May 18, 2017 10:00 am JST

Moon puts South Korea at center of a diplomatic shake-up

Softer stance on North Korea may upset the balance of power in the region

HIROSHI MINEGISHI and KENTARO IWAMOTO, Nikkei staff writers

With banners that read, "Desperately oppose deploying THAAD," Seongju residents protest South Korea's decision to deploy a U.S. anti-missile system in their county on July 21, 2016. © Reuters

SEOUL/TOKYO In his first days as president, Moon Jae-in has touched on possible changes in South Korea's diplomacy, most notably a softer approach toward North Korea. His counterparts in China, Japan and the U.S. are keeping a close eye on the new leader, as his stance has the potential to dramatically change the balance of power in the region.

In his inaugural address on May 10, Moon said, "I will do whatever I can for peace on the Korean Peninsula" and added that he is prepared to visit Pyongyang "under the right circumstances." He backed up his words by nominating Suh Hoon, a key player behind the two most recent North-South summits, as director of the National Intelligence Service.

But Moon's resilience is already being put to the test. Just four days after he took office, North Korea launched a medium long-range ballistic missile which it said reached an altitude of 2,111km and hit a target 787km away, a sign that Pyongyang may be ramping up its missile and nuclear development programs.

Chairing his first National Security Council meeting May 14, Moon said the latest launch was deeply regrettable. While South Korea remains open to the possibility of dialogue with North Korea, such talks are "only possible when North Korea shows a change in attitude," he said.

South Korea's Foreign Ministry said in a statement, "The government will remain steadfast in safeguarding the lives of our people and the security of the nation based on the firm basis of Korea-U.S. alliance."

According to Park Hwee-rhak, head of the graduate school of politics and leadership at South Korea's Kookmin University, the latest missile launch shows Pyongyang can now capable of striking a target between 5,000km and 6,000km away. "North Korea's long-range missile ability is a serious threat to Korea-U.S. and Japan-U.S. alliances."

ALIENATING ALLIES? The South Korea-U.S. alliance has been key to maintaining the security and balance of power in the region. On May 10, Moon spoke with U.S. President Donald Trump by phone, and both affirmed that they would work closely on issues including the North Korean nuclear problem. Trump said the Pyongyang issue is difficult but can be resolved, according to a statement by the Blue House, the official residence of the South Korean president.

But Moon's policies could open up a rift between the two countries, particularly his hints that he may reconsider the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system, which became partially operational earlier this month. Moon said in his inaugural speech that he would have a serious discussion with the U.S. and China over the THAAD deployment.

The Trump administration wants the system ready to go as soon as possible to defend against possible attack from North Korea. Beijing, however, stridently opposes THAAD on the grounds that it could be used to spy on Chinese bases and has retaliated economically against South Korea over its deployment. The new president seems intent on serving as a middleman between the two powers.

Moon and Trump apparently did not touch on this topic during their phone call.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, however, did, albeit obliquely. Speaking with Moon via phone on May 11, Xi expressed his hope that the new government will respect China's concerns and will further the development of bilateral relations by way of concrete action -- a veiled request to rethink hosting THAAD. State-run China Central Television carried news of the conversation.

Moon replied that he would strive to find an appropriate solution. A liberal, the new president is acting in line with the "balancer" policy of former President Roh Moo-hyun, which holds that Seoul should mediate the interests of major powers like Washington and Beijing in East Asia.

That same day, China's Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang said, "China is ready to work with [South Korea] to bring the bilateral relations back to the track to healthy and steady development."

A Tokyo-based expert, however, said South Korea is unlikely to actually put the brakes on the THAAD deployment.

"A stronger alliance with the U.S. is necessary [for South Korea]," said Tadashi Kimiya, a professor of politics and Korean studies at the University of Tokyo. "Moon has not clearly stated opposition to the THAAD deployment. I think the possibility of cancelling the deployment is low."

CHARM TACTIC Moon chose the Japan-friendly Lee Nak-yon, governor of South Jeolla Province, as his nominee for prime minister. Lee worked in Tokyo as a correspondent with the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper for more than three years starting in 1989. His nomination is seen as an attempt by Moon to maintain cordial relations with Japan even as he seeks to overturn the previous administration's agreement on the wartime "comfort women" issue.

The two countries signed an agreement in 2015 that was intended to end the dispute "finally and irreversibly," but Moon has expressed his intention of renegotiating it.

In a May 11 call with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the two leaders did not delve deeply into the subject. However, Abe told Moon that both countries must "take the responsibility for carrying out a deal that was praised by the international community," according to those close to the prime minister. Abe sees commitment to the agreement as nonnegotiable.

Moon declined to say whether he will honor the agreement, explaining that the majority of South Koreans find it emotionally difficult to accept it, according to the Blue House. But while the new president stopped short of reaffirming his nation's commitment to the deal, he also did not call for renegotiating or scrapping it as he had during his campaign.

FINDING HIS WAY Diplomatically, Moon seems keen to follow in the footsteps of former President Roh, particularly in terms of his "balancer" policy. But Roh's diplomacy did not serve that administration well when it came to North Korea, the University of Tokyo's Kimiya points out. "At the time of Roh administration, South Korea alone moved toward a North-South dialogue amid increasing international criticism against North Korea, which did not bring any major success."

Moon's first visit to Washington as president is scheduled for June, and he and Abe have agreed to hold a three-way summit with Xi at an early date.

"To advance North-South relations," Kimiya said, "it is important to secure cooperation with China, which has increased influential power, as well as with the U.S. and Japan."

Moon's presidency has just begun, but his diplomatic decisions may have repercussions for East Asia for years to come.

Nikkei staff writers Sotaro Suzuki in Seoul, Oki Nagai in Beijing and Tsuyoshi Nagasawa in Washington contributed to this story.

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