On 9 May 2017, Moon Jae-in was elected as the new President of South Korea. The elections happened after the impeachment of the previous conservative President Park Geun-hye. It was almost certain that the Democratic Party candidate would have a clear victory in the elections because the conservative political groups were demoralised, divided and disorganised after the impeachment. Moon Jae-in’s victory has important implications for domestic politics in South Korea, especially in the domains of welfare, employment generations, transparency and accountability in governance. However, it would be interesting to see how the new President will operationalise his engagement policy toward North Korea.
Moon Jae-in was one of the main proponents of South Korean engagement policy toward North Korea that was practiced from 1998 to 2007 under the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations of South Korea. He was President Roh Moo-hyun's main confidante and played a key role in organising the Second Summit Meet between South and North Korean leaders in October 2007. Afterwards, during the two successive conservative South Korean administrations, from 2008 under Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, engagement with North Korea was practically abandoned. It is expected that Moon Jae-in will bring back the engagement approach vis-à-vis North Korea during his administration’s tenure.
In reality, the first phase of South Korea’s engagement policy, from 1998 to 2007, became less popular because it was not able to bring sufficient change in North Korea's provocative behaviour. North Korea had its first nuclear tests in October 2006, and the conservative leadership in South Korea proposed that a tough approach would be more effective in dealing with North Korea. The last two conservative administrations have preferred to put more economic sanctions, diplomatic pressures and even demonstrations of military strength to counter North Korea. However, the result has been worse than expected. North Korea conducted four nuclear tests and an average of seven missile tests per year during this period.
The tough approach could also be blamed for the discontinuation of several channels of communications between the two Koreas. During the first phase of the engagement policy, South Korea became North Korea's number one trading partner, and but now their bilateral trade has dropped to a negligible level. Since there is no North Korean dependence on South Korea, the leverage to influence North Korea’s behaviour is also non-existent. Overall, the containment or tough approach towards North Korea had been a definite failure in inducing a change in North Korean behaviour.
Thus, a new version of the engagement policy toward North Korea is keenly expected from the new leadership in South Korea. In fact in just three weeks of his administration, President Moon Jae-in has allowed several South Korean NGOs and citizens’ groups to re-establish contact with North Korea. In April 2017, the Foreign Minister-designate Kang Kyung-hwa siad that South Korea’s humanitarian assistance to North Korea should be provided separately from political considerations. Moon Jae-in, who has been responsible in the past for various modes of contact between the two countries, including the summit meet between the leaders, has appointed the chief of National Intelligence Services (NIS), Most of the foreign and defence policy decision-makers who have been nominated by Moon Jae-in so far are ardent and consistent supporters of the engagement policy.
However, the new phase of engagement will have several obstacles in its way. First, North Korea is now a de-facto nuclear power that is ready to talk peace but is not ready to give up its nuclear and missile programmes. North Korea tested three missiles in the first three weeks of the Moon Jae-in administration, intending to show its resolve to maintain their nuclear and missile programmes. Second, the US under Donald Trump appears to be in favour of a tougher approach toward North Korea and it would be a big challenge for Moon Jae-in to convince Washington and ask for time and space in favour of his engagement policy. Third, China has also been quite unhappy with the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system in South Korea. It would be interesting to see whether China goes along with the US to put more pressure on North Korea or cooperates with THAAD-equipped South Korea to engage North Korea.
In sum, the new version of the engagement policy toward North Korea will definitely be tried by Moon Jae-in but its initiation will not be easy. Moreover, its course and results will be more complicated as there have been several significant changes in the regional calculus and in North Korea during the last decade.