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Left turn

How the new president of South Korea will change relations with the US and the DPRK

On May 9, presidential elections took place in South Korea - they were held for the first time in the country's history following the impeachment of the incumbent president. They ended predictably - the election with a noticeable margin won the candidate from the left-nationalist forces of Mun Zhe Ying. The historian, Korean expert, lecturer at the University of Kukmin (Seoul) Andrei Lankov comments on the election results for the portal

Left turn
When it became clear earlier this year that the impeachment of President Pak Kun Hye was inevitable, few doubted that the next president would be Mun Zhe Ying. It's not about his charisma (he does not really have charisma at all), or special talents, but about how the political life of South Korea works.

Party traditions

Politically, South Korea has long been firmly divided into two camps, the "conservative", that is, the center-right forces, which were represented by President Park Geun-hye, and left-wing nationalists, headed by Moon Jae Ying. At the same time, it’s not worth mentioning the specific current names of parties - the Korean parties are reformatted every few years, but this political rebranding is very formal: everyone understands that there are two unchanged camps behind the next couple of party avatars.

The scandal that unfolded at the end of last year around President Pak Geun-hye, in a logical way led to the complete compromise of the right-wing forces. As a result, the left automatically became the only candidates to win. If there were surprises at the elections, then they should include just unexpectedly good results, which were demonstrated by the candidate of the right forces Hon Chun Pye.

In any case, the next five years, most likely, the Koreans will have to live under the leadership of Mun Zhe Ying, so it makes sense to look at the new head of the South Korean state and think about what his policy will represent.

Mun Zhe Ying himself was born into a family of refugees from North Korea, however, unlike most people of similar origins, he was drawn to the left camp from his youth. After graduating from the Faculty of Law, Moon became a close friend of the future president of the No Moo Hyun, in whose administration (2002-2007) he held prominent posts. It was on his proximity to No Mu-hyun that Moon Zhe Ying built his political career after 2008.

Roh Moo Hyun himself, being under investigation on corruption charges, committed suicide, turning into a kind of secular saint in the eyes of left nationalists, so that the former proximity to this semi-sacral for the left-wing nationalists gave Mun a considerable political advantage, making him the only leader of the left camps

In modern South Korea, the differences between left and right in economic policy are generally minimal. The country actually had a consensus on the question of what the Korean economy should be: it must be a market economy, but with elements of state redistribution and a developed social sphere. Both the left and the right in general agree that now Korea is sorely lacking a social state, and intend to actively develop it, including increasing taxes. There are differences only on tactical issues - the left and the right are arguing about the speed at which Korea should move towards a kind of Northern European "socially-market state".

In a situation where there are no deep disagreements on economic issues between the two camps, the disputes between them often boil down to problems that external observers do not seem to be very important: for example, the figures of both camps are enthusiastic about how to evaluate certain events of a new And the newest history of Korea.

Trump Factor

However, foreign observers are primarily concerned with foreign policy, but in this area, there are noticeable differences between Moon Zhe Ying and his opponents from the right-wing conservative camp.

It would be an exaggeration to consider that South Korean left-wing nationalists are anti-American. Many of them are from the student movement 1980-x and remember those times when "American imperialism" was perceived by them as the main source of the problems of South Korea. However, the former radicalism is now a thing of the past, and in general, left-wing nationalists understand that without a military-political alliance with the United States, South Korea will have a hard time (not least because in this case Seoul will need to significantly increase its own military budget).

Nevertheless, during the campaign, Moon Jae Ying constantly positioned himself as a candidate who could say no to Washington. This is fully in line with the policy of his mentor Roh Moo-hyun. The idea is to preserve greater autonomy for oneself while maintaining an alliance with the United States.

However, it is this approach that causes the most irritation of the current US president. During his campaign, Trump repeatedly mentioned the American-South Korean alliance in the most negative context, as an example of how Washington should not build relations with its allies. He stressed that the union provides South Korea with economic advantages, in particular, reducing Seoul's defense spending, which, in turn, helps Korean companies in promoting them to the US market at the expense of American companies, according to Trump.

