system meant to defend South Korea against missile attacks, saying the deployment should be postponed until after the election to allow the next president to assess the risks and benefits. China has expressed outrage over the radar system and retaliated against the South with commercial boycotts.

Moon “has taken a number of positions that are potentially troubling to the U.S. administration,” said Bruce Bennett, a fellow at the Rand Corp. who has advised the Defense Department on North Korea.

“The bottom line this is a very different political environment than we’ve been working in the last 10 years,” he said.

Moon’s appeals for dialogue offer a stark contrast to the Trump administration’s emerging policy on North Korea. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said Washington will no longer pursue a policy of “strategic patience,” and after Pyongyang’s latest missile test, Tillerson said the United States had nothing further to say. Meanwhile, White House officials, led by Trump, have pledged to prod China to squeeze Pyongyang further.

With tensions rising after the North test-fired another ballistic missile last week, the administration over the weekend ordered an aircraft carrier strike group, led by the USS Carl Vinson, to cancel a planned port visit in Australia and instead head to the Korean Peninsula in a show of force.

But Moon, who seemed the front-runner until his rival surged ahead over the past week, argues for both carrots and sticks instead of solely coercive measures against North Korea.

“We need to have two tracks of measures here. We need to be able to apply some pressure and coercion on North Korea, but on the other hand we should also start discussions and dialogue with North Korea,” Moon said.

One clear indicator of that desire: Moon has called for reopening and massively expanding the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint venture on the North Korean border that was meant to foster North-South economic ties on the peninsula, but which was closed in 2016 amid suspicions that wages paid to North Korean workers were flowing to Pyongyang’s military.

In calling to expand the Kaesong Industrial Complex twenty times from its current size, Moon has argued that cutting off all contact with the North made the regime more dependent on China and undercut Seoul’s leverage. “We can’t resolve the North Korean nuclear issue by completely severing exchange,” he said.

Moon’s main rival, Ahn, who has surged in recent polls, has staked out a more centrist position and favors installing the THAAD system. But he, too, supports a more nuanced policy on North Korea and backs talks between Seoul and Pyongyang.

Asked about the prospect of a potentially more progressive government in Seoul, the State Department said it looked forward to working with the next president.

The U.S.-South Korea “alliance will continue to be a linchpin of regional stability and security, and we will continue to meet all our alliance commitments, especially with respect to defending against the threat from North Korea,” Katina Adams, a State Department spokeswoman, told Foreign Policy.

Current and former U.S. officials worry that a bid for renewed dialogue with North Korea could end in failure, as Pyongyang appears to have ruled out ever relinquishing its nuclear arms. And trying to engage with the Pyongyang regime could give dictator Kim Jong Un more breathing room to build longer-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Under Kim, the North pressed ahead with its nuclear weapons program and built up a formidable arsenal of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles threatening Japan and U.S. bases, while also working on an intercontinental ballistic missile that could put the United States itself within reach. The North raised alarms across the region in February when it successfully launched the Pukguksong-2 missile, which uses solid-fuel technology and could allow the regime to hide its missiles in tunnels and launch them on short notice.

“South Korea could try negotiations, and the North just plays for time,” said a former senior U.S. official who worked on Korea policy. “It could cost you time, and we don’t have a lot of time right now.”

Any daylight between Washington and Seoul could have knock-on effects, said Ratner, the former White House official now at the Council on Foreign Relations. He said he could see a potential “troubling scenario” unfolding where Seoul rejects Washington’s proposals for more punitive measures against Pyongyang, thus giving China an excuse to ease off any effort to squeeze the regime.

“It’s not a good combination. And then how does Trump respond to a South Korean ally not supporting his policy approach with tens of thousands of U.S. troops forward deployed to defend their country?” Ratner said. “It’s easy to imagine him asking why our troops are there at all.”

While U.S. officials and senior officers worry about shifting political winds in South Korea, it’s unlikely the country will return to the kind of policies that prevailed in the early 2000s, when anti-American sentiment was running hotter, and the danger presented by the North appeared less dramatic, experts said.

The North’s weapons advances, belligerent rhetoric, and provocative acts such as the sinking of a South Korean naval ship and an artillery attack on a border island, have left their mark on public opinion in the South, which has become more conservative about policy toward Pyongyang over the past several years. As a result, experts said, there are political limits to engagement with the North, and both leading presidential candidates have tempered their rhetoric to reflect that.

Alan Romberg, the director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center, said a new South Korean government will have a “somewhat greater inclination to see if there is a way to reach out to the North to calm things down.”

“But I do think they will place a lot of weight on the alliance and won’t want to strike out on their own without close consultation and coordination” with Washington, he said.

Photo credit: CHUNG SUNG-JUN/Getty Images