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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 carnegie.ru.
Politically, South Korea has long and firmly split into two camps, into "conservative", that is, center-right forces, represented by President Park Geun-hye, and left-wing nationalists, whose head is precisely Moon Jae In. At the same time, the specific current names of the parties should not even be mentioned - the Korean parties are reformatted every few years, but this political rebranding is very formal: everyone understands that the same two invariable camps are behind the next pair of party avatars.
The scandal that unfolded at the end of last year around President Park Geun-hye logically led to a complete compromise of the right-wing forces. As a result, the left was automatically the only candidate for victory. If there were any surprises in the elections, then they should include just the unexpectedly good results demonstrated by the candidate of the right-wing forces Hon Chun Pyo.
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.
Noh Moo Hyun himself, being under investigation on corruption charges, committed suicide, turning in the eyes of left-wing nationalists into a kind of secular saint, so that his former proximity to this semi-sacred figure for left-wing nationalists gave Moon considerable political advantages, making him the uncontested leader of the left. camp.
In contemporary South Korea, differences between the left and the right on economic policy issues are generally minimal. In fact, a consensus has emerged in the country on the question of what the Korean economy should be - it should be a market economy, but with elements of state redistribution and with a developed social sphere. Both the left and the right generally agree that Korea is now in dire need of a welfare state, and intend to actively develop it, including by increasing taxes. There are differences only on tactical issues - the left and the right are arguing about exactly how fast Korea should move towards some kind of a Northern European "social market state."
In an environment where deep disagreements on economic issues between the two camps are not observed, the disputes between them often boil down to problems that external observers do not seem to be very important: for example, the leaders of both camps enthusiastically argue about how to evaluate certain events of the new and the recent history of Korea.
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 think that South Korean nationalist leftists are anti-American. Many of them come from the student movement of the 1980s and remember the days when "American imperialism" was perceived by them as the main source of South Korea's problems. However, now the former radicalism is 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 difficult time (not least because in this case Seoul will need to significantly increase its own military budget).
However, during the campaign, Moon Jae-in has consistently positioned himself as a candidate who can say no to Washington. This is consistent with the policies of his mentor, Roh Moo Hyun. The point is to achieve 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 repeatedly stated his desire to renegotiate a free trade agreement with South Korea, which he described as "appalling" and highly disadvantageous for the United States. It is curious that at one time the Korean left (their more radical groups) also actively opposed this agreement, which, as they argued, was extremely disadvantageous to Korea. However, now that Washington is seriously talking about revising the agreement, this turn has not caused any enthusiasm among the left.
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, the detonator of such crises can be the policy towards North Korea, because now, in their relations with Pyongyang, Washington and Seoul seem to have chosen 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 they would generally like to improve relations with the DPRK, are not at all ready to pay for this improvement. The idea of subsidies to Pyongyang causes a pronounced negative reaction from the South Korean taxpayer. And without subsidies, so-called cooperation with North Korea is impossible in principle.
Thirdly, such a policy runs counter to Washington's new line and is likely to add even more fuel to the fire of the US-South Korean conflict.
Finally, in the near future, serious controversy can be expected over plans to deploy the American THAAD missile defense system in South Korea. The effectiveness of this system is somewhat dubious, but its deployment is generally supported by the South Korean public, believing that dubious protection against North Korean missiles is still better than no protection at all. However, the decision to deploy missiles provoked the most negative reaction from China, which is not happy with the appearance of an American missile defense system near 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 come to terms with the deployment of THAAD, but President Trump personally intervened in the game. He suddenly announced that South Korea must pay a billion dollars to host a system that primarily protects it. As it quickly became clear, the demand for material compensation directly violates the existing US-Korean agreements and was not agreed with either the State Department or the Pentagon. However, this very statement seems to have shifted the balance of power in favor of the opponents of THAAD, and Moon, already as president, expressed his intention to return to this issue.
Thus, one can be sure that relations between Washington and Seoul under Moon Jae-in will be more difficult than at any time in the last 70 years, but relations between the North and the South, on the contrary, will improve (how much is another question). In any case, it seems that very interesting times await us: in the situation around the Korean Peninsula, more and more new factors appear, it is becoming less and less predictable.