Bridge or wall?
On May 9, the voters of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) were called to vote on a new president. The election had to be preponed as the sitting president, Park Geun Hye had been impeached and dismissed. Park, the daughter of long time dictator Park Chung Hee, had been the first woman to occupy the Blue House in Seoul, seat of the South Korean presidents. Park had fallen over allegations of serious corruption and nepotism.
Most remarkable, the election that was held at a time of serious external and internal tensions passed peacefully and ended in a clear popular mandate for the 64-year-old Moon Jae In. Moon stood for a party that is centre left. Following the deep fall of the conservative Park, right of centre forces stood no chance to win the poll. For a short while the former UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon had considered to run but in the end withdrew his candidature.
First analyses of the electoral results indicate that Moon Jae In had very strong support amongst young voters and women. It seems that economic issues were key to their electoral preference. During the election campaign Moon had promised to stimulate and reform the South Korean economy. Particularly among the younger South Koreans there are strong concerns about job opportunities as the South Korean labour market is very tight and many newcomers cannot find an adequate job.
By any kind of measure the past four decades have brought massive and positive changes to South Korea. The country graduated from a developing country, in many ways poorer than North Korea, to an industrialised society and is a long time member of the OECD that comprises the world’s richest economies. Furthermore, South Koreans made a successful transition from military dictatorship to a vibrant democracy. That even at times of great security tensions on the Korean Peninsula Seoul was able to hold free and fair elections is a remarkable feat.
Currently North East Asia is going through one of the tensest moments in recent years. The dictator in Pyongyang has been repeatedly threatening his neighbours, most notably Japan and South Korea. Even the United States are, according to him, not anymore immune to nuclear devastation. It is of course unclear to what extent North Korea has developed nuclear weapons that can be carried by long-range ballistic missiles. One thing, however, is sure, the impoverished North has enough firepower to lay waste to the South’s capital that is less than 50 km from the heavily militarised border with the North.
While most South Korean voters may have been focused on the economy and on cleaning the country from corruption and nepotism, the world at large is of course more concerned about what changes, if any, the new man in the Blue House will bring to the policies towards North Korea. Moon Jae In has made it clear that he is not in support of the deployment of the advanced anti rocket system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), a project that is currently under implementation and that is very high on president Donald Trump’s agenda. Trump had even gone as far as telling the South Koreans that they must not only accept the deployment of THAAD but also pay for it!
The North of course sees THAAD as another step on the path towards all-out war on the Korean Peninsula. But also Beijing, which considers Korea its historic hinterland, has made its opposition towards THAAD very clear. Looking at the capacity of THAAD China considers it an infringement on its own security. Beijing has made it clear that the deployment of THAAD will also have a negative impact on its economic relations with Seoul. This threat comes at a time, when Sino-Korean trade relations are already under strain.
With the incumbent president the most notable changes will come on the issue of how to deal with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un. President Park had been a hawk, while her successor has stressed the need for a more conciliatory policy towards the North. Already some commentators speculate about a renewal of the “sunshine policy” that had been pursued by president Kim Dae Jung and that in 2000 led to the first of until now two summits between the two Korean leaders. If little else was achieved, Kim Dae Jung’s initiative had shown a new scope.
Interestingly, in recent days president Trump has announced that he would like to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. For the time being his preconditions for such a meeting are too drastic. However, it seems that after initial belligerence the American president has realised that the situation on the Korea Peninsula is extremely complex.
The people who voted for Moon Jae In are indeed aware of the great dangers that threaten their country. If war breaks out, their motherland would be the major battlefield and would suffer a repeat of the devastation brought on the Peninsula during the Korean War in 1950/53. There is strong hope that the new president will provide a new dawn to intra Korean relations, which would also be in the interest of the world at large.
The writer is Far East correspondent of Neue Zurcher Zeitung, based in Tokyo
Urs Schoettli