Moon Jae In, the Democratic Party candidate who supports rapprochement with North Korea, declared victory in yesterday's presidential election in South Korea, which he won by a large margin. The dovish Moon, who has been skeptical of U.S. power in the region, presents an opportunity for President Trump to follow through on his campaign-era promise of re-evaluating U.S. defense commitments in places like the Korean penninsula.
Moon will be the first Democratic president since Roh Moo-hyun left office in 2008—and the center-left Democrats have been more supportive of normalizing relations with North Korea (known as "sunshine policy"), with the hopes of eventual reunification, than their center-right counterpart.
He had long been the frontrunner of the 2017 campaign, even before Park Guen-hye's impeachment pushed the election date up by seven months. Moon previously ran against Park in 2012, losing by three and a half percent.
The South Korean president-elect also repeatedly expressed concern over a missile defense system (THAAD) deployment agreed to between President Barack Obama and Park last year.
Deployment began earlier this year and was completed overnight late last month amid protests, leading some in South Korea to believe the U.S. was trying to make it "difficult, if not impossible" to reverse the deployment, as The Washington Post reported.
"I don't believe the U.S. has the intention [to influence our election], but I do have some reservations," Moon told The Washington Post.
"It is not desirable for the [interim] South Korean government to deploy THAAD hastily at this politically sensitive time, with the presidential election approaching, and without going through the democratic process, an environmental assessment or a public hearing," Moon said before the election.- "Would it happen this way in the United States? Could the administration make a unilateral decision without following democratic procedures, without ratification or agreement by Congress?"
The agreement over THAAD between Obama and Park was not ratified by Congress, while the U.S.'s accelerated deployment of the missile defense system runs counter to some of President Trump's rhetoric (something American and international observers will probably have to get used to).
Trump floated the idea that South Korea should pay the U.S. $1 billion for the THAAD deployment, consistent with his campaign trail pronouncements about South Korea, and other U.S. allies, free-riding on U.S. defense. A couple of days later national security adviser H.R. McMaster assured his South Korean counterpart that the U.S. would pay for the system.
Namhee Lee, the co-director of the Center for Korean Studies at UCLA, warns against reading too much into U.S. politics as a factor in the South Korean election.
"This election was about the citizens in South Korea who were upset about the previous government's corruption, misuse of power, the collusion between the state and the conglomerates, and growing inequalities in society," she explained to Reason.
"Obviously South Koreans are concerned about North Korea's nuclear build-up and Trump's erratic behavior/statements," Lee said, "but apparently only one out of four in the Korean electorate thinks that North Korea and THAAD is the most important issue facing the incoming administration."
"But it is true the election of Moon would help to defuse tensions in the region," she continued, as he would resume the sunshine policy of his Democratic predecessors, which would build trust and create the conditions "for gradual change in the North's political and economic systems, which would then lead to coexistence and eventually to peaceful unification of two Koreas.
Moon has been against the deployment of THAAD and, as Gye Woon Jeon, president of Students for Liberty in South Korea told Reason, has also demanded the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Korea.
"In terms of North Korean nuclear weapons, instead of solving it through regulation and blockade," Jeon noted, "he wants to solve it only by communication and soft policies."
Among his campaign pledges, Jeon said, was to increase the size of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a collaborative economic development the South Korean government "temporarily" suspended last year.
As the Moon administration would be less interested in confrontation with North Korea than the Trump administration, Jeon suggested Moon could "act more friendly toward Russia and China rather than the U.S."
But Trump's pronouncements open the door for Moon to push for rethinking the THAAD deployment and the role of the U.S. in guaranteeing regional security. China, which has been pushing for resumption of six-party talks between it, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and the U.S., has been careful to treat the missile defense system and concern over North Korea's nuclear program as separate issues while preparing to use the former as an excuse for failing on the latter.
The return of a government in Seoul interested in rapprochement with North Korea, the first since 2008, creates an opportunity for the U.S. to manage a reduction of its security presence in the region. As The Washington Post previously noted, there have been "zero freedom-of-navigation missions to challenge Chinese claims in the South China Sea since Trump took office."
Moon's election could be the final piece to a transformation of U.S. military policy in East Asia, provided the Trump administration doesn't fold on rethinking its defense commitments on the Korean peninsula the way it did over NATO members' contribution to mutual defense.
Domestically, the Democrat's election is iffier.
"It looks like Moon Jae In has decided to follow in the footsteps of Greece and Venezuela," the president of the Students for Liberty in Korea said, pointing to Moon's promises to increase corporate tax rates, expand the public sector workforce, raise the minimum wage, and otherwise impose new controls on the economy.