An Agenda for South Korea’s New Leader

May 10, 2017

By ROBERT E. KELLY New York Times

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/09/opinion/an-agenda-for-south-koreas-new-leader.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share

PUSAN, South Korea — South Koreans elected Moon Jae-in as their new president on Tuesday against a backdrop of heightened United States-North Korean tensions. Yet North Korea did not dominate the campaign. South Korean voters were focused on the economy, corruption and other domestic issues like air quality. Before the voting, only 23 percent of voters said that international security was the most important issue to them.

A supporter takes pictures between pictures of the South Korean President-elect Moon Jae-In, as Moon speaks to his supporters after he was declared the winner of the election South Korea, May 10, 2017. Credit Jeon Heon-Kyun/European Pressphoto Agency

A supporter takes pictures between pictures of the South Korean President-elect Moon Jae-In, as Moon speaks to his supporters after he was declared the winner of the election South Korea, May 10, 2017. Credit Jeon Heon-Kyun/European Pressphoto Agency

Mr. Moon, a center-left human rights lawyer who will take office as soon as this week following the ouster of former President Park Geun-hye in a corruption scandal, is a dove inclined to start negotiations with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. His candidacy was most likely bolstered by President Trump’s tough talk against the North Korean regime, which is widely seen here as dangerous bluster.

South Korean equanimity toward the North’s threats surprises Westerners, but the South Koreans have lived for decades with Pyongyang’s provocations and, more recently, the nuclear program. Young South Koreans increasingly consider the North Korean menace a fact of life. South Korea’s vulnerability to a devastating attack from the North — Seoul’s northernmost suburbs begin just 20 miles from the demilitarized zone — adds to the sense here that the South should do everything it can to avoid war.

An overture from the incoming Moon administration to start talks with Pyongyang should be made with caution. Engagement with North Korea has a mixed, if not poor, record, and new talks would be more effective if started from a position of strength. It is vital that Mr. Moon pursue policies to decrease his country’s vulnerability to attack, while dangling the possibility of talks. Beijing and Washington are key to any deal with North Korea, but Seoul can do a lot on its own.

South Korea spends only 2.6 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. To strengthen Seoul’s negotiating position, Mr. Moon could indicate he will spend more on military preparedness. Civil defense (preparation of the civilian population for North Korean urban strikes), improved pay for conscripts, more intelligence, homegrown missile defense and stronger cyberdefense would help make up for Seoul’s military vulnerabilities.

South Korea and Japan could work together much more to show a united front. Such coordination is undercut by persistent tension over the history of Japanese colonialism in Korea. South Korea’s historical concerns with Japan have legitimate roots, but there is too much exaggeration — such as routine suggestions in the media that Japan is remilitarizing with designs on Asia — and not enough recognition that modern Japan is a liberal democracy and a potential ally against the North.

Seoul and Tokyo should agree to avoid separate deals with the North and reject Pyongyang’s efforts to play them against each other. Mr. Moon and his left-wing base are hostile to a recently signed South Korea-Japan intelligence-sharing pact, but he should consider that South Korea benefits from it more than Japan. Military cooperation in adjoining air and sea spaces would be ideal.

To further improve South Korea’s position, Seoul and Washington need to persuade Beijing to reduce trade with North Korea. Pyongyang is dependent on China for resources and access to the world economy. Cutting off North Korea would slow the nuclear and missile programs, and a reduction in luxury imports would put pressure on the regime elite.

Beijing is already obligated to enforce the existing sanctions against Pyongyang but does so haphazardly because it fears a North Korean implosion. Mr. Moon should work with Beijing to reassure its anxieties over a post-North Korean order, including the possibility of United States forces on the Chinese border, which prompted Chinese intervention in the original Korean conflict in 1950.

Given Seoul’s vulnerability to attack, Mr. Moon should also do much more to encourage the decentralization of the country away from the Seoul area. Fifty percent of South Korea’s population lives in the Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon corridor — 26 million people in a space roughly the size of Connecticut, directly abutting the border. The South Korean presidential residence is only some 23 miles from the demilitarized zone. It is long overdue for the government to start halting Seoul’s uncontrolled growth.

Previous efforts to move the capital have failed. President Roh Moo-hyun tried unsuccessfully to move it 75 miles south to Sejong City — though some government ministries and administrative departments have relocated there since 2004, showing decentralization is possible. There are also tax and regulatory incentives in place for South Korea’s conglomerates, like Samsung and Hyundai, to relocate out of Seoul, but many remain centered in, or directly adjacent to, the city.

The South Korean government already intervenes heavily in the economy. Why not do so to encourage more dispersed settlement?

South Koreans have seen it all from the boy who cried wolf to the North and know what to expect from a third iteration of the Kim dynasty. What no one knows is what Mr. Trump will tweet next. South Koreans don’t know whether Mr. Trump realizes just how vulnerable their country is to attack. But despite their differences, Mr. Trump and Mr. Moon now have a chance to build on their countries’ decades-long alliance.

Robert E. Kelly is an associate professor of political science at Pusan National University.

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