In addition, Trump has several times stated his desire to review the free trade agreement with South Korea, which he called "terrifying" and extremely unprofitable for the United States. Curiously, at one time, the Korean left (their more radical groups) also actively opposed this agreement, which, they argued, was extremely unprofitable for Korea. However, now, when Washington started talking seriously about the revision of the agreement, there was no enthusiasm among the leftists.

Thus, Mun Zhe Ina’s attempts to somewhat distance himself from the United States, while not jeopardizing his alliance with Washington, can cause a lot of irritation to Donald Trump. Most likely, the relationship between the United States and South Korea during the rule of Trump and Moon Zhe Ina will be a chain of crises.

In many cases, a policy toward North Korea may become a detonator of such crises, because now in their relations with Pyongyang Washington and Seoul seem to have chosen the opposite approaches.

Trump is a supporter of maximum pressure on North Korea, and Moon, faithful to the traditional line of his political camp, seeks to return - full or partial - to the so-called solar heat policy, that is, to the economic assistance policy of North Korea and certain political concessions to Pyongyang. As it is easy to guess, this policy is primarily associated with the name of President Roh Moo-hyun, whose incarnation Moon Jae Ying wants, if not to become, then at least to look.

Difficulties of solar heat

Mun Jae Ying has repeatedly stated his desire to restore the Kaesong Industrial Zone, a border industrial area where North Korean workers worked in enterprises owned by South Korean companies and supervised by South Korean managers. This zone was closed on the initiative of Park Geun-hye. He expressed interest in other projects of the so-called inter-Korean cooperation (the word “cooperation” is not very applicable here, since almost all of these projects were subsidized by South Korean taxpayers).

However, in attempts to resume cooperation with North Korea, President Moon will face three problems. First, the decisions of the UN Security Council taken in the last few years explicitly prohibit or hamper many of the forms of economic activity that in the past formed the basis of the policy of solar heat.

Secondly, South Korean voters, although in general they would like to improve relations with the DPRK, are not at all willing to pay for this improvement. The idea of ​​subsidies to Pyongyang causes a South Korean taxpayer a pronounced negative reaction. And without subsidies, the so-called cooperation with North Korea is impossible in principle.

Thirdly, such a policy runs counter to the new Washington line and, most likely, pours more oil into the fire of the American-South Korean contradictions.

Finally, in the near future one can expect serious controversy surrounding plans to deploy in South Korea the US missile defense system THAAD. The effectiveness of this system is somewhat doubtful, but the South Korean public generally supports its deployment, believing that the dubious defense against North Korean missiles is still better than the total absence of any kind of protection. However, the decision to deploy the missiles caused the most negative reaction of China, which was not pleased with the appearance of the US missile defense system at its borders and imposed very painful economic sanctions against South Korea.

During the campaign, Mun Zhe Ying avoided speaking out on the topic THAAD. This caution was understandable: on the one hand, a significant part of his party's activists and the nucleus of his voters treated the idea of ​​deploying an American missile defense negatively, and on the other, the majority of the South Korean public had the opposite opinion on this issue.

Most likely, the Moon administration would eventually reconcile with the deployment of THAAD, but President Trump personally intervened in the game. He suddenly declared that South Korea must pay a billion dollars to deploy a system that protects her first. As it quickly turned out, the requirement of material compensation directly violates the existing US-Korean agreements and was not agreed with either the State Department or the Pentagon. However, this statement itself seems to have shifted the balance of power in favor of the opponents of THAAD, and Moon, as president, expressed his intention to return to this issue.

Thus, one can be sure that the relations between Washington and Seoul under Moon Zhe In will be more complicated than ever in the last 70 years, while relations between the North and the South, on the contrary, will improve (how much is another question). In any case, we seem to be waiting for very interesting times: in the situation around the Korean peninsula, there are more and more new factors, it is becoming less predictable.