The Korea Herald


[Kim Myong-sik] Most difficult presidential task: National security

By Kim Myong-sik

Published : May 10, 2017 - 18:29

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Moon Jae-in enters the Blue House with the heaviest presidential task ever: protecting the security of the nation’s 50 million people under the worst possible circumstances. He has to do this with 41 percent of popular support and only 119 seats in the 299-member legislature.

The unsuccessful presidential candidates have done their best during the short two-month campaign and are poised to be possible strong contenders for the next presidency. Dispirited though they might be now, they might accept their failure as a blessing when they watch the winner’s Sisyphean struggles in the days ahead.

South Koreans voted for Moon not because they believed he and his party could adroitly handle Kim Jong-un and North Korea, but because they wanted to remove the conservatives who had crumbled in a corruption scandal. Yet they now want the new president to do something to free them from the looming fear of war.

People usually have many requests for the new administration whether they like the new president or not. Of all the problems squarely on the shoulders of Moon, the national security issue is at the top. North Korea is about to conduct yet another nuclear test, while the mighty war machines of the United States continue power demonstrations in this region, with Donald Trump and his aides speaking of preventive and pre-emptive strikes as options on the table.

Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang has displayed the worst kind of megalomania and belligerence despite lacking the capability to wage a total war against the South and the United States. Korean voters, who well remember Moon’s campaign promise that he would first go to Pyongyang instead of Washington, are anxious about what the new president’s initial move will be on the inter-Korean agenda.

Since his duties as president started the moment the election commission declared him the winner, he should waste no time in making clear what course of action the new government will take to prevent a second Korean War. The fundamental question is whether South Korea will be completely tied with the US to pressure North Korea into denuclearization or whether the South will stand between Washington and Pyongyang to execute a soft strategy for the same objective.

During a TV debate, Moon refused to call North Korea “the main enemy” and termed it the counterpart in peace negotiations, earning the title of “negotiator” in Time magazine’s cover story. Portrayed at home and abroad as the champion of appeasement, Moon is expected to deal flexibly with the most dangerous regime in the North and also with regional powers.

Failed diplomacy with Washington would make Seoul seem an obstacle depriving the US of its freedom of choice in taking military action against North Korea. It is essential for Washington to remove the North’s nuclear and rocket arsenal before Pyongyang becomes capable of striking the US mainland with a nuclear-mounted intercontinental ballistic missile. Analysts give less than a year until Pyongyang has this capability.

It means that President Moon also has about a year to take visible, effective steps in a direction between the two alternatives of soft and hard approaches. He is likely to follow up on the engagement policy tried by the liberal governments of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, but his pronounced policy of reviving Kaesong industrial park and Mount Kumgang tourism would seriously embarrass the international community.

Then there is the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense conundrum: Will he ask Donald Trump to take the advanced missile defense system back to where it came, insisting that we cannot pay his $1 billion bill, among other reasons, or will he ask the National Assembly to decide whether we should keep it here with necessary funding? He will soon find that speaking and acting on security affairs needs far deeper level of scrutiny and stronger resolve than what were required of a candidate on the campaign trail.

In February 2018, President Moon will declare open the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, an honor he took over from ousted President Park Geun-hye. Before that, the new president will have been exposed to the world’s summit diplomacy on occasions like the ASEAN, APEC, G-20 and UN conferences. He should impress Shinzo Abe, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Trump with a consistent security policy, as well as political philosophy as the leader of Northeast Asia’s model democracy.

Moon may be solicited by his progressive associates to review the 63-year-old alliance with the US and the presence here of the 28,500 troops that will function as the US’ strategic mobile force encamped in the Osan-Pyeongtaek area south of Seoul. Yet, he should know these are questions that go beyond a single five-year term presidency. He also has to decide whether entrusting the US to exercise operational control of Korean armed forces in wartime is a matter of national sovereignty or a device to ensure US commitment to Korean defense.

The Donald Trump effect complicates the Korean situation with added unpredictability: The US president mixes trade issues with security concerns. He is more pragmatic than morally motivated and is known for speeches and actions based on flimsy information. Trump gathered perhaps tens of thousands of votes for Moon with his sudden THAAD bill.

Rather than being thankful, President Moon should brace himself for tough negotiations with the US on sharing the cost of stationing its troops here. The sooner he sees the cold reality of the US involvement with us and our dependence on it, the better he can concentrate on domestic affairs. What is important, and difficult for that matter, is correcting his skepticism about the US with broad historical, economic and geopolitical perspectives.

The best security comes from internal unity. One major step toward national reconciliation will be pardoning former President Park, who is charged with bribery and coercion, but was basically censured for betraying people’s trust. Park’s inappropriate leadership led to the loss of power of her Saenuri Party in the 2016 general election and eventual division. Her power base collapsed in the face of nationwide candlelight demonstrations ignited by the Choi Soon-sil scandal.

Moon owes what he is today to Park’s failures. He has to demonstrate his own leadership capacity as soon as possible. The success of Moon’s presidency will be assessed by visible measures for national security on one hand and his wrapping up of the past with clemency on his predecessor on the other.


By Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. – Ed.