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Will South Korea’s new president change course with North Korea, U.S.?

May 9, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
South Korea elected a new president Tuesday after months of political turmoil. President-elect Moon Jae-in will assume control of a deeply divided government after his predecessor’s impeachment over corruption charges. Judy Woodruff speaks with David Kang of the University of Southern California about the incoming leader’s attitude toward North Korea and the potential for friction with the U.S.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now we turn our focus to Asia.

After months of political upheaval, South Korean voters have elected a new president today, a man who is promising to take the nation in a new direction.

President-elect Moon Jae-in addressed throngs of cheering supporters, and offered a message of unity to all South Koreans.

PRESIDENT-ELECT MOON JAE-IN, South Korea (through interpreter): Starting tomorrow, I will become everyone’s president. I will become a president who unifies people and serves even those people who didn’t support me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Moon will assume control of the deeply divided government after the fall of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye. Park, South Korea’s first female president, was impeached last year and later arrested on corruption charges. She sits in jail now, and could face up to life in prison.

The allegations against her sparked massive months-long protests and were a major factor for voters ahead of the polls today.

CHOE EU-JIN, Voter (through interpreter): Park Geun-hye abused her national authority, which angered the people. I voted with the hope of not electing the same kind of president again in future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Moon now faces several challenges, both at home and abroad, including an increasingly provocative North Korea.

During the campaign, he called for a return to engagement with Pyongyang, including economic incentives that would be a significant break from recent South Korean policy. Moon also said he will reevaluate the U.S. military’s deployment of the so-called THAAD missile defense system to the peninsula, which has angered China.

All of this could lead to friction with the Trump White House. President Trump has had tough words, at times, for the North, threatening unilateral military action. But he’s also said he would be honored to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un under the right circumstances.

And in an interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation,” he said of Kim:

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He was able to assume power. A lot of people, I’m sure, tried to take that power away, whether it was his uncle or anybody else. And he was able to do it. So, obviously, he’s a pretty smart cookie.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For his part Moon told The Washington Post last week he’s on the same page as Mr. Trump and believes he is — quote — “more reasonable” than he is generally perceived.

Today, the White House offered congratulations and said the U.S. looks forward to working with Moon.

We take a deeper look at Moon’s election and its implications for South Korea, and for U.S. policy in the region, with David Kang. He is the director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California.

Professor Kang, thank you very much for joining us.

Give us a thumbnail sketch, if you will, of Mr. Moon. What about his background?

DAVID KANG, University of Southern California: Well, I think the overriding thing about Mr. Moon is that he has worked for sort of left or progressive policies ever since he was a student and was arrested in the 1970s in pro-democracy movement, a human rights lawyer, and worked as a chief of staff for a noted progressive president 10 years ago, Roh Moo-hyun.

So, he’s very clearly on the progressive or leftist side of Korean politics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, coming, what, after almost a decade of conservative rule in South Korea, why do you think voters chose him?

DAVID KANG: Well, it’s important to remember that there is domestic politics in any country, and the pendulum swings left and right. There were 10 years of left presidents, and then there were 10 years of rightist presidents.

I think, in particular, there has been a move back to the left, which began before Park was getting impeached. The electorate had elected a majority national assembly last year that was more to the leftist side. So there was a lot of expectation that the country had wanted to be — a little bit more engagement with North Korea and was very concerned about corruption and collusive ties.

So in a way, it’s not a surprise that he won the election, because the electorate was swinging left.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how much friendlier do you expect his approach to North Korea will be?

DAVID KANG: I think there actually is a chance for some major changes.

Engagement, which he broadly supports, is a viable strategy. And Moon actually has talked about being very forward-leaning, even opening a joint economic — reopening a joint economic zone between North and South Korea.

I suspect one of the first things he will do is send an envoy to North Korea to find out what is even possible. So, I think, in many ways, he’s going to be much more proactive in dealing with North Korea than previous Korean administrations and the United States has been.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of the U.S., what is his attitude toward the U.S., and what do we know of his attitude toward President Trump?

DAVID KANG: You know, in some ways, it’s a misnomer that leftist Korean presidents are hard for the alliance.

Almost every Korean president, left or right, realizes that a good relationship with Washington is important. And so, when he was chief of staff, that was when South Korea and the United States signed the free trade agreement, for example.

So, I don’t actually think there will be that much change in the U.S. relationship. He’s also said the right things about Trump, which is, he thinks he can work with Trump. And I think that the particular important thing for Moon is to craft that kind of personal relationship with President Trump.

For the last six months, we have had a power vacuum in South Korea. There has been no president, so there has been no way for South Korea to craft a relationship with the U.S. So, it’s very important that he does that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And two other things. What about his attitude, his thinking about China and its ability to, if you will, get the North Koreans to be more cooperative?

DAVID KANG: Sure.

I think one thing that Moon will do is, in some ways, I think he will take a more independent stand. I don’t think he wants the lean toward China, any more than he wants the lean toward the United States. He very clearly wants South Korea to be the driver of the relationship.

As such, I think he will push on China for cooperation, but, in many ways, his approach, which emphasizes economic relations, fits in with China’s approach. So, there may be more room to cooperate than we might think right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And one other thing. There has been some back and forth between the U.S. and South Korea recently over this missile defense system called THAAD, the acronym.

What has he said about that? What do you expect to happen there?

DAVID KANG: You know, the U.S. missile defense system THAAD, I think in some ways has gotten blown up over the last year as a bigger issue than it really is.

China doesn’t like it, but for the last — it was announced last summer, so we’re coming up on an entire year that THAAD has been in deployment and is now fully deployed. But China and the United States had been negotiating with an empty chair in South Korea because of the political power vacuum of the previous president.

So Moon has a lot on his plate, but with the proper diplomacy, I think he can assuage some of China’s fears, while still retaining the missile defense system. That’s his task as a president, is to be able to deal with both of these big countries at the same time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor David Kang at the University of Southern California, we thank you.

DAVID KANG: My pleasure.

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