The first female President of South Korea (SK), Park Geun-hye, had a very shortened tenure (2013-2017). She was disgraced in her presidency by the 'Soul-Mate-Gate'. Park's mentor soul-mate, Choi Soon-sil with no government role, was charged with influencing government policies and applying pressure, with Park’s consent, to businesses to donate funds to foundations Choi controlled. Park was eventually impeached and removed from her presidency on March 10th, 2017 cutting her five year-term short. A Presidential election was held 60 days after her demise. Moon Jae-in, leader of the opposition liberal party, Minjoo Party of Korea, and a member of National Assembly, won the election in a field of multiple candidates obtaining the highest number of votes (41%) against Hong Joon-pyo, a conservative pledging a tough stance against North Korea (24%) and Ahn Cheol-soo, a centrist (21%).
While the events were happening to President Park, the biggest news reported worldwide was the nuclear threat raised by Kim Jong-un, the President of North Korea (NK 2009-present). Kim succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il and adhered to NK’s long-held desire to develop nuclear weapon. He broke the on-off-on negotiation in 2011 and continued in demonstrating NK's ability of launching multiple nuclear missiles reaching a range of 1550 miles. This poses a threat to SK, Japan, the US military bases in Northeast Asia and also to the world with potential triggering a nuclear war. When Park took office in 2013, she adopted a 'be friend with China' policy cultivated from economical consideration since South Korea's trade with China was steadily growing reaching beyond 25% of South Korea’s total export ($131B to China in 2015). However, when the NK nuclear threat was elevated to high tension with no means stopping it, the U.S. proposed (Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the Commander of U.S. Forces Korea, USFK, recommended in 2014) to install the THAAD anti-nuclear missile system in South Korea. Under the pressure from the U.S., SK agreed to the THAAD installation plan. This might have pleased the U.S. and Japan but it alienated China and Russia who were concerned with their national defense capability being compromised. THAAD had also been an issue in SK’s presidential election.
Moon as a Presidential Candidate was questioning the wisdom of installing THAAD in SK while other candidates were opposing THAAD. Moon suggested postponing the installation of THAAD until the next South Korea Government beginning its new term and acknowledged that it may not be easy to cancel the THAAD agreement. Now that Moon has been elected as the new president of SK and THAAD had been hurriedly made operational, what will happen to the nuclear threat to the Korea Peninsula and the world? First, Moon’s spokesman expressed displeasure of the hurried roll out of THAAD depriving the new Administration a chance to make its own decision. Second, both Trump and Xi had called Moon to congratulate him but with different messages: to work together versus concern over THAAD. Recently after Xi’s visit ( April 6&7) to Trump’s estate, Mar-a-Lago, Florida, Trump and Xi had again (April 12) communicated over the phone touching upon the NK issue. Interestingly, after the above conversation, Trump has expressed (April 28) that SK should pay for the cost of $1billion for the installation of THAAD. In my opinion, Trump's statement was intriguing since it may provide a necessary stepping stone for the SK, the U.S., China, and the NK to get off the confrontation stage of nuclear threat.
The logic behind my opinion is as follows: Installation of THAAD was not a smooth operation facing internal opposition in SK and external pressure from China and Russia. The effectiveness of THAAD stopping NK's nuclear weapon development is questionable as exhibited by NK's continued testing and launching multiple nuclear missiles. China has always advocated a six-party dialogue to solve the NK nuclear issue and it did briefly work in 2005. Trump-Xi might have agreed that going back to the six-party negotiation might be the only plausible path. The $1B installation payment demand gives the New SK President a graceful step to renege on the installation of THAAD by refusing to pay. The U.S. (Trump) would then have a good reason to pull out THAAD saving US face. China (and possibly Russia) would be incented by the cancellation of THAAD then gladly applying pressure to NK warning her not to take the hard road against the five parties. NK's Kim, though seemingly a hard-headed figure, really had little to gain by confronting a united five parties. Hence, very likely Kim would take the stepping stone as well to get off the confrontation stage by agreeing to have a dialogue on the condition that THAAD is removed..
The 12th SK President, Moon Jae-in, was elected by a large plurality against thirteen other candidates ending a decade of conservative rule. Moon as a liberal candidate already expressed his willingness to meet with Kim Jong-un. To mend fences with China, Moon revealed his plan to send separate delegations to Beijing to resolve the THAAD and trade issues. THAAD is one of the trickiest diplomatic problem the new SK leader faces. Since the THAAD installation was agreed by the previous administration and became operational early May, it would be hard to ask the United States to withdraw it without ruffling SK–US military alliance and appearing to be kowtowing to Chinese pressure. Hence, President Trump’s $1B payment demand for THAAD may just be a brilliant move (planned) or a lucky stroke (unplanned); in either case, it gives Moon a way out and the six-party negotiation a renewed life as discussed above. Whether the above scenario will play out or not depends on whether or not all the party figures have a logical mind.
China is likely to welcome Mr. Moon’s election victory since Moon’s position on NK is a sharp departure from that of his two immediate predecessors, conservatives who wanted strict enforcement of sanctions against the NK. While Moon condemned “the ruthless dictatorial regime of NK” during his campaign, he also argued that SK must “embrace the North Korean people to achieve peaceful reunification one day.” This echoed with China’s position, the SK’s sunshine policy during 1998-2008 and the current NK’s plea that “the two Koreas expel foreign influence from the Korean Peninsula and work together for reunification” and a companion comment, “The North and the South must ease military tensions and resolve all issues through dialogue and negotiations.” For the U.S., there may be some “serious policy differences between the new U.S. and SK presidents over NK and related issues”, warned by David Straub, a former director of Korean affairs at the State Department and a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, a think tank in SK.
Moon had been smart to keep his options open by being diplomatic by saying: “reviewing the THAAD issue does not necessarily mean reversing it” or saying: “SK must learn to say no to Washington” but he emphasizes that “any diplomatic overture toward NK will be grounded in the South’s alliance with the U.S.”
Mr. Moon was born in1953 in a refugee camp on an island off the southern coast of SK. He has a 90-year-old mother with hometown in NK. Moon once said to press, “If Korea reunifies, the first thing I would do is to take my mother’s hand and visit her hometown,” he said. “Perhaps I could retire there as a lawyer.” The world may be justified to be optimistic about the future of Korea Peninsula!