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The Peninsula

The Foreign Policy Outlook of South Korean Progressives: Part IV

Published April 27, 2022

In this series, S. Nathan Park examined the much-caricatured South Korean liberal foreign policy outlook. Far from being “anti-American” and “pro-Pyongyang,” Seoul’s liberal administrations have responded forcefully against provocations from the North and bolstered the alliance with the United States through military deployments abroad and a bilateral free trade agreement. Reflecting their reading of Korea’s modern history as being defined by suffering under external imposition, liberals are wary of international entanglement. But this has not prevented their treatment of the U.S.-ROK alliance as a bedrock and pursuing a pragmatic approach to North Korea that prioritizes defense but remains open to negotiations. Part 3 surveyed the key foreign policy moments of Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. This article concludes the series with an overview of the Moon Jae-in administration. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Part IV: South Korean Liberals’ Foreign Policy in Action (The Moon Jae-in Administration)

Moon Jae-in: South Korea as a Rising Middle Power

Moon Jae-in took office in 2017, following two successive conservative administrations and the impeachment of the latter following a corruption scandal. Moon faced a turbulent world with numerous crises: North Korea’s nuclear weapons, the United States under Donald Trump, Japan’s export control of high-tech materials, the increasing strain between the United States and China, rapidly advancing climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite some limitations such as the impasse with Kim Jong-un, Moon’s responses to these crises were largely successful, carving out greater space for South Korea’s autonomy in world affairs.

Navigating Challenges with the United States and North Korea

Moon entered the Blue House facing a highly unstable situation: the presidency of Donald Trump in the United States and his open disdain for the U.S.-ROK alliance, and the increasing intensity of North Korea’s long-range missile testing. With Trump promising “fire and fury” in response to North Korea’s provocations, the United States was actively preparing a war against Pyongyang that could have escalated into a nuclear exchange with catastrophic consequences. According to Bob Woodward’s 2020 book Rage, the United States had prepared for a decapitation strike against Kim Jong-un, with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis steeling himself for the possibility of “incinerat[ing] a couple million people” with a nuclear strike.

The fact that Moon Jae-in was able to intervene decisively to avert the war was a major feat of diplomacy that made good on Moon’s pledge that South Korea will be in the “driver’s seat” of inter-Korean affairs. By leveraging North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in 2018, Moon successfully brokered three summit meetings between Trump and Kim Jong-un, the first meetings between the leaders of the United States and North Korea, as well as two inter-Korean summits. Although the talks have stalled since the failed U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, Vietnam in February 2019, the reduction in military tension that Moon achieved was substantial. The importance of the September 19 Military Agreement, which came out of the second inter-Korean summit between Moon and Kim in 2018, is also underrated. The agreement provided that the two Koreas pull back their military from the demilitarized zone by a kilometer, lowering the possibility of an inadvertent armed conflict. Although North Korea has since raised military tensions by continuing to test ballistic missiles and demolishing the Joint Liaison Office in the Kaesong Industrial Complex site, it has continued to observe the military agreement along the demilitarized zone.

Meanwhile, the Moon administration also defused a possible source of tension by holding firm against the Trump administration’s extortionate demand of quintupling Seoul’s contribution for hosting U.S. forces, from $923 million to $4.7 billion. The U.S. demand was not only outrageous, but also was delivered in a disrespectful, boorish way. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper penned an extraordinary op-ed on the Wall Street Journal, baselessly claiming South Korea did not shoulder enough burden when the country’s share of defense budget relative to its GDP was 2.6%, far outpacing Germany’s 1.2% and Japan’s 0.9%. In a meeting with Assembly Member Lee Hye-hoon, U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris so persistently demanded “five billion dollars” – the words he repeated over 20 times in a 30-minute meeting, according to Lee – that the stalwart conservative legislator left insulted. But rather than letting the negotiation damage the alliance, the Moon administration patiently engaged the U.S. government until it could enter into a more reasonable agreement with the new Joe Biden administration.

History Dispute with Japan and the Trade War

In terms of diplomacy, the least popular move by President Moon’s conservative predecessor, Park Geun-hye, was to enter into an agreement with Japan regarding the Comfort Women issue in 2015. In the agreement, Japan’s prime minister Abe Shinzo “express[ed] anew his most sincere apologies and remorse” and used its government budget to form a foundation to assist the former Comfort Women, in exchange for considering the issue to be “resolved finally and irreversibly.” The agreement was criticized because it was negotiated without meaningful input from the former military sex slaves of the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II, whose key demands were not reflected in the text. In an undisclosed side deal, the Park Geun-hye administration also agreed to not use the term “sex slave” to describe the military sex slaves and move the Comfort Women memorial statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul – which added to the furor when the side deal was disclosed after Moon Jae-in took office.

Although Moon did not formally break off the agreement, he walked away from the agreement as a practical matter by stating in December 2017 that the agreement had “deep procedural and substantive flaws” and “could not resolve the Comfort Women issue.” Compounding the history issue was the Korean Supreme Court’s ruling in October 2018, ordering Japanese companies to pay reparations for subjecting Korean workers to slave labor during World War II. In response, in July 2019, Tokyo imposed export controls over three high-tech materials that are critical components for semiconductors and LED displays, which are the leading export products for the South Korean economy. Japan’s trade war crossed a major red line: even as the two countries had feuded over historical issues in the past, they never let the dispute affect economic cooperation. With the trade war, Abe administration attempted to kneecap the high-tech industry of its democratic neighbor – a doubly reckless move considering the importance of semiconductors in the global supply chain.

Overriding his advisors’ recommendation for a quiet diplomatic resolution, Moon Jae-in opted for a strong response against the trade war. Declaring “We will never lose to Japan again,” Moon announced major subsidies for the domestic materials industry, and South Korea’s semiconductor manufacturers managed to diversify their supply chain without significant damage.

