Moon Jae-in, South Korea's new president, faces stiff domestic challenges and is less inclined towards confrontation with North Korea than either his predecessor or the Trump administration. Nevertheless, South Korea’s alliance with the United States is likely to endure with some modifications and perhaps, given North Korea’s provocations, some upgrades.

The Republic of Korea (South Korea) has a new president following a five-month impeachment and electoral process that concluded with the election of Moon Jae-in on 9 May. Moon narrowly lost the presidential election to Park Geun-hye in December 2012, but Park was impeached by the National Assembly on 9 December 2016. The Constitutional Court upheld the impeachment on 10 March, setting the stage for Moon’s election. Under the 1987 constitution, the president serves for a single five-year term, with the election held in December and the president-elect inaugurated about two months later in late February. However, the constitution does not provide a transition period for elections following an impeachment, resignation or death of the president. Therefore, President Moon took the oath of office as soon as the electoral results were certified the following morning.

Political uncertainty paralysed governance during the five-month impeachment interregnum. Other factors exacerbated the problem. Park had stumbled repeatedly due to poor vetting of appointments, and her legislative agenda never got off the ground because the unicameral National Assembly had been sidetracked by the scandal surrounding the National Intelligence Service’s interference in the December 2012 presidential election, and then by the sinking of the Sewŏl ferry in April 2014. The Sewŏl tragedy resulted in 304 deaths, mostly of high school students, and it came to symbolise Korean society’s dissatisfaction with Park’s leadership.

Domestic policymaking has been adrift for years, and South Koreans have high expectations for the Moon administration to address a number of pressing issues that have been festering in the shadow of a rapidly ageing population that is a ticking time-bomb for tax revenues, pensions and military conscription. These issues include corrupt relations between business and government, the high cost of education, high youth unemployment, environmental problems and a general malaise and despair stemming from South Korea’s hyper-competitive society. Most of the potential solutions to these problems will require new legislation, but Moon’s Democratic Party holds only 120 seats in the 300-member National Assembly. The next elections for the legislature are not until April 2020, so Moon will have to seek compromises in the form of a party-merger and realignment, or through frequent ad hoc coalition building to accompany each piece of new legislation.

All national leaders must deal with domestic and international issues simultaneously, but the current situation for Seoul is exceptional. Moon will not be able to avoid regional and international strategic issues, but the international community should not underestimate the amount of time and effort the Moon administration will have to devote to domestic problems.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile challenges

As South Korea grapples with domestic challenges, Moon has been thrust into a changing and increasingly unstable strategic environment. The most immediate challenge is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea)’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities. Moon has declared that South Korea’s alliance with the United States is a pillar of the country’s national security policy, but some analysts are worried that Moon’s desire to seek engagement and reconciliation with Pyongyang could lead to friction with Washington, which has taken a more confrontational position against North Korea involving implicit threats of military force.

Moon served as chief of staff for former president Roh Moo-hyun in 2003–08, when the George W. Bush and Roh administrations clashed over North Korea policy. While the Bush administration took a hardline approach after it was discovered that Pyongyang was pursuing a uranium-enrichment programme in violation of its non-proliferation commitments, the Roh administration continued its policy of ‘peace and prosperity’, which sought to build upon former president Kim Dae-jung’s ‘sunshine policy’ by expanding the scope of positive inducements through greater economic cooperation. During his campaign, Moon said that the Korean Peninsula’s nuclear crisis should be resolved through dialogue, that Seoul needed to ‘learn to say no’ to Washington, and that the Park administration had unduly rushed to deploy the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system.

Of course, much has changed since Moon last served in the Blue House. The Six-Party Talks aimed at the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula are dead, and Pyongyang has reiterated that it has no interest in denuclearisation. In his 2017 New Year’s address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said the country is prepared to flight-test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and Pyongyang has unveiled new classes of intermediate-range road-mobile missiles – including a solid-fuelled model that is based on a submarine-launched ballistic missile also under development – and is swiftly developing the ability to strike the continental United States. And in spite of Moon’s campaign pledge of engagement with Pyongyang, North Korea conducted four missile flight tests during his first month in office. The Moon administration approved a programme for a South Korean non-governmental organisation to visit North Korea and to provide supplies and medication to fight malaria. However, the country rejected the offer of assistance, citing the adoption on 2 June 2017 of UN Security Council Resolution 2356, which expanded sanctions against North Korea, as an obstacle to inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation.

