The Korean Peninsula's Other High-Stakes Drama

South Korea's presidential elections next week could shape Trump's plan for containing North Korea.

Ahn Cheol Soo, the presidential candidate of the People's Party, Hong Joon Pyo, the presidential candidate of the Liberty Korea Party, and Moon Jae In, the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party of Korea, attend a televised debates for upcoming May 9 presidential election.
Ahn Cheol Soo, the presidential candidate of the People's Party, Hong Joon Pyo, the presidential candidate of the Liberty Korea Party, and Moon Jae In, the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party of Korea, attend a televised debates for upcoming May 9 presidential election. (Kim Hong Ji / Reuters)

To be clear, there’s never a good time for a crisis on the Korean peninsula. But this is an especially tricky time, as South Korea gears up for its presidential election on May 9. Unsurprisingly, North Korea policy is one of the major fault lines in South Korean politics: The country’s conservatives are more hawkish towards the North, its liberals more dovish. Liberals tend to subscribe to former president Kim Dae Jung’s “Sunshine Policy”—named for the Aesop’s fable about the wind and the sun trying to take off a traveler’s cloak—which advocates warm engagement with North Korea. The conservative counterpart is former president Lee Myung Bak’s “Massive Retaliation,” which promises a disproportionate, devastating response to any provocation from the North.

Since late 1990s, the liberals and conservatives have traded power in South Korea, causing the country’s policy on North Korea to swing back and forth from dovish to hawkish. Outgoing, disgraced President Park Geun Hye appeared to blend the two, outlining her own brand of “Trustpolitik” in her then-acclaimed Dresden Address delivered in 2014. Of course, the world now knows there was little substance behind Park’s bold pronouncement; Choi Soon Sil, a woman with only a high-school education and no official position in the government, was the one marking up Park’s speech. This revelation, along with Park’s bizarre extortion of South Korea’s major corporations in order to keep Choi’s slush fund flush, led to the president’s impeachment and removal.

Park’s impeachment has, in turn, led to a liberal surge in South Korean politics, as her scandal tainted her fellow conservatives. Liberal Moon Jae In of the Democratic Party, who narrowly lost the 2012 presidential election to Park, is leading the latest polls with an average level of support in the low-40s. Center-left Ahn Cheol Soo of the People’s Party and conservative Hong Joon Pyo of the Liberty Korea Party trail Moon in a virtual tie of around 18 percent support each. In short, barring a dramatic turn of events in the coming days, Moon Jae In will likely become the next president of the Republic of Korea.

Moon, who began his political career as chief of staff for the former liberal president Roh Moo Hyun, would likely maintain the liberals’ policy of emphasizing engagement with North Korea. He supports North Korea’s denuclearization through the resumption of the six-party-talks framework of the early 2000s, the promotion of cultural and sports exchanges, and a gradual reunification that would begin with the formation of a single market. This raises the challenge of coordinating North Korea strategy with Washington, Seoul’s most important ally.

With President Donald Trump, that word challenge weighs heavily. Compared to the Obama White House, the new U.S. administration is taking a decidedly more aggressive stance. On his recent visit to South Korea, Vice President Mike Pence declared that the “era of strategic patience is over,” referring to Obama’s policy of applying pressure on North Korea through diplomatic means. Trump also riled up the Korean public by claiming he planned to charge South Korea $1 billion for the terminal high altitude area defense (THAAD) missile system, whose deployment in South Korea has become a polarizing electoral issue. (Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster later walked back the president’s comments.)

Can Moon Jae In work with Trump? There is precedent for the pairing of a hawkish, conservative U.S. president with a dovish liberal in Seoul. George W. Bush overlapped with two liberal South Korean presidents, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun, both of whom who pursued a radical degree of engagement with Pyongyang. Yet Bush and his counterparts got on surprisingly well. In a press conference following the first meeting between Bush and Kim in March 2001, the Republican president had nothing but glowing praise for Kim’s North Korea policy: “He is leading, he is a leader.”

The Bush administration had a rougher time with Roh. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Bush declared North Korea a member of the “Axis of Evil” (along with Iran and Iraq, which had hardly any connection with North Korea.) Meanwhile, when the underdog Roh won the presidency of South Korea in 2002, he did so at least in part by riding the wave of anti-American sentiment following an incident in which a U.S. armored car ran over and killed two middle school girls in a northern exurb of Seoul. Known as a brash speaker, Roh went so far as to say in October 2004 that the regime of then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had “a good reason for wanting a nuclear weapon.” Remarks like this made Roh the most unpredictable among all the heads of states that Bush met, according to Michael Green, senior director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council in the Bush White House.

But in the end, Bush and Roh worked well together also. Roh repeatedly sought assurances that Washington would not start a war on the Korean Peninsula, which Bush repeatedly provided. In response, Roh made certain that South Korea remained a reliable ally. When America invaded Iraq, Roh immediately offered South Korea’s support, dispatching 3,600 troops for the post-war rebuilding effort in 2004 despite severe domestic opposition. According to Green, because of Roh’s commitment to the U.S.-Korea alliance, Bush came to value Roh Moo Hyun more than France’s Jacques Chirac or Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder.

In fact, the Korea-U.S. alliance remained stable even after the dynamic reversed, when the more hawkish Lee Myung Bak—he of “Massive Retaliation”—took office in 2007 and was paired with the less-hawkish Barack Obama. This reveals an important lesson about the relationship between Seoul and Washington where Pyongyang is concerned: Despite different levels of rhetoric and posturing, the end result does not change much when it comes time to take action. The fundamental, if unspoken, rule in relations between North Korea and South Korea has always been the same: Localized provocations will yield a response, but no one—not even the most saber-rattling of leaders—wants full-scale war.

On North Korea, the hawks are never entirely hawkish, nor are the doves all that dovish. When the North Korean navy engaged in provocations in the Yellow Sea in 1999 and 2002, the supposedly dovish Kim and Roh retaliated by killing scores of North Korean seamen. When a North Korean submarine sank a South Korean naval ship and killed 46 sailors in 2010, the Massive Retaliation promised by Lee produced only another round of verbal denunciations. Through all this, the United States has supported South Korea’s actions, regardless of the reputed difference between their presidents. This gives reason for optimism, regardless of the barbs from the Trump administration. For his part, Moon Jae In said in a recent interview with The Washington Post that he would meet with Trump at the earliest possible opportunity to discuss North Korea. Despite widespread misgivings in South Korea over Trump’s belligerence, Moon said, “I believe President Trump is more reasonable than he is generally perceived.”

In fact, if war does break out one day, it may not be from deliberate hawkishness but from a series of miscalculations based on inadvertent, incorrect signaling. From this perspective, the Trump administration’s embarrassment with the USS Carl Vinson is particularly worrisome. Despite the grand pronouncement that an armada was steaming toward the East Sea to respond to the North Korean threat, the naval-strike team was in fact thousands of miles away from the peninsula and was heading the opposite direction. What if North Korea had taken the Trump administration at its word and escalated tensions further—perhaps by attacking a target in South Korea, prompting further retaliation that would eventually escalate into Chinese and American intervention?

The true danger is not the hostile words, but the unsteady hands. This means that the real challenge for Moon Jae In, if elected, may not be lowering the rhetorical heat emanating from Washington, although that too would be necessary from time to time. Moon’s most important challenge in the U.S.-Korea alliance may be to promote greater communication and cooperation between the two allies, such that the Trump administration does not blunder into a nuclear war.