from Asia Unbound

Moon Jae-in Inherits Leadership At An Uncertain Moment For South Korea

Last updated May 09, 2017

South Korea's president-elect Moon Jae-in gestures to supporters at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul, South Korea, May 9, 2017. Reuters/Kim Kyunghoon
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After a historic election in South Korea, progressive Moon Jae-in is the country’s new president. Exit polls estimate Moon won 41% of the vote and conservative Hong Joon-pyo, his closest competitor, has conceded defeat, along with Moon’s other political rivals.

President-elect Moon Jae-in will take office in a South Korea that has been consumed by domestic politics resulting from Park Geun-hye’s impeachment and a compressed national election campaign. But now as president, he will quickly be forced by rising Northeast Asian tensions to reassert South Korean political leadership that has been absent.

Despite aspirations to enhance South Korea’s impact and voice, Moon will face a steep learning curve.

A return to liberal foreign policy

The Moon campaign template for foreign policy outlines a return to the liberal foreign policies that his political mentor Roh Moo-hyun followed a decade ago before conservatives re-took control of the Blue House.

The Roh Moo-hyun administration, in which Moon Jae-in served as chief of staff, pursued greater autonomy while maintaining the U.S.-ROK alliance, sought greater balance in South Korea’s position between China and the United States, and emphasized inter-Korean and regional security cooperation by fostering regional economic and political integration.

But a return to these priorities by the Moon administration face many obstacles that did not exist a decade ago.

New obstacles

First, the immediacy of Moon’s transition to power means that he and his team must switch gears from campaigning to governing within 24 hours. Moon will take office as president with a transitional government that will remain in place until a new prime minister and cabinet can win approval from a National Assembly that his Democratic Party does not control.

The need for consensus within the National Assembly will influence the selection of Moon’s cabinet and will constrain his capacity to pass laws supporting his policy agenda.

South Korean attitudes will form a second constraint on Moon’s approach to foreign policy. While there is agreement on the need for a clean start domestically, public approval for the security alliance with Washington and anxieties about China are high, while expectations for cooperation with North Korea are low. The South Korean public has moved in a conservative direction on major foreign policy issues over the past decade, and it will take time to build a successful record for the progressive Moon administration to reverse this trend.

A different international landscape

Third, the international landscape has changed drastically during the last decade, making it more difficult for Moon to implement many elements of his platform that had once been priorities under Roh Moo-hyun.

North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons has advanced and Kim Jong Un has tied his survival to the nuclear project. UN Security Council resolutions restrict many economic activities that were permissible when Moon was last in power. South Korean companies, burned by the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea, have moved on.

Moon and his advisors will have to convince North Korea to reverse its nuclear trajectory before dreams of a common Korean market will be feasible.

Fourth, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has moved forward in setting its policy toward North Korea while South Korea has been caught up in its own political leadership vacuum. Moon Jae-in comes into office as the concrete has begun to set on Trump administration preferences, albeit still self-contradictory and uncertain.

Little room for error

To be an effective advocate for South Korean interests, the liberal Moon must figure out both how to talk to Trump and how not to push buttons that might jeopardize the relationship.  The fact that Moon inherits deeper mechanisms for coordination between Washington and Seoul than existed a decade ago under Roh Moo-hyun will help keep the alliance moving in the right direction, but bad chemistry between the two leaders would do much to undermine deeply shared U.S.-ROK interests in a non-nuclear peninsula and a prosperous Northeast Asia.

To achieve success, Moon Jae-in must restore South Korea’s confidence in the institutions of leadership at home while navigating a narrowing strategic space in Northeast Asia. It is a daunting task. Time will tell if Moon is up for the job.

This post originally appeared on Forbes. Mr. Snyder’s upcoming book is South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rising Regional Rivalry.

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