Furthermore, Moon must manage the critical relationship with China, which is South Korea’s largest trading partner. Beijing has become more assertive in the use of economic leverage against its neighbours, and Seoul has been the direct target of diplomatic pressure and retaliation against South Korean businesses in China. In particular, the South Korean conglomerate Lotte, which owns nearly 100 retail stores in China, has been subject to a boycott and official harassment in the form of regulatory inspection and other measures. Lotte was targeted because it negotiated a swap with the South Korean government to provide the land to house the THAAD system, which China believes degrades its nuclear deterrent and to which it has vehemently objected. In retaliation, Beijing has curtailed cultural exchanges, and has banned Chinese group tours to South Korea.

Notwithstanding Moon’s conciliatory instincts and his need to accommodate Beijing, as Pyongyang increases its nuclear and missile capabilities, Seoul must existentially rely upon the United States’ extended deterrence and the nuclear umbrella in the context of the bilateral mutual defence treaty, as well as heed rising North Korean missile threats to Japan, American bases in Asia and potentially to US territory. While Moon has acknowledged that the alliance is a cornerstone of South Korea’s security, US security assurances remain contingent on bilateral cooperation, and differences in approach have emerged between the Moon government and the administration of US President Donald J. Trump.

A suddenly fraught alliance

As soon as Moon became president, he sent special envoys to the United States, Japan, China, Russia and Europe. The envoys addressed a wide range of bilateral and multilateral issues, as well as the possibility of summit meetings with Moon, who is now scheduled to hold his first summit with Trump in Washington. Moon told the Washington Post: ‘I believe the alliance between the two nations is the most important foundation for our diplomacy and national security.’ The bilateral alliance, however, has faced a number of serious challenges in the past. The Dwight D. Eisenhower administration was displeased with Rhee Syngman’s corrupt incompetence, and John F. Kennedy chafed at Park Chung-hee’s coup d’état. Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter thwarted Park’s secret nuclear weapons programme, and Park opposed Carter’s plan to withdraw US ground forces, which was subsequently cancelled. Chun Doo-hwan’s unconstitutional seizure of power was problematic for Carter and Ronald Reagan, and during the 1980s the two countries experienced extreme trade friction. Since South Korea democratised in 1987, however, the two countries have shared common views on governance, respect for human rights and the rule of law, non-proliferation and the liberal market-based economic order.

Durable common national interests and values, and in particular the shared objective of reducing the North Korean threat, have made it fairly easy for the two countries to cooperate across a wide range of issues. But Trump constitutes an unprecedented independent variable. He has already alienated other close allies. In roughly four months in office, Trump has hung the phone up on Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, insulted Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, called NATO ‘obsolete’ and declined to express support for NATO’s Article 5, which crucially enshrines the concept of collective defence among Alliance members. Trump’s behaviour and posture led German Chancellor Angela Merkel to state that Europe could no longer count on outside powers, clearly referring to the United States, while Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland gave a speech on 6 June expressing strong support for the rules-based order but dismay that the Trump administration was turning its back on it.

South Korea has greatly benefited from that order. The Bretton Woods financial institutions and security institutions such as NATO and the San Francisco Treaty system of alliances in East Asia enabled South Korea, among other countries, to recover from war devastation and to generate historically rapid economic development. Trump, however, tends to view the international systems as ‘rigged and ripping off the United States’, and has manifested a penchant for seeing all relationships as zero-sum interactions with a winner and a loser. In particular, he has criticised the Korea–U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) and threatened to try to renegotiate it. It was that possibility – not the North Korean security threat – that Trump first mentioned in his congratulatory phone call to Moon after the election. Prior to Moon’s election, Trump produced consternation in South Korea when he suggested that Seoul should pay the United States US$1 billion for the installation of the THAAD battery. Trump’s claim that Korea was once part of China, based on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s having told him so, also rankled South Koreans.

