On May 9, South Korea chose its new president. Moon Jae-in, 64, running on the Democratic Party’s ticket, was elected by a landslide to replace President Park Geun-hye impeached in October. The outcome marks the end of conservatives’ rule ceding the power to liberals.
The new president is a son of refugees from North Korea. As a student activist he was involved in protests against South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee. Later he became a human-rights lawyer and then chief-of-staff to former President Roh Moo-hyun, who advocated the policy of engagement with North Korea. He was the Democratic United Party's candidate for the 2012 presidential election after winning a majority in the party primaries, but lost the election to Park Geun-hye. Most recently Moon Jae-in served as the opposition leader of the Minjoo Party of Korea from 2015 to 2016 and a member of the 19th National Assembly.
His election program includes reforming the «chaebol» – a South Korean form of business conglomerate. The family-controlled corporate groups account for 55% of national GDP but only 5% of jobs. They exercise enormous influence on domestic politics. Like Donald Trump, he emphasized the need for creating more jobs providing incentives for private employers to hire. In broader terms, he wants to «overcome the current crisis of security, diplomacy and the economy and rebuild our nation».
The president-elect has pledged to soften South Korea’s tough stance towards North Korea and seek closer ties with China – the nation’s biggest trading partner after the US. The president-elect has promised to repair inter-Korean relations, advocating measured engagement with the neighbor.
Moon Jae-in has criticized the idea to station the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system on South Korean soil. He believes the deployment should be put under review. «One of the biggest problems with this THAAD deployment decision was that it lacked democratic procedure, and it has resulted in a wide division of the nation and aggravated foreign relations», he told The Washington Post in an interview.
The plan makes Beijing feel threatened by the system’s surveillance capabilities. It slapped sanctions on South Korean businesses in China, including a tourism and retail. The businesses that catered to the millions of Chinese who visit South Korea annually are closed now.
The president-elect’s ultimate goal is to get the North to the negotiating table to ensure the dismantlement of its nuclear weapons. He believes that the US must make diplomatic efforts with the North, and demand that China apply pressure on North Korea.
The new South Korean leader rejects the idea of unification as too costly. Instead, he proposes a step-by-step approach of economic cooperation, then economic integration and finally full reunification but as a long-term goal. «I am confident to lead the diplomatic efforts involving multiple parties, which will lead to the complete abandonment of the North Korean nuclear program, and bring the relationship between South and North to peace, economic cooperation and mutual prosperity,» he said.
It should be taken into account that the implementation of the new policy on North Korea won’t be a cakewalk. The president’s Democratic Party is a minority in parliament and public sentiment is not strongly behind a thaw in relations with the neighbor.
The policy aimed at resuming cooperation and dialogue with North Korea gives Russia an opportunity to play a more proactive economic role in the region by initiating multilateral projects.
Russia and South Korea enjoy good neighborly relations. They have good prospects for the future. South Korea did not join the West’s sanctions against Russia. In November 2013, Russia and South Korea signed a visa-free travel regime agreement.
The parties are working together on the construction of a bilateral industrial complex in the Nakhodka Free Economic Area in Russia's Far East and gas-fields development in the Irkutsk Region. Moscow and Seoul agreed to cooperate on reconnecting a planned inter-Korean railroad with the Trans-Siberian Railroad (TSR). Russia has expressed interest in becoming a conduit for South Korean exports to Europe, which now go by ship, by linking the Korean railroad to the TSR.
South Korea may rejoin the Rajin-Hasan railway project. South Korea’s return to the project could help revive other trilateral projects. These include the connection of the Trans-Siberian Railway with the Trans-Korean Main Line, a gas pipeline from Russia to South Korea through North Korea, and an ‘energy bridge’ on the same route. Seoul also shows interest in Arctic projects.
The idea of South Korea participating in the construction of an industrial region on the junction of the borders of Russia, North Korea and China has also been floated. Seoul and Pyongyang could cooperate in the projects related to economic activities in the Russian Far East. Each of the parties has individually expressed interest in the idea.
Russian and South Korean leaders met in 2013 and in 2016 (at the economic forum at Vladivostok). In April, a Russian naval task force headed by cruiser Varyag visited the South Korean coastal city of Busan as part of a regular exchange program with the South Korean Navy.
With the announced new policy on North Korea, Russia has an important role to play as a mediator. Unlike the US, Moscow is on speaking terms with North Korea’s leadership. After all, Pyongyang lists Moscow as number one friendly state. Russia’s Foreign Policy Strategy adopted in 2016 foresees development of economic relations with both Koreas.
China is a key party in finding a settlement of the North Korean problem. Moscow and Beijing see eye to eye on the issue. Both countries support the idea of resuming the Six Party talks. Both believe that increased economic aid can make Pyongyang refocus foreign policy priorities. Moscow and Beijing can effectively join efforts to achieve positive results.
It all makes Moscow a trusted partner for Pyongyang and puts it into a unique position as a mediator and guarantor of any potential accords between the two Koreas that could be reached. Russia proved itself to be an effective mediator during the talks on the Iran nuclear deal. It certainly can do it again.