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South Korea's foreign policy shaped by Moon's anti-US past

Talk of a smaller American military presence builds in Seoul

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in an apparent goodwill gesture to North Korea, canceled military drills with the U.S. scheduled for August.

SEOUL -- Seeking deeper ties with Kim Jong Un's regime in North Korea, the government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in is beginning to quietly but seriously consider the possibility of reducing the U.S. military presence in the country.

While the U.S. is skeptical of Kim's commitment to "denuclearizing the Korea Peninsula," further steps toward a lasting peace could embolden Moon to move further away from Washington.

Moon Chung-in, a special adviser to the South Korean president on national security issues, has said the removal of the security threat posed by the North would make it difficult to justify the presence of U.S. troops.

The left-leaning government in Seoul appeared receptive to U.S. President Donald Trump's suggestion after meeting Kim in Singapore in June that forces might even be withdrawn entirely at some point -- a concept long considered taboo among the South's pro-American conservatives.

While the outlook for a major reduction in troop numbers depends on denuclearization progress, a complete withdrawal may not be realistic because the U.S. presence in South Korea is a check on China's regional ambitions.

One example of Moon's approach was South Korea's decision to call off military exercises with the U.S. planned for this month -- an apparent attempt to appease the North.

The president's foreign policy has undercurrents of the nationalism that set the diplomatic tone for two like-minded predecessors, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. All three have sought reunification with North Korea by ending the South's heavy dependence on the U.S., while maintaining a balance of power with China and Japan.

In a 2017 book, Moon described his country's relationship with the U.S. as one in which America extends help to South Korea. While the U.S. and Japan share a global strategy, he argued, Washington and Seoul do not. His government's economic policy vision is also based on cooperation with Pyongyang.

U.S. and South Korean troops are shown here in joint exercises in September 2017: President Donald Trump has floated the possibility of significant cuts to the U.S. troop presence in South Korea.   © Yonhap/Kyodo

South Korea's conservatives are still reeling from the ouster of Moon's predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who was impeached in March 2017 after a corruption scandal and subsequently imprisoned. Conservative parties suffered a drubbing in local elections in June, and with Moon's approval ratings hovering above 60%, right-leaning voices are being drowned out by calls for change.

Political liberalism in South Korea comes with more than a hint of anti-Americanism. Many policymakers in Moon's government and ruling party took part in the student democracy movement against military rule in the 1980s, with Moon himself a human rights lawyer who defended student activists.

A watershed in the pro-democracy movement came with the Gwangju Uprising in 1980, during which the military fired at protesters in the southwestern city, killing hundreds. This hardened anti-U.S. sentiment among liberals, who regarded Washington as an accomplice in the crackdown.

Moon recently appointed Park Sun-won, the consul general in Shanghai and architect of his foreign policy agenda during his election campaign, as special assistant to the director of the National Intelligence Service. A staunch anti-U.S. activist in his youth, Park is believed to have masterminded the student occupation of the American Center Korea in Seoul in 1985.

While serving as a secretary in charge of North Korean affairs for the Roh government, Park worked as a mediator during talks between the U.S. and North Korea aimed at lifting American sanctions on Banco Delta Asia in Macau, which was allegedly involved in North Korean money laundering.

Moon learned some important lessons from the mistakes of Roh, whom he served as a top aide. One was not to adopt an overly pro-U.S. foreign policy. Roh's dispatch of South Korean troops to support the U.S. in the Iraq War and signing of a free trade deal with Washington cost him crucial support among liberal voters.

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