I’ll have to keep this post short because of time constraints, but my interest in South Korea’s election is mostly related to how Seoul’s policies toward North Korea will shift. I’ll refer you to this post and this one on why it’s likely to change less than John Delury might like, this piece in NK News where I offer some thoughts, and this excellent post by Marcus Noland and Kent Boydston. Much will depend on how hard President Trump pushes back. Maybe Moon will completely win Trump over in their first call, but I’m more inclined to believe that it will turn into a difficult cost-sharing negotiation (which Moon can use to his political advantage).
If Trump is skillful in his handling of Moon, however, he can exploit Moon’s political and legal weaknesses to prevent him from catapulting money over the DMZ. For one thing, Trump has U.N. sanctions on his side. For another, North Korea policy wasn’t the main reason people voted for Moon, and compared to past South Korean presidents, Moon’s win was hardly commanding. If you eliminate candidates who received less than 1 percent of the vote, in 1997, Kim Dae-Jung won 40.3 percent in a three-way race; in 2002, Roh Moo Hyun, won 48.9 percent in a three-way race; in 2007, Lee Myung Bak won 48.7 percent in a five-way race; in 2012, Park Geun-hye won 51.5 percent in a two-way race; and this year, Moon won 41.1 percent in a five-way race.
It’s worth asking why Moon actually performed worse in terms of percentage of the vote this year despite his name recognition, the advantage of an anti-Park backlash, and a fractious (and frankly, pathetic) field of opponents on the right. Because it was a five-way race, of course! But why was this a five-way race at all? The right had as weak a field as Moon himself could have conjured, and Moon has run against Ahn Cheol-soo before and made quick work of him. In 2012, Ahn’s support collapsed and his supporters coalesced behind Moon. This time, Moon couldn’t close that deal. Surely Moon would have preferred that outcome, and surely he still does, given that he only controls 120 (not 119) seats in the National Assembly now. He will need 151 votes to legislate his policies on THAAD, Kaesong, other elements of his agenda. Give him the Justice Party’s 6 votes. He still needs most of the People’s Party votes to pass legislation, and even then, don’t forget that Moon’s own party was able to delay passage of a North Korea human rights law for more than a decade. Can he get those votes? Probably so on less controversial issues, and hopefully so on needed reforms to make South Korea a fairer, safer society with a better quality of life, and a better work-life balance.
On the specific issue of resuming Sunshine, however, I see little evidence of a mandate. Of course, past vote totals are hardly predictive of the impact of past presidents on South Korea’s policies toward North Korea — one could argue that there is almost an inverse relationship. What does seem to be predictive of South Korea’s policy is the mood of the times, and the best data I have suggests that that mood has shifted strongly toward the center since 2002. Each nuke or missile test will weaken Moon’s hand in capitalizing Pyongyang. How Trump deals with Moon, what Kim Jong-un does next, and the results of South Korea’s next by-elections will give us a better sense of whether the voters want Moon to have a mandate or checks on his power. (Who knows when those will be?)
The immediate impact of Moon’s election is that the herculean efforts of Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se to secure other nations’ compliance with U.N. sanctions on North Korea will end. Over to you, Secretary Tillerson. The question that weighs on me more is whether Moon will listen to the counsel of his most extreme advisors, who might endanger the rights of North Korean refugees in South Korea.