Moon’s Hedging Strategy: Foreign Policy in South Korea
South Korea is entrenched among the ranks of middle powers, most prominently since entering the G20 in 2008. It has occupied the position to good effect ever since, participating in a cornucopia of important global issue areas, all in support of the (currently somewhat under attack) liberal international order.
As Jongryn Mo points out, over time Seoul has been able to achieve strategic consistency in dealing with both regional and global challenges. In other words, it has employed a middle power strategy in both arenas. Naturally, this extends to the North Korea question, which was multilateralized during the first nuclear crisis. But the middle power strategy of encouraging outside interventions does run somewhat counter to the instinct of South Korean leaders, all of whom are old enough to remember what Korean ethnic nationalism was like. Their instinct is to emphasize Seoul’s moral right to leadership in dealing with North Korea.
Today, South Korea is back in a tight spot, squeezed between Pyongyang’s nuclear trajectory, Washington and Tokyo’s determined pursuit of “maximum pressure,” and THAAD-induced bilateral stress emanating from Beijing. Faced with a familiar confluence of forces on the Korean peninsula, President Moon Jae-in has attempted to occupy the middle ground, the better to protect not only the interests of the Republic of Korea, but also its place in the world. Tom Fowdy investigates. — Christopher Green, Senior Editor
Editor’s note (October 17, 2019): Subsequent to the publication of this essay, its author began working as a columnist for China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency. For the avoidance of doubt, Sino-NK does not receive funding from the Chinese government.
Moon’s Hedging Strategy: Foreign Policy in South Korea
by Tom Fowdy
Moon Jae-in was elected president of the Republic of Korea in May 2017, following the impeachment of Park Geun-hye. Elements of his campaign, although largely centred upon the economy, nevertheless included a proposal of utilizing engagement to solve the North Korean crisis. He sought a mix of sanctions and dialogue to approach Pyongyang, as well as opposition to the controversial THAAD missile defence system which had angered Beijing. Despite these proposals, the early months gave him little room to manoeuvre. Faced with a series of North Korean missile tests, including two Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) and a nuclear test, combined with the Trump administration’s push for “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang, Moon had no choice but to take a harder line.
However, with the United States repeatedly threatening military action against North Korea and Japan moving towards remilitarization, the latter months of 2017 have saw his administration pursue a “hedging” strategy of tilting towards China to create space from these problems. Moon has sought to secure diplomatic breathing room through rapprochement with Beijing and moves to distance Korea from Japan. Although some American commentators have argued Moon has “capitulated” to Chinese pressure, Moon is, in fact, seeking to solidify South Korea’s national interests, benefiting from the guarantees of the alliance whilst managing perceived threats from Trump, Abe, Xi, and Kim Jong-un.
Between Trump and Abe: Peace Out of Reach? | Moon’s hedging strategy stems from the strategic considerations around him. Multiple provocations by North Korea combined with increasingly bellicose rhetoric from the Trump administration and a Japan seemingly set on remilitarization, Moon’s priority of securing a peaceful end to the nuclear crisis has been put under considerable strain.
Although Moon has given constant verbal commitment to the US in approaching the North Korean problem, frictions have emerged. The implications of military action against North Korea, frequently mentioned by the Trump administration, is at the root of the current alliance tension. Although the United States has committed to protecting South Korea, Trump’s often erratic rhetoric has raised doubts concerning the escalation of tensions and provoked anti-war sentiment in South Korea. Trump has a very low confidence rating in South Korea, underscored by protests upon his visit to the country in November.
Strain in the ROK-US alliance goes beyond security concerns. The very foundation of the alliance appears under threat. Trump’s public criticisms of the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement and his open threat to abolish it in the middle of a series of North Korean provocations have all contributed. Close economic and trading relations are the backbone of the US system of bilateral security alliances in the Asia-Pacific. Nevertheless, Seoul has sought closer economic ties with Beijing, which has displaced the US as South Korea’s largest trading partner. Thus, the longstanding THAAD controversy and economic impact of Beijing’s displeasure have put strain on ROK-US relations.
Adding further complications to the situation is the rise (again) of Shinzo Abe. South Korea and Japan have a significant security relationship in dealing with Pyongyang, but historical enmities continue to influence relations between the two countries, not least because of the politics of the Comfort Women issue and grassroots nationalist pressure, which has strong anti-Japanese overtones and pushes South Korea to take a more assertive approach toward Japan even in the best of times. Therefore, when Abe won a landslide re-election as Prime Minister in October on a platform of pro-military constitutional revision, this raised concerns in Seoul. Although South Korea seeks a positive trade and security relationship with Japan, lingering ideational divides and a fear of militarism in Japan makes bilateral cooperation on North Korea difficult if not impossible.
