External Affairs

Moon Jae-in’s Win in South Korea Shows That People Want ‘Peace Through Strength’

Moon Jae-in, who promised to focus on domestic issues like unemployment, won snap elections on May 9 to become president of South Korea after former president Park Geun-hye was impeached on corruption charges.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in from Democratic Party attends an election campaign rally in Seoul, South Korea, April 17, 2017. Credit:Hwang Kwang-mo/Reuters/Files

In a manner that was reminiscent of D.K. Baruah’s ‘India is Indira and Indira is India’, some supporters’ placards at Gwanghamun square had read ‘The nation is Moon Jae-in and Moon Jae-in is the nation’ on Tuesday (May 9).

The results of the Korean presidential election had just started coming in. In a few hours, Moon Jae-in, a liberal human rights lawyer who had lost to ex-president Park Geun-hye in 2012 by a narrow margin, had won. He had 41% of the votes in the snap election held after the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye.

Moon has won by a margin of over 5.5 million votes over the second contender, Hong Jun-pyo, of the ruling Conservative party. Most of these votes in favour of Moon came from the youth, who look to him, not only to settle the political turmoil following the impeachment of Park in a corruption scandal, but also to fix the domestic economy. Unemployment is running very high.

Politically, Moon still does not have a majority in the National Assembly. His Minjoo Party (Democratic Party of Korea) has only 119 of the 300 seats and will have to woo many others to be able to achieve anything. He would like all parties to cooperate with him to restore peace in the region and work out a relationship with the US cordially, but on an equal footing, to modernise South Korea’s own military and build a ‘new and strong nation’. A key element in his policies will be reunification with North Korea.

Domestic focus, global play

There is not much reason to believe that his main focus will be on the security problem in the region. Issues related to security have escalated following North Korean misadventures with the nuclear programme and the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) by the US.

Moon’s focus though will be on domestic policies since this is the hope with which he has been voted to power. His election manifesto has promised ‘people’s growth’ by ensuring that everyone feels the benefits of the growth and not just the chaebols (business conglomerates). He has, in fact, promised to reform the latter and make them more transparent.

He has also promised to increase jobs for the youth and a way out of “hell Joseon” (Joseon being the historical name for Korea). Many South Koreans believe that their country has come become “hell” for the youth, because of low employment prospects.

During the election Moon was called a “Chongbok” or “follower of the North”. This was because of his involvement with the Sunshine Policy of two former presidents, Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun. Both had tried to be nice to North Korea hoping that it would reform.

But in a manner that reminds us of Narendra Modi’s election campaign, Moon turned the tables on his critics. He accused them of being followers of the North because they had harmed national security, aided the North through corruption in defense deals. In addition, he accused them of exempting relatives of the higher level personnel from compulsory military training.

He also blamed the past two presidents – Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye – for allowing the North to cross the maritime border and kill military personnel and civilians. Furthermore, he accused them of not responding appropriately. He has categorically stated that he will not compromise on security and that towards that end, he will strengthen and modernise Korea’s military.

Moon has also assured voters of continuous engagement with the North on various issues to solve the nuclear issue and to develop a common economic zone with it. He also hopes to extend this economic engagement with all neighbours and to implement the inter-Korea agreements of the past and revive the Kaeseong Industrial Complex and the Keumgangsan Tourism for South Koreans.

Some of these revivals will be unconditional, but a lot will be on the assurance from the North of returning to the negotiating table for de-nuclerisation. Moon thinks that talks and negotiations are the only ways to ease current tensions in the region to achieve economic stability that it is not dependent on any one nation.

Moon, Trump and Xi

Moon is very clear that he will not jeopardise South Korea’s 70-year alliance with the US. Instead he has talked about a ‘blood alliance’ with the US and has described it as the basis of all foreign relations.

US President Donald Trump, it might be recalled, has been going on about the Korea-US (KORUS) foreign trade agreement being a horrible deal which should be re-negotiated or terminated. Moon also doesn’t seem to be perturbed by Trump’s insistence on Korea paying for defense expenses, including the sharing of the deployment costs of THAAD. But he has not, so far, said anything categorically about THAAD being deployed, lest he upsets China.

South Korea has been trying to take an independent stance, but just as China will not do away with North Korea, South Korea is not going to seriously re-examine its relations with the US. Moon knows that he still needs US support in the UN Security Council for the inter-Korea negotiations. He also needs US technology for modernising and indigenising the South Korean military. But he also needs to maintain good relations with China to solve a lot of its current economic crises. This would justify his ‘peace through strength’ policy line.

Vyjayanti Raghavan is Professor, Centre for Korean Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.