South Korea's liberal new president could strain US' relationship with Seoul

Nearly a decade of conservative governance in South Korea is ending as voters there selected Moon Jae-in as their next president.

“I will become everyone's president,” said Moon in his victory speech.  “I will become a president who unifies people and serves even those people who did not support me."

Moon’s opponents criticized him as too soft toward North Korea.  As the Trump administration tries to isolate North Korea diplomatically, Moon, a human rights lawyer and liberal, is pushing to open a dialogue with North Korea.

“A President Moon wants to have dialogue with North Korea,” said Scott Snyder, the director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.  “He may want to add dialogue as a component along with the U.S. pressure strategy on North Korea, but there could be some tensions that need to be worked out.”

The Trump administration cited Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, in congratulating Moon and that: “We look forward to working with President-elect Moon to continue to strengthen the alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea and to deepen the enduring friendship and partnership between our two countries,” according to the statement.


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has described a “pressure campaign” against North Korea involving stronger international enforcement of economic sanctions.  He has also threatened to push additional sanctions.

“Pressure and engagement are not mutually exclusive,” said James Person, the director of the Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Wilson Center.  “You can have some form of pressure to get the North Koreans to acquiesce while maintaining dialogue. And I think the critical thing is for South Korea and the U.S. to sit down and try to find a happy medium and jointly develop a policy that is going to be effective perhaps for the first time with North Korea.”

Moon has also opposed a missile defense system the United States installed in South Korea. Known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad, the U.S. said the system is already operational. Analysts said, as a result, it would be more difficult to remove Thaad from South Korea.  China also opposes Thaad. The U.S. said it is a defensive system.

In March, South Korea impeached, removed and arrested its previously elected president, Park Geun-hye. With a new elected leader, and as the U.S. and region develop their policy to confront North Korea, South Korea can become more influential.

“In many cases, South Korea has really taken a backseat in the formulation of Korea policy,” said Person.  “It's important for South Korea to get back into that driver's seat, or at least be a co-pilot in the formulation of an effective North Korea policy.”

Because Moon replaces an ousted president, he will be sworn in Wednesday.