After a decade of conservative rule culminating in the March 2017 impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, South Koreans unsurprisingly voted for change, electing Moon Jae-in of the left-leaning Democratic Party to the presidency in May. Moon campaigned on a largely domestic platform, but critics have suggested that his election could lead to a chill in U.S.–South Korean relations. What does his arrival in the Blue House portend for Seoul’s approach to North Korea and regional geopolitics over the next five years?
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At the most basic level, Moon’s election restores a needed legitimacy to the South Korean government, both at home and abroad, that had been lost during the Park administration’s long collapse. This legitimacy is especially important today given the heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula: U.S. President Donald Trump has made dealing with North Korea’s nuclear missile program a priority, and Pyongyang has resumed testing its ballistic missiles after a six-month pause. Since mid-February, North Korea has launched a dozen short-, medium-, and intermediate-range missiles, including three in Moon’s first three weeks as president. More will surely follow.
Moon said during the campaign that he wanted to regain the initiative on the North Korean issue. This is a position that resonates among South Koreans, who feel bypassed on the international issue of greatest importance to them because outside powers appear to dictate the pace of events on the peninsula. Moon also signaled his desire to pursue inter-Korean engagement, which he framed in terms of “conditional dialogue.” Such engagement would not necessarily mean a return to the “Sunshine Policy” of his ideological mentor, Roh Moo-hyun, which attempted to moderate Pyongyang’s behavior through economic incentives and enhance inter-Korean exchange. The policy’s lack of conditionality and failure to produce a lasting de-escalation discredited it in the eyes of many. But Moon’s tough statements following North Korea’s recent missile tests—he called for additional sanctions in May—have helped to
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