The result: a strained alliance and contentious Korea-Japan relations have pushed Moon to reconsider South Korea’s position in the region.
Rapprochement with China, Rejection of Trilateralism | Due to the need of managing conflicting pressures from Trump, Kim, and Abe, Moon has sought to handle them with concern for South Korea’s security and economic interests. By hedging, it should be carefully noted, especially for Moon’s critics in Washington, Moon is not shifting allegiances, but seeking to balance the interests of the surrounding states with those of South Korea. Balancing entails three things: first, rapprochement with Beijing to secure Seoul’s necessary economic interests, as well as Beijing’s support in securing a peaceful solution to the North Korean crisis; second, giving incentives to Pyongyang in order to improve relations and open up avenues for talks, moderating Washington’s threats in the process; and third, marginalizing Abe, rejecting tri-lateralism and seeking to contain the impact of his pro-military ambitions.
This process of hedging began with Moon’s turn towards Beijing. Ties had been sour since 2016 over the long standing THAAD controversy. A rapprochement began in late October, with China lifting sanctions over South Korea in exchange for the South’s pledge not to install any more THAAD missile launchers. Simultaneously, talks began over a Moon visit to Beijing, with Seoul’s foreign minister announcing a visit shortly after Beijing sent an envoy to Pyongyang. These moves attracted criticism from Washington, with foreign policy-makers arguing that Moon had “capitulated” to pressure and bullying from Beijing. Seemingly, such criticism overlooks the fact that it is in Seoul’s national interest to have a productive relationship with Beijing and, secondly, that it is a common practice for South Korean presidents to engage in this form of hedging. After all, one may note that Park Geun-hye attended the Chinese military parade in Tiananmen Square to celebrate the end of the second Sino-Japanese war, going against US diplomatic pressure. Such moves do not exist within the context of “Chinese sanctions” alone nor do they represent a scrapping of the US alliance.
As Moon began to tilt towards China, he quickly engaged in a series of moves to marginalize Japan. He first voiced open opposition to a “trilateral alliance.” Then, he rejected joint naval exercises with Japan in Korean waters, likewise refusing to endorse Trump’s rhetoric of a “free Indo-pacific,” something of which Japan plays an essential role in. When Trump visited Seoul, Moon then engaged in several other moves against Japan, including the tactful inclusion of Dokdo Shrimp in Moon’s dinner with Trump, as well as inviting a comfort woman victim to meet with him.
In dealing with the US, Moon has aimed to moderate the tensions on the peninsula by offering incentives to Pyongyang and push for a peaceful outcome. Initially he was unable to do much due to a series of North Korean ballistic missile tests over the summer, the two-month absence in testing from September to December gave him a window to experiment with policies of engagement. Notably, Seoul permitted the non-commercial import of 46,000 bottles of mineral water from North Korea, justified under the mantle of Moon’s policy of “civic exchanges.” South Korea’s somewhat muted response to Trump’s re-listing of North Korea as a “state sponsor of terror” also reflects a less hostile North Korean policy. Although Seoul did not reject the listing — security interests prevent him from doing so — the focus of the response was on the “peaceful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” perhaps in a bid not to enrage Pyongyang. Moon Chung-in, a special security advisor to Moon Jae-in, even went so far as to say the move is “more symbolic than substance.”
A Hedging Policy? | In conclusion, Moon Jae-in is seeking to balance South Korea’s interests against external pressures. Contrary to criticism, it should be noted that hedging between the United States, Japan, North Korea, and China is not an unusual practice for South Korean presidents. Although in no way rejecting security ties with the United States or sanctions on North Korea, Moon has sought to hedge against the United States and Japan by tilting towards China and offering incentives to Pyongyang. This is motivated by national interests, which include the economic needs of South Korea and a peaceful solution to the North Korean crisis. It comes at a time where North Korean provocations have been frequent, combined with an unpredictable US administration and an increasingly pro-military one in Japan.
Above all, Moon’s moves primarily seek to defend the state interests of the Republic of Korea. Hedging gives the South Korean president room to navigate around all the associated actors and policy options without decisively rejecting any of them. These options include: deterrence against North Korea whilst building incentives for dialogue, denuclearization and peace; benefitting from United States security assurances whilst preventing them from preemptively started an armed conflict on the peninsula; and balancing against a more assertive Japan and reaping the economic benefits of economic relations with China.