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Korea's Presidential election: International implications

Panel Presentation by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC to Asialink Business Forum, Melbourne, 15 June 2017

The Korean issue most spooking international policymakers right now is unquestionably North Korea’s rapidly growing nuclear weapons capability, and the new Moon Jae-in administration is being scrutinized most closely internationally (including by the Australian government) not for any of its domestic policies, but for how it is likely to approach Pyongyang.

While the new administration is manifestly to the left of its immediate predecessors, and that added significantly to its electoral appeal, more important to the election result than any defence or foreign policy issue was the perception that Moon genuinely stands for clean government, and is as an attractive personality - like his role model and mentor President Roh Hyu-Moon, whom he served as chief of staff a decade ago, who is still sentimentally held in high regard (even though Roh himself faced corruption charges over which he committed suicide in 2009).

Moon Jae-in is certainly seen as not only a more honest and competent, but also a kinder and gentler personality than the widely loathed President Park Geun-hye whom he has replaced. (One fascinating manifestation of that was a story I saw in the local press three weeks ago that the new president’s cat and dog had just joined him in the Blue House, with one of his aides being quoted as saying – and evidently keeping his job after saying it! – that ‘he likes the two animals very much and has a habit of talking to them for a long time when he is drunk’.)

While certainly of a leftish persuasion in foreign as in domestic policy, Moon Jae-in again resembles the former Roh administration more than that of Kim Dae-jung, and certainly in its posture towards North Korea nobody is talking about any imminent resumption of Kim’s full-scale ‘sunshine policy’. (Some are calling it ‘Moonshine’ – but not in an unkind way…)

From talking in Korea, as I had the opportunity to do three weeks ago, with old friends and colleagues like the new president’s special international adviser Moon Chung-in, I think what we are going to see from South Korea is this:

  • a willingness to maintain strong sanctions pressure on Pyongyang, and not rush to reopen the Kaesong economic zone or the Mt Kumgang tourist site (the two most visible dimensions of the sunshine policy);
  • a willingness to maintain strong military deterrent posture against North Korea, with the help of the US, but not necessarily to reflexively endorse every US military demand (with extreme caution on the THAAD anti-ballistic missile deployment the key case in point);
  • a willingness to restore relations with China, which had been burgeoning until President Park’s decision to deploy the THAAD system, which Beijing insists (not wholly without credibility) is designed to contain China more than North Korea: but with that willingness not assuming (as so many in the US and elsewhere tend to) that Beijing holds all the cards and levers necessary to pressure Pyongyang into submission; and
  • a willingness to explore every possible dialogue opportunity, bilateral and multilateral, that might see some movement towards stabilizing the situation: recognising that the most that can be realistically achieved for the foreseeable future is some freezing of the status quo, rather than a return to the status quo ante through a comprehensive denuclearization program.

The most striking single observation I heard in Korea – and what was most striking is that it came from figures on both ends of the political spectrum, Left and Right – was that South Koreans were more worried about Donald Trump than they were about Kim Jong-un, seeing real and present danger Trump’s fathomless ignorance about everything matched by his spectacular inability to make sound and consistent judgment calls about anything.

This comparative judgment confirms an impression I have long had that South Koreans are far less anxious about serious conflict, let alone nuclear conflict, breaking out on the Korean peninsula than most of the rest of the world:

  • they have been living for decades with the threat of Seoul being destroyed by the massive North Korean artillery and rocket firing presence across a border just 35 miles away, and don't regard a nuclear capability as very much more life threatening than what they have been living with;
  • they regard Kim Jong–un, like his predecessors, as being overwhelmingly preoccupied with regime survival, rather than any form of conquest; and
  • while they, like the rest of the world, see him as both odd and deeply unattractive, they believe he is not mad, and understands very well that to be homicidal – by attacking the South, or the US or any of its allies, with either nuclear or conventional weapons – would be totally suicidal: its opponents, without having to resort nuclear weapons, could turn Pyongyang and anywhere else in the North into a car park…

While there are clear divisions in the South between those who place more faith in diplomacy and dialogue, and those who want to keep piling on the sanctions and pressuring China into producing a solutions, I hear practically nobody arguing for preemptive military strikes, or (although there is a bigger constituency for this in Korea than Japan) for Korea acquiring a nuclear weapons capability of its own.

My sense is that the centre of policy gravity under the new Moon administration will be where I, for one, have always thought it should be, built around the three elements of containment, deterrence – and keeping the door open for negotiations, without preconditions and through any mechanism, bilateral or multilateral, which seems likely to be productive.

This is not likely to lead any time soon to the ultimate solution for which we all hope – the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. But with so many opportunities having been wasted in the past, not just by Pyongyang but by the Western allies (as I well know, having been involved as Australian foreign minister in the mid-1990s negotiations, and having closely followed developments through the ‘noughties as head of the International Crisis Group) I think it is the best that any of us can do, has reasonable prospects of stabilizing the situation, and should be the posture adopted by the Australian government.