South Korean presidential election candidates, from left, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea, Hong Joon-pyo of the Liberty Korea Party, Yoo Seong-min of the Bareun Party, Sim Sang-jung of the Justice Party and Ahn Cheol-soo of the People's Party in Seoul, May 2017.
Ahn Young-Joon / REUTERS

On Tuesday, at a time when the regional and global order stand at an uncertain juncture, South Korea will choose its next president. Despite the noise and headlines surrounding North Korea, the primary concerns of most voters are jobs, welfare, education, and government accountability, not their hostile northern neighbor. South Koreans are tired of the glass ceiling, wide income disparities, and the corruption of their leaders. The latest political crisis, resulting in former president Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, and the scandal that led to it, epitomizes everything the public wants overhauled. This is the enormous reconstruction job that awaits the next South Korean president. The public wants a new leader who will break the status quo and implement genuine economic and political reforms.

Public opinion polls have shown Moon Jae-in of the progressive Democratic Party to hold a comfortable lead, reflecting fatigue and frustration from a decade of conservative rule. Ten years ago, for the same reason, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. But the final seven days are “blind elections” with an end to polling, and daily twists in South Korean politics make it impossible to call the race until all votes are cast in this historic snap election. Last week’s early voting recorded at its highest of 26.06 percent voter turnout; no exit polls were allowed.

Still, U.S. President Donald Trump’s comment that Seoul should pay for a U.S. anti-ballistic missile system (called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or THAAD) recently deployed in South Korea has boosted the progressives’ chances—which Trump may later regret—and angered the broader public. The perception is that Washington has bullied Seoul into accepting THAAD and then shoved the bill at its close ally.  

THE FUTURE OF THE ALLIANCE

With the North Korean nuclear-missile threat continuing to grow, the Washington–Seoul alliance’s coordination has become ever more critical. A win by the progressive candidate could spell turbulent times for the partnership, because of completely divergent views on how to deal with Pyongyang. Such an environment would be conducive to North Korean exploitation. Moon might also puncture the united international front aimed at pressuring Pyongyang to change course and return to dialogue.

In addition, a Moon administration and its constituents would also be expected to be openly vocal about wanting an even greater say for South Korea in alliance matters. Any expressions of dissatisfaction with the United States along these lines would likely be taken as anti-American sentiment by the Trump administration, which lacks Korean expertise in its inner circle. But if the relationship is managed and calibrated well, Washington and Seoul might be able to shape outcomes by taking turns to play “good cop, bad cop” with Pyongyang.

A Moon administration would be expected to be openly vocal about wanting an even greater say for South Korea in alliance matters.

Were either of the conservative candidates—Hong Jun-pyo of the Liberty Korea Pary or Yoo Seung-min of the Bareun Party—to be elected, on the other hand, it would reinforce Trump’s “maximum pressure and engagement” approach and, overall, the alliance would continue to enjoy its current dynamic. With both allies taking a hard line with North Korea, however, the risk is that escalation could potentially lead to mistakes and inadvertent conflict.

This fear of miscalculation has been the recurring theme in South Korea and the region ever since Trump took office. A Hillary Clinton administration likely would also have beefed up pressure, but Trump has taken it to dangerous heights, at least in rhetoric. South Koreans are more concerned that Trump, rather than North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, will make a rash military move, because of his outrageous tweets, threats of force, and unpredictability.

Fueling those fears of escalation is the sense that both leaders apparently enjoy unpredictability and bellicosity. Tough rhetoric serves certain purposes in international relations, but it is also a risky business because it widens the room for misinterpretation and mistakes by the other side. (Consider the Trump Administration’s proclamation that “all options are on the table,” for example.) This is especially so when Pyongyang has pledged to continue to test nuclear devices and missiles to perfect its technology for a fully operational arsenal.

In the business world familiar to Trump, brinkmanship, psychological warfare, and unpredictability are tactics used to elicit cooperation. Keeping one’s cards close is typical behavior of business tycoons. Trump, who thrives on the element of surprise, is no exception. In international politics, however, threatening words can box an administration in. If its warnings are merely rhetorical and not credible, they could embolden Pyongyang. On the other hand, credible warnings managed improperly could potentially lead to an undesired, disastrous scenario. Off-ramps are needed to exit action-reaction escalatory cycles.

ENGAGING PYONGYANG

The administration recently has taken a rhetorical turn by emphasizing its openness to diplomacy, with Trump saying he would be “honored” to meet with Kim. His approach now resembles that of the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” of pressure and preconditions for dialogue, but with an added emphasis on deterrent and compellent threats. It is unclear whether the sudden, softened rhetoric was a calculated move to establish off-ramps, a product of Trump’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, or just another example of Trump’s capriciousness.

What is clear is that Pyongyang’s primary objective is obtaining a functional nuclear deterrent, irrespective of the geopolitical state of play outside its borders. It is pursuing nuclear-tipped inter-continental missiles aimed at the United States, as well as solid-fuel land- and sea-based mobile missiles easier to hide and avoid U.S. preemptive strikes. Qualitative and quantitative advancements in nuclear-missile capabilities also equip the regime with more options and confidence in their usage.  

The debate over whether to talk to North Korea has been outdated for decades. The question today is how to find the right mix of tools to bring Pyongyang to the table and eventually dismantle its nuclear-missile programs. A mere freeze will further complicate matters in the region and the world. It would be difficult to verify and cannot be the end goal. The ultimate aim should be denuclearization, even if it sounds like a fantasy in the Kim era. Both diplomacy and military action have risks, but they are risks the administration must be prepared to take because time is not on its side. The past two decades of trying both carrots and sticks has led to the present situation, in which diplomacy can be effective only if backed by effective and credible pressure. Negotiations, if they function properly, are the best solution.

As an unconventional leader, Trump may find an opportunity for a creative breakthrough with Kim. Perhaps coming to a deal over hamburgers, as Trump proposed last year, is what the world now needs. But the contents of any deal must also satisfy the interests of the United States’ closest Asian allies, South Korea and Japan. The administration needs a grand design and clear strategy that resolves the North Korean nuclear-missile problem in the context of intertwined regional challenges. It is crucial that Trump and the next South Korean president strike up instant, positive chemistry in their first meeting to help work through any bilateral differences and together deal with the North Korean challenge.

  • DUYEON KIM is a visiting senior fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul and specializes in nuclear nonproliferation, Northeast Asia, and geopolitics. She was previously an associate in the nuclear policy and Asia programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a journalist covering the Six Party Talks and inter-Korean relations. 
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