May 20, 2017 9:00 am JST

Moon Jae-in's 'balance' strategy risks knocking region off kilter

South Korean leader seeks elusive sweet spot between North, China, US

HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei staff writer

SEOUL -- After nine years of conservative rule, South Korea's new liberal president is vowing to talk with the unruly North in an effort to stabilize the peninsula. But one could argue Moon Jae-in's rise has itself become another destabilizing factor, given the potential risks of his diplomatic approach.    

Moon, 64, took the oath of office on May 10 and, in his inaugural speech, expressed his eagerness to pursue dialogue with Pyongyang. Just days later, early on May 14, the Kim Jong Un regime greeted him by test-firing a new ballistic missile.

The launch drew international condemnation and forced Moon to take a more resolute tone. "I promised to do all I can to settle peace on the Korean Peninsula," he said. "Despite my promise, I deeply regret that the North's reckless provocation came just days after my administration kicked off."

Nevertheless, Moon remains committed to inter-Korean dialogue.

While calling for "robust action" in response to the missile test, the new president stressed that "the possibility of dialogue is open." The South Korean government also issued a statement urging the North once again to "engage in talks." What made the text remarkable was the absence of words "sanctions" and "punishment," highlighting Moon's markedly softer approach.

His government, of course, is not operating in a vacuum: It is caught between two global powers. And this is where things get even trickier.

Haunted by history

On the night of May 10, Moon took a call from U.S. President Donald Trump at his home in Seoul.

Trump turned on the charm, congratulating Moon on his victory, inviting him to the U.S. and telling him: "You should feel free to call anytime." But each man has some inkling of the other's real intentions, and the potential for friction between them is clear. 

Seventy years after the Korean Peninsula was divided, South Korea remains split between pro-U.S. conservatives and progressive reformers who prefer a more conciliatory stance toward the North. The reformers still have bitter memories of life under the military regimes of the past, especially the 1980 Gwangju Uprising.

Protesters against the military regime of Chun Doo-hwan violently clashed with troops enforcing martial law, turning the streets into battlefields. The reformers believe the U.S. gave tacit approval for the crackdown, and as such they remain deeply suspicious of Washington.

Moon is a die-hard liberal. When he was a student, he was jailed for leading protests against then military ruler Park Chung-hee, the father of Park Geun-hye -- whose impeachment as president would lead to Moon's election.

After becoming a human rights lawyer, Moon continued to participate in the pro-democracy movement. 

As a politician, Moon has not shied away from irking Washington.  "South Korea and America can scale back joint military exercises if the North freezes its nuclear program," he has said. The new leader has also insisted: "Any military action on the peninsula must not happen without South Korea's consent."

Trump, meanwhile, is not exactly known for holding his tongue. When the South Korean presidential race was entering its second half, with Moon leading, Trump blasted the free trade agreement between the two countries. He also called for South Korea to cover the $1 billion cost of deploying the missile defense system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense. This, he said, would be "appropriate."

If the Moon administration resists THAAD -- which is already partly operational -- foreign policy experts say Trump might go so far as to withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea.

China's opportunity

With the future of the Seoul-Washington relationship looking hazy, Beijing is aiming to win over the Moon government and repair bilateral relations. At the same time, China is showing a willingness to cooperate with the U.S. to prevent another North Korean nuclear test, at least for now.

About 13 hours after his phone conversation with Trump, Moon held a conference call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. 

"I have been greatly impressed by your unusual personal background, thoughts and viewpoints," Xi told Moon, in a show of empathy for a man who grew up in poverty but rose to take the reins of the South Korean government.

Xi and Moon agreed on the need to negotiate with North Korea, to persuade the regime to abandon its nuclear program. Moon also said he plans to send a delegation to China to discuss the THAAD issue -- a move Beijing welcomed.

China is firmly opposed to the deployment of the U.S. system.

Moon's delicate position between the U.S. and China is hardly a secret. In their May 10 call, Trump broached the idea of renegotiating the U.S.-South Korea free trade pact before even touching on North Korea. This might have been his way of applying pressure on Moon to choose a side, rather than straddle the fence.

Staying relevant

Moon's biggest fear might be a scenario in which the U.S. and China go over South Korea's head to decide the future of North Korea -- and the Korean Peninsula as a whole.

South Korea does not want to see a unilateral U.S. military move against the North, nor does it want a surprise rapprochement between Washington and Pyongyang. Seoul appears to believe that as long as it engages with North Korea, neither the U.S. nor China will be able to ignore it.  "We must lead tension-easing efforts on the peninsula," Moon has declared.

On the eve of his election, at Seoul's Gwanghwamun Square, Moon asked supporters, "Who can move both Trump and Kim Jong Un as a negotiator, while ensuring solid national security and pushing a dignified foreign policy as a leader?"

The crowd burst into cheers.

He seems to envision Seoul as a regional "balancer" that manages the interests of powers such as the U.S. and China. It is reminiscent of the ultimately unsuccessful idea of former President Roh Moo-hyun, for whom Moon served as chief of staff.

Striking that balance will be no easy task for Moon, either. And with tensions growing over the North's moves and America's response, the stakes are higher than ever.

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