South Korea’s new president Moon Jae-in is already getting down to the business of diplomacy, sending his envoys to all major powers in the region (US, China, Japan, Russia, etc.) as well as North Korea. Political heavyweights like former South Korean PM Lee Hae-chan have been given presidential orders and requests by Moon to conduct diplomacy with China, and private sector media industry tycoon Hong Seok-hyun has been dispatched to the US with a personal appointment letter to have a dialogue with US officials about security on the Korean Peninsula and other geopolitical developments.
The overtures to the two major world powers arose from tensions over the recent deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Air Defence (THAAD) system, a powerful anti-missile defence system that is effective against incoming ballistic missiles (including rogue ones from North Korea). But South Korea’s neighbor has opinions about the THAAD deployment. Beijing was worried that the powerful long-range radar system in the THAAD system places virtually a large swathe of their missile and air bases under its watchful surveillance and has therefore voiced its opposition diplomatically and also economically through economic avoidance (some say boycott) of South Korean conglomerates like food and beverage giant Lotte and Hyundai cars that were otherwise popular in China. Beijing’s taxis for example use Hyundai vehicular products.
These simultaneous deployments to both the US and China should assure Moon skeptics that he is not veering centrifugally towards China but maintaining a balanced relationship with both countries while staying within the traditional US security network. Signs that worried Moon-skeptics included revisiting comfort women issues with Japan and delaying the incoming key component of the THAAD system leading to South Korea rebalancing away from the US security umbrella network as well as the important US-Japan Alliance (in place since 1960). These are perhaps premature and overanxious reactions on the side of the Moon skeptics and watchers. It is still too early to tell what Moon’s political orientation is as well as his view of the regional order in East Asia.
South Korea’s bilateral relationship with the US is unwavering and strong. At the same time, it is clear that Moon also wants to reach out to China after a low point in bilateral economic relations. When Moon assumed power, Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated him. The moves made by both statesmen to dialogue worked fast to repair the affected bilateral economic relations in recent times due to THAAD deployment. President Xi invited Moon to visit Beijing. Widely perceived as a liberal and dovish in political and security orientation, Moon wanted to shore up goodwill with South Korea’s neighbors. These reconciliatory overtures are mindful of Seoul’s own alliance with Washington. A delicate balance for a middle power in the region.
Presidents Moon and Xi also found points of agreement as both agreed on the need for negotiations with North Korea to return. There is a perception that Moon is someone in the South Korean political world that President Xi’s administration can manage relations with. In response to signals of engagement coming from Seoul and Beijing, Pyongyang appeared to be responding to such overtures as its state-owned media urged both countries (North and South Korea) to jointly remove foreign influence over the Korean Peninsula in the interest of eventual reunification. In a peace overture to North Korea, Moon is offering to visit the country if certain conditionalities are met.
Moon is pursuing a middle power policy that is strategically close and allied to the US but also reaches out to Beijing.
However, at the same time, Moon is not leaving anything to chance while ensuing for peace. He appointed a former head of navy Song Young-moo to be the Minister of Defense in his administration. Song is a familiar face within the administration. He was previously Moon’s national security advisor during the presidential campaigning period. Therefore, the two men have prior familiarity working with each other. Moon himself was once a soldier, in fact a commando with the special forces. Like Song, Moon knows a thing or two about combat.
This is a familiar concurrent hard and soft tactic often seen in Northeast Asian diplomacy and defense posturing. While Moon was widely expected to be more conciliatory towards Pyongyang than his predecessor, he appointed a tough and well-respected admiral to be the defense chief. Song is no ordinary naval soldier, he was present at the 2009 clash between North and South Korean naval vessels off the coast of the two Koreas, a brutal encounter that made it to international news and the incident sowed discord between the two neighbors, a low point in their bilateral relations. Given such precedents, Moon wants genuine peace but also wants it to co-exist with credible deterrence.
As a professional soldier who has seen firsthand the recent battle situation between the navies of the two Koreas, Song is expected to be supportive of Washington’s military outreach to South Korea. This should ease off fears and wariness from Washington and its allies that Moon will adopt diplomatic positions that are unhelpful for a US-led defence network. Moon-skeptics were particularly worried when his administration suspended the setting up of four more THAAD missile launchers in addition to the two that are already operational. They saw such actions as a sign of backing away from the US-led security network or “tilting” towards Beijing. Moon is pursuing a middle power policy that is strategically close and allied to the US but also reaches out to Beijing.
Despite the fact that Moon had never openly stated he would reverse the deployment of the THAAD system, he had at times mentioned the need to review its long-term deployment, increased deployment (six THAAD missile systems were scheduled to become fully operational) and/or the environment impact of THAAD deployment. The review process may have arisen from public discomfort with the former president’s speedy accelerated pushing-through of THAAD which was a little less open and transparent in a democratic society like South Korea’s. Moon came to power on the wave of a people’s power movement that toppled the allegedly less transparent policies of his predecessor who was accused of wrongdoing.
Song’s appointment may experience some tough questions from lawmakers and legislators who are aware of his past when he appeared to have an alleged past administrative lapse regarding the registration of the address of his housing. Having said that, there are no visible obstacles to block his appointment. A man of military professionalism like Song is needed because North Korea has tested a whole spectrum of missiles in recent years including medium-range ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, hydrogen bomb device, atomic bomb device, short-range missiles, etc. The variety within a short time as well as the military parade on the Day of the Sun has been rather dazzling, even for experts.