National Column: South Korean president willing to talk to the north

by Thomas Walkom

South Korea has elected a new president. This may not seem of much import to Canadians. But it is. Tuesday’s election adds a new dynamic to the nuclear crisis gripping the divided Korean Peninsula.

Simply put, incoming President Moon Jae-in wants more talk and less confrontation with North Korea. He’s not necessarily opposed to the economic sanctions levelled against the North because of its decision to develop nuclear-armed missiles. But, in his campaign at least, he argued that the aim of these sanctions must be to bring North Korea back to the bargaining table.

That puts him at odds with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which has demanded that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un abandon his nuclear program before talks – or indeed anything else – can happen.

(It may or may not put him at odds with Trump himself, who recently said that if the conditions were right, he would be honoured to meet dictator Kim.)

For Moon, 64, this election victory is a chance to put South Korea back at the centre of the Korean drama.

The president-elect has complained that too much attention is being paid to what others – primarily the U.S., Japan and China – want from the two Koreas. He has questioned the American decision to stage anti-missile defences in South Korea that are primarily aimed at protecting Japan and the continental U.S.

The child of North Korean refugees, Moon – like many in the peninsula – says he longs for the reunification of a country divided by war since 1950.

The North and the South do differ, of course, over what form that reunification will take.

But Moon’s election appears to herald the rebirth of the South’s so-called sunshine policy toward the North.

Instituted in 1998 by former president Kim Dae-jung, the sunshine policy represented a radical change in direction for two regimes that are still technically at war with one another.

For the first time since 1950, there was trade and investment across the border. For the first time since the Korean War, the leaders of North and South met, talked and embraced.

South Korean businesses set up factories in the North to produce goods made by northern workers.

The South never abandoned its alliance with the U.S. Thousands of American troops remained in the country on high alert.

Similarly, the North did not abandon its provocations. It continued its nuclear program apace. In 2006, with the sunshine policy in full swing, it thumbed its nose at the world by testing its first atomic weapon.

But in other day-to-day areas, tensions between the two Koreas did abate. In 2000, Kim Dae-jung won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. In 2003, South Koreans voted in a new president dedicated to continuing the sunshine policy.

It was during this period that Moon, a human rights lawyer and former special-forces commando, entered the world of national politics.

The sunshine policy was killed in 2008 when a right-winger won the presidency. It stayed dead when another conservative, Park Gyun-hye, succeeded him in 2013.

It is coming back to life now only because Park’s impeachment for corruption necessitated a special presidential election.

Still, any effort by Moon to ease the relationship between North and South Korea can only help. Sanctions haven’t worked. Nor has sabre-rattling.

Theoretically, China could use its economic clout to force the collapse of North Korea. But for its own reasons, it is unlikely to do that.

Rex Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state, insists that the Obama-era policy of strategic patience toward North Korea is over. But he gives no hint as to what has replaced it.

Which leaves the Koreans themselves. The peninsula is, after all, their nation. They are the ones fated to live with whatever solution emerges.

Hawks in both Seoul and Washington say Moon is naive to call for more talk. History suggests he would be naive not to.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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