COVID-19, Climate Change, and Greater International Power Projection

Many international commentators have said South Korea responded successfully to the COVID-19 pandemic by not allowing politics to interfere with public health. Such praise is well-intended but incorrect: Korea’s response was driven in equal parts by science and politics. The Park Geun-hye administration failed disastrously with the MERS epidemic, in which Korea had the dubious distinction of having the highest number of cases out of the Middle East. Conscious of the Park administration’s failure, the Moon Jae-in administration responded to the novel coronavirus with an overwhelming urgency.

The approach was not without fault: it required an enormous amount of resources to test, trace, and isolate every COVID-19 patient through a centralized quarantine program. But it is difficult to argue with the result, as South Korea is credited with one of the best responses to the pandemic. The fact that their country succeeded where other advanced nations – most notably the United States, which has long served as the model for South Korea – have failed was not lost on Koreans. Although South Korea has been among the world’s leading nations for quite some time, Koreans themselves were hesitant to acknowledge that their country stood shoulder to shoulder with countries like the United States, Japan, and leading Western European nations. Its success in the pandemic response injected newfound confidence in Koreans. Today, few Koreans dispute their country’s status as an advanced nation – a palpable change from just a few years ago.

The Moon Jae-in administration also addressed a different failure of the Park Geun-hye administration, namely the weakened commitment for addressing climate change. As of 2019, South Korea was the ninth largest emitter of greenhouse gas in the world, but the Park administration walked back the “green growth” projects of her predecessor Lee Myung-bak that would have reduced carbon emissions. Moon restored the commitment by pledging to reduce carbon emissions by 40% by 2030, and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. In June 2021, South Korea hosted the P4G summit, one of the largest climate change summits attended virtually by U.S. President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping. At the summit, Moon said South Korea “will serve as a bridge between advanced and developing countries” – an appropriate role for a country that rose from the ashes of the war into a leading economy, going from polluting heavy industries to high-tech industries.

The Moon administration also oversaw a significant expansion of South Korea’s military capability. Moon negotiated with the Biden administration to lift the restriction on rocket development, opening the path for South Korea’s own space rockets and long-range ballistic missiles. Moon oversaw the development of a domestically produced fleet of supersonic fighter jets, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and light aircraft carriers, stretching Korea’s power projection range far beyond the Korean Peninsula to cover the South China Sea, a potential site for a future conflict and a critical corridor for South Korea’s import of petroleum. Under the Moon administration, South Korea also emerged as one of the world’s leading arms exporters, selling billions of dollars in howitzers and missile systems to Australia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. As the Ukraine-Russia war pushes the world toward greater armament, South Korea’s role in the future as a major weapons provider will be worth paying attention to.

The Common Threads of South Korean Liberals’ Foreign Policy

This series’ presentation of South Korean liberals’ foreign policy, seen through the country’s three liberal presidents (See Part 3 for coverage of President Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun), was significantly abbreviated due to the constraints of space and time. But it is enough to discern the two significant themes that the foreign policies of the three presidents shared in common.

First, all three liberal presidents sought to engage North Korea in a dialogue, while having South Korea play the leading role in managing inter-Korean affairs. Even when the diplomacy with North Korea involved superpowers like the United States and China, South Korea persistently attempted to Koreanize the diplomacy by actively facilitating the negotiation and dialogue, particularly during the Six-Party Talks during the Roh Moo-hyun administration and the U.S.-North Korea negotiations under the Moon Jae-in administration.

Second, all three liberal presidents sought to carve out the space for autonomous diplomacy while leveraging South Korea’s relationship with the United States to be involved the world affairs, simultaneously maintaining and recalibrating the ROK-U.S. alliance. For instance, Kim Dae-jung’s intervention in East Timor was made through Bill Clinton. Roh Moo-hyun’s drive to negotiate a series of bilateral free trade agreements began in earnest with the KORUS FTA. Moon Jae-in endured the whims of the Donald Trump administration to gradually increase the range of South Korea’s missiles, ultimately eliminating the range restriction altogether during the Joe Biden administration.

But these themes are in broad strokes. A closer examination reveals that the overriding factor for all three liberal presidents is the consideration for pragmatism, which created different policy choices for different presidents. Kim Dae-jung tried to find reconciliation with Japan when the South Korean economy was in dire straits; Moon Jae-in stood against Japan’s trade war when South Korea’s economy was strong enough to withstand it. Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy was aimed at reunification; Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in’s engagement policy, which was implemented after North Korea acquired nuclear arms, was more focused on peaceful coexistence. Even within the single presidency of Roh Moo-hyun, there were moments of tension with the United States regarding the OPCON transfer, as well as moments of deeper cooperation around the Iraq War and the KORUS FTA.

To restate the conclusion of this series: upon examination, the simplistic caricature of South Korean liberals’ foreign policy as radically pro-North Korea and anti-American does not hold. However, the three South Korean liberal presidents did pursue a similar brand of foreign policy that is consistent with how the South Korean liberals view the demands of Korea’s modern history, for greater autonomy in world affairs and reconciliation with North Korea to heal the unjust division. South Korea’s liberal president pursued this brand of foreign policy with pragmatism, responding to the external conditions as well as the internal constraints placed by electoral politics as well as military and diplomatic bureaucracy. This would be the appropriate starting point in understanding how South Korea’s domestic politics informs its foreign policy.

S. Nathan Park is an attorney based in Washington, DC practicing international litigation. Mr. Park is a non-resident fellow of the Sejong Institute and frequent contributor for media outlets such as CNN, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, etc., regarding politics and economy of East Asia. The views expressed here are his own.

Picture from the Flickr account of the Republic of Korea

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