SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Which of South Korea’s neighbors and allies stand to benefit most from liberal Moon Jae-in’s ascension to the presidency this week?
It might be North Korea, which sees Moon as an advocate of a softer approach to ridding the North of nuclear weapons. This, in turn, could alarm a more conservative Washington. Beijing, meanwhile, likely hopes to win big concessions from Moon, and Tokyo worries he’ll upset a delicate arrangement meant to settle the two countries’ difficult past.
Here’s a look at how South Korea’s neighbors see Moon, Seoul’s first liberal leader in a decade, as he pushes an ambitious, possibly jarring foreign policy.
North Korea, as of Thursday morning, had yet to comment officially on Moon’s election, but experts say there’s no reason for it to dislike his win.
Pyongyang’s relations with Moon’s conservative predecessor, Park Geun-hye, were extremely bad, but even so, the North is almost certain to be cautious about any Moon proposals for increased engagement.
It may welcome a controlled boost in economic ties — or even a bilateral summit in its capital under the right conditions, an idea Moon has already floated — but its primary worry is likely to remain national security.
On that front, Moon’s options to generate major change could be severely limited by South Korea’s alliance with the United States and whatever position toward North Korea that President Donald Trump decides to take.
Park’s decision to allow the United States to base the state-of-the-art missile-defense system THAAD in South Korea’s territory to cope with North Korean nuclear threats is a major irritant.
There’s widespread opposition in South Korea to the THAAD deployment and loud protests from China, which also sees the system as a security threat. But challenging Washington over THAAD might be difficult for Moon.
Trump administration officials may worry about Moon’s softer approach to North Korea, but they also likely know he won’t push for any radical policies on the North or any other issues that would hurt the decades-long alliance.
During his campaign, many conservatives worried that Moon’s election would cause problems with Washington, Seoul’s most important ally, because of his engagement policy on North Korea would clash with Trump’s push to maximize pressures on the country. Moon also said he would review the THAAD deployment.
But North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has made remarkable progress since Moon worked for a liberal government that engaged the North with big aid shipments and economic cooperation projects 10 years ago. It’s highly unlikely that Moon will pursue the same level of rapprochement that past liberal governments took.
Earlier this month, South Korean officials said the THAAD system was already operating, and experts say it will be extremely difficult now for Moon to ask Washington to withdraw it.
Taking the oath of office in Seoul on Wednesday, Moon said he will further bolster the alliance and “immediately fly to Washington if necessary” for the sake of peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Beijing will be hoping for concessions from Moon to get relations back on track after months of Chinese fury over South Korea’s decision to deploy THAAD.
China maintained an unyielding stance even after the deployment went ahead, apparently hoping that Moon would either reverse that decision or be chastised sufficiently to eschew any similar steps in the future.
South Korean experts say Moon will try to show he’s making efforts to soothe Chinese anger but that it’s too late to call for THAAD’s withdrawal.
Beijing says the system threatens China’s own security because its radar system is able to peer deep into the country’s northeast and monitor its flights and missile launches.
Recent months have seen widening commercial retaliation against South Korean business interests in China, ranging from the cancellation of visits by popstars and actors to boycotts of the Lotte chain of department stores and the shutdown of work on an amusement park being built in China by the company. Chinese group tours to South Korea have also been canceled, while anti-Korean sentiment has proliferated online.
Beijing may also be heartened by renewed South Korean outreach to North Korea because that could divert attention from China’s own role as the North’s most important diplomatic and economic partner.
After the obligatory congratulations, Japan is cautiously watching to see how relations with South Korea evolve under Moon, known for his tough stance on wartime history and territorial issues.
Moon’s more conciliatory approach to North Korea adds to uncertainty in bilateral and trilateral cooperation with the United States, given Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s vocal support for Trump’s increased pressure on the North.
Japan is particularly concerned about the “comfort women” issue, a legacy of Japanese atrocities during the war that still haunts relations between the two sides. Moon opposes a 2015 agreement signed by Park that was heralded as a final settlement for Korean women who were among many sexually enslaved in Japanese military brothels before and during World War II. Moon has called for a renegotiation of the pact.
The two countries are also at odds over a “comfort woman” statue that was built outside the Japanese consulate in the southern South Korean city of Busan after the agreement was signed.
Moon has also raised skepticism over closer security cooperation with Japan, such as a bilateral military information sharing agreement, and emphasized Seoul’s territorial claim on a disputed island between the two countries.
“Will Mr. Moon pursue a ‘pro-North, anti-Japan’ stance?” the conservative Yomiuri newspaper said in an editorial Wednesday. South Korea plays a crucial role in regional stability, it said. “We hope the new administration values cooperation with Japan and the U.S. and develops realistic security and foreign policies.”
Associated Press writers Eric Talmadge and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.
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