Liberal reformer Moon Jae-in has been elected South Korea’s next president, replacing impeached leader Park Geun-hye who was removed from office in March following a corruption scandal, according to a report on CNN.
Moon has advocated dialogue with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in stark contrast to Park’s approach of tough sanctions and aggressive rhetoric.
Voters were mainly focused on corruption and the economy, but North Korea loomed large over the election after weeks of rising tensions between Pyongyang and the US administration under President Donald Trump.
Return to sunshine?
A former special forces soldier and human rights lawyer, Moon came in for criticism during the campaign from hardline conservatives who saw him as weak on North Korea.
He has called for a combination of negotiations and economic cooperation alongside military and security measures.
“I am confident to lead the diplomatic efforts involving multiple parties, which will lead to the complete abandonment of the North Korean nuclear program, and bring the relationship between South and North to peace, economic cooperation and mutual prosperity,”
Moon said in an April 25 debate.
His stance has been compared to the so-called “Sunshine Policy” of the liberal governments of 1998 to 2008. By no coincidence, he was a key adviser to those administrations.
During the Sunshine Policy, Seoul actively engaged Pyongyang, which led to closer relations on both sides of the border and saw two South Korean Presidents visit the North Korean capital.
However, the approach ultimately failed to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Moon, who takes office this Wednesday, May 10, is unlikely to get a long honeymoon when it comes to North Korea.
Experts have been predicting an imminent nuclear test, North Korea’s sixth, for weeks now, as the country ramps up missile testing and saber rattling.
During the campaign, Moon advocated for engagement with North Korea — particularly on the economic front — as the best method to work towards a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.
Such measures have not historically been popular with conservative administrations in the US, however President Donald Trump has vacillated between tough, militaristic talk on the North Korea issue and suggesting he could sit down with Kim himself.
The US and South Korea have a decades-long military and political alliance and Washington is by far Seoul’s most important bilateral partner.
Facing criticism from the right that his party is anti-American, Moon has played up Trump’s apparent willingness to meet with Kim, saying he is on the “same page” as the US leader.
However, one area where they firmly not in agreement is over the deployment in South Korea of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system.
The caretaker administration which took over after Park’s impeachment accelerated the THAAD roll-out, despite widespread criticism from Moon and others on the left, who have argued its deployment should be contingent on a vote in the country’s National Assembly.
Last week, Washington and Seoul announced that THAAD was partially up and running, and analysts have warned Moon may be able to do little to prevent its full deployment.
What is the Sunshine Policy
• Foreign policy of South Korea from 1998 to 2008
• Policy of engagement with North Korea on economic and political issues
• Two South Korean Presidents traveled to Pyongyang
• Earned South Korean President Kim Dae-jung a Nobel Peace Prize
• Fewer North Korean nuclear and missile tests during this period
• Ultimately failed to stop North Korean nuclear program