South Korea elected Moon Jae-in, a liberal Democrat, as its new President with 65 percent of the vote. Moon’s decisive victory on May 9, 2017 brought an end to the decade-long conservative rule in South Korea. The conservative regime in general and under former President Park Geun-hye (2012-16) in particular adopted a very hawkish policy towards North Korea and hence can partly be held responsible for creating a tumultuous political and security environment. Consequently, nuclear tension has escalated in the Korean Peninsula. It is anticipated that under President Moon, South Korea will foster warmer ties with North Korea, which has been indicated by his various statements and media interviews.
Park had won the previous presidential election by defeating Moon in 2012. However, her presidential term was laden with controversies, particularly related to bribery and corruption charges, which culminated with her impeachment on December 9, 2016, which 234 members (out of 300 members) of the National Assembly voted for. By a unanimous decision (8-0), the constitutional court upheld the impeachment to terminate her presidency on March 10, 2017.
Do we connect corruption and conflict in such situations? The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a report in 2015 which pointed out that most South Koreans (about 70 percent) were not satisfied with their government, and only 30 percent expressed their confidence in the judicial system. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2016 placed South Korea at 52nd out of 176 countries.
To fight corruption, various steps were taken from time to time. The establishment of Korea Independent Commission Against Corruption (2002) was one of the first actions. The Act on the Protection of Public Interest Whistle-Blowers (2011) and Anti-Corruption and Bribery Prohibition Act (2016) were other important moves in this direction. Public services had also been digitalized to avoid corruption. However, despite these measures, there was a long list of notable corruption incidents, including the Grand National Party Convention bribery incident (2008); BBK stock price manipulation incident; MOFAT Diamond scandal; South Korean illegal surveillance incident; and the political scandal which led to Park’s impeachment. This latest scandal, besides creating a tumultuous political environment, was partly responsible for the strategic crisis in the Korean Peninsula.
Despite the anti-corruption efforts, corruption and bribery persisted without any fear. In the political scandal which led to the dismissal of President Park, the major charges that were filed were actually against her aide, Choi Soon-sil. Although Choi did not hold any governmental position, she used her undue proximity with Park to solicit donations for two foundations from several business conglomerates like Samsung, Hyundai, SK Group and Lotte. There were even allegations of Choi interfering in policy-making at the State Council. It has been argued that to divert the attention of the common people, Park pursued a very hard and hawkish policy toward North Korea, leaving her people to continue facing economic problems. Thus, corruption and bribery among the political leaders and poverty and unemployment among the common people became the order of the day in South Korea.
In this backdrop, Moon Jae-in was considered by most South Koreans as a clean candidate. Corruption and the dwindling economy were major issues which figured more prominently than the North Korea issue in his election campaign. Moon’s challengers in the presidential election were very critical of his stance on Pyongyang. For them, corruption, the economy, and other socio-economic problems of South Korea were secondary to the Pyongyang issue.
Seoul’s Seesaw Policy
Seoul’s policy towards Pyongyang has remained in seesaw mode since the Korean War. Following the end of the Korean War (1950-53), inter-Korean relations have been entrapped in a tumultuous political environment. Meaningful dialogue between both Koreas were held for the first time under the conciliatory policy of Nordpolitik of Roh Tae-woo (1988-1993), South Korea’s first democratically elected President. Under his policy, Roh reached out diplomatically to North Korea and its allies China and Russia. This led to the establishment of trade and inter-Korean sports in 1989.
With the end of the Cold War, the two Koreas signed a Basic Agreement on reconciliation, non-aggression, and exchange and cooperation in 1991. They also signed a Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, pledging not to possess, produce, or use nuclear weapons, and prohibited uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. However, course corrections were implemented by both sides and bilateral relations remained in a see-saw mode.
In his first speech, President Moon said that he will make efforts to neutralize the escalated nuclear threat over the Korean Peninsula.
President Park pursued a hard and hawkish policy against North Korea. She sought and supported the toughest-ever domestic and international sanctions against North Korea to curtail its nuclear programme. South Korea’s deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) has created a serious security dilemma on the Korean Peninsula. To create a bulwark against North Korea, South Korea and Japan signed a General Security of Military Intelligence Agreement (GSOMIA) in 2016, which is aimed at sharing sensitive information regarding the threat posed by North Korea. Kim Hyo-jin has argued that President Park preferred to expand cooperation with the US and Japan in general and in the context of North Korea in particular. Despite China’s opposition and a domestic backlash, Park took an unwavering stance on the deployment of THAAD. Her hard and hawkish stance created a dialogue deficit and diplomatic policies were left adrift.
The 2017 Presidential Election
Following Moon’s victory, there is anticipation of far reaching implications for the Korean Peninsula. As a new president, Moon has given some indications he will iron out the differences and irritants between South and North Korea. He is guaranteed to tackle North Korea’s nuclear programme, and at the same time will make efforts to pacify relations with the US and China.
In his first speech, President Moon said that he will make efforts to neutralize the escalated nuclear threat over the Korean Peninsula. He will initiate negotiations between Washington and Beijing to ease out the tension over South Korea’s THAAD deployment. The chance of the establishment of peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula has increased. In a congratulatory phone call from US President Donald Trump to President Moon, Trump assured Moon that he will extend cooperation over North Korean nuclear issue, and invited Moon to visit Washington DC.
During his presidential campaign, Moon was very critical of the hard and hawkish policy of former President Park and her predecessor Lee Myung-bak. He was the firm conviction that the decade under the conservative regime had failed to control North Korea’s nuclear programme. To check the security dilemma on the Korean Peninsula, Moon was critical of the THAAD deployment in South Korea, and during his campaign, he assured the voters that he would review the deployment of THAAD if elected president. Moon has named Suh Hoon to head the National Intelligence Service, who has indicated his intention to go to Pyongyang to hold an inter-Korean summit to avert interstate war risks, and to provide communication and non-military options to de-escalate the tension. Moon has also pledged to revive the Sunshine Policy to re-engage with the North. He has also expressed his willingness to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Geopolitics has its role in the Korean Peninsula problem. To come out of this cobweb, President Moon has opened the diplomatic conversation by speaking with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to discuss how to respond to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. On the other hand, Moon’s potential engagements with North Korea may be opposed by the United States, as Trump is of the firm conviction to step up pressure on North Korea to isolate and bring it under sanctions. Economic cooperation between North and South Korea is also very important. The Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint North and South Korean project, was conceived as a symbol of cooperation across the border. It was closed in early 2016, but Moon has endorsed its reopening.
Against the backdrop of corruption, bribery, a tumultuous political environment, and nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the former President Park followed a hawkish policy towards North Korea, which complicated the security scenario on the peninsula. The newly-elected President Moon has given many indications that he will engage diplomatically with North Korea, enhance economic cooperation, and seek the support of major powers such China and Japan to cooperate in context of North Korea. Right now, there is possibility of the Korean Peninsula turning into a zone of peace and stability if President Moon is able to translate his intentions into reality.