Vice President Michael Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have all paid visits to South Korea and reaffirmed US alliance commitments and extended deterrence. Congressional delegations have reiterated similar reassurances. But Trump’s behaviour and language, especially his undisciplined outbursts on Twitter, have often undermined messages by other government officials. At the recent IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Mattis delivered standard remarks to reassure allies and to signal resolve towards adversaries, but his statement was viewed as less credible because of Trump’s often contrary conduct. Asian countries are already hedging in preparation for a future in which the United States could pull back from the region.

An ominous summit

Against this background, there are several potential pitfalls for the Moon–Trump summit. The two individual personalities might clash, or the two sides could become embroiled in trade issues or alliance conflicts – in particular, on burden sharing and the THAAD deployment. The latter issue has become more salient since Moon ordered a delay in the deployment of four THAAD launchers (two have already been deployed and are operational) pending an environmental impact study, which had been bypassed in the rush to deploy the system. While the delay to an extent may have been the result of the previous administration’s bureaucratic oversights, as stated, many observers have also credibly read it as signifying Seoul distancing itself from US policy and making concessions to China to placate Moon’s core supporters and the business community. A long delay or cancellation of the deployment could cause a significant rupture in the bilateral relationship.

A bad summit would increase the risk of a rapid transition of wartime operational control (OPCON) of Combined Forces Command (CFC) between the United States and South Korea to an unprepared South Korea. Peacetime OPCON was transferred to Korean forces in 1994 but wartime control – that was meant to have been transferred in 2012 – was postponed when South Korean vulnerabilities became apparent. Progressive political forces in Korea have sought to advance the timeline. An abrupt transfer could mean the termination of the CFC. If the CFC were to be disbanded, it would be inconceivable that the United Nations Command (UNC) would survive. The UNC was created during the Korean War to unify the command of the troops from the 16 states that provided assistance to South Korea. A small contingent of officers from Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and other countries still participates in the UNC and multilateral exercises in Korea. This structure is a strong asset that helps assuage fears of entrapment and abandonment on the peninsula.

Since Moon and Trump are both focused on complex and difficult domestic problems, however, neither will desire an acrimonious summit. Both parties would like ‘easy wins’ to boost their images at home. The two leaders probably will take the opportunity to ‘get to know each other’ and address issues where they can easily agree, such as North Korea’s belligerence and the need to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula. However, hard issues such as alliance burden sharing under the Special Measures Agreement (SMA), which will expire at the end of 2018, operational control of the South Korean military and trade and investment issues under KORUS are not going away. If the summit goes badly, these issues will rise to the surface very quickly. If the summit goes well, they will emerge over the next year or two in a more cooperative context.


Seoul is compelled to balance its economic interests and bilateral relationship with China while seeking a satisfactory dispensation for the intractable North Korean problem. Meanwhile, it is incumbent on South Korean presidents to maintain and manage the bilateral alliance with the United States, despite recurrent challenges and periodic fears of strategic abandonment or entrapment. For 70 years, the liberal world order provided structure and stability for crafting strategic policies. That liberal order is now under stress, and it is uncertain how South Korea will manage that stress.

The wildcard of Trump’s mercurial nature is likely to exacerbate the tensions that, in any case, would beset the US–South Korea alliance when, as now, the former is led by conservatives and the latter by progressives. Disagreement on policy towards North Korea could prompt the return of anti-American demonstrations, fanned by the contentious OPCON transfer issue. In the short term, this would be a Chinese and North Korean dream come true. But it is very unlikely that such a development would lead to a reconfiguration of US military deployments in East Asia or, beyond that, a withdrawal of US forces from the Korean Peninsula. Even with Trump as president, the security architecture and South Korea’s alliance with the United States can be expected to endure with some modifications and perhaps, given North Korea’s provocations, some upgrades.

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