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Moon win puts allies’ approach to North Korea in doubt, but drastic policy shift unlikely, experts say

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Staff Writers

With Wednesday’s swearing-in of liberal candidate Moon Jae-in as South Korea’s new president, all eyes are on whether he will stick to his campaign promise of pursuing rapprochement with Pyongyang after years of a pro-sanctions push out of Seoul — a policy shift that, if realized, would destabilize relations with its close allies, Tokyo and Washington.

Moon, a human rights lawyer-turned politician, is known as a strong backer of the Sunshine Policy of engaging North Korea, having worked closely for late former President Roh Moo-hyun, who had been an outspoken proponent of the policy.

In fact, in Wednesday’s inaugural address, Moon appeared to waste no time in stressing his departure from years of get-tough diplomacy upheld by his conservative predecessors by saying he will consider visiting Pyongyang to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “if conditions are met.”

In Tokyo, officials were quick to respond to the victory of the liberal candidate, who comfortably trounced his two main contenders, center-left Ahn Choel-soo and conservative Hong Joon-pyo, by securing 41.08 percent of the vote, according to figures cited by the Yonhap news agency. Moon’s ascent to the presidency ended a decade of conservative rule in South Korea, as well as filling the monthslong leadership vacuum left by former President Park Geun-hye’s ouster over a corruption scandal.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe immediately released a statement congratulating Moon on his victory, expressing an eagerness to further harness what he called a “future-oriented” relationship with Seoul and meet the new leader at the earliest date possible.

Abe also characterized South Korea as the “most important neighbor that shares strategic interests” with Japan, stressing that close bilateral ties will be instrumental in efforts to better deal with a recalcitrant Pyongyang.

But Moon’s campaign promise to re-engage — instead of punish — the reclusive regime has left Tokyo worried about a potential setback in, if not collapse of, its joint efforts with Seoul and Washington to exert “maximum pressure” on the North, which is believed to be primed and ready to conduct a sixth nuclear test.

In a meeting in Tokyo last month, top envoys from Japan, South Korea and the U.S. shared the sentiment that Pyongyang’s failure to terminate its atomic and missile tests will be met with “unbearable” punitive sanctions, South Korean Ambassador Kim Hong-kyun, the Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs, warned at the time.

Pursuit of engagement with North Korea will “create fissures between the U.S. and Japan, which are aligned with a maximum pressure approach,” said Kent Boydston, an analyst focusing on the Korean Peninsula at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“Immediate renewed engagement will also significantly damage the greater international effort to enforce sanctions against North Korea,” he added.

For Abe, a rightward-leaning leader who has come closer than ever to achieving his longtime goal of revising the U.S.-drafted pacifist Constitution, Seoul’s renewed rapprochement with Pyongyang heralds an even bigger challenge, because his administration “has based the argument for necessary change in Japan’s postwar pacifist security institutions mainly on the DPRK threat narrative,” said Sebastian Maslow, a research fellow at the Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies at Kobe University, using the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

For now, however, observers are unconvinced that Moon will make too drastic a U-turn in policy.

Two diplomatic sources at Japan’s Foreign Ministry, who both spoke on condition of anonymity, said they believe Moon — despite his campaign promise to reopen the Kaesong industrial park, which was jointly operated by the North and South, and review the deployment of a U.S.-made anti-missile system — will for now take the high road and avoid deviating drastically from an international front against the North.

“As an international community, we’re united in sending a strong message against the North. I believe the stance is understood by whoever South Korea’s new leader is,” a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said.

Yuki Asaba, a political science professor and noted expert on South Korea, agreed that any immediate attempt by Moon to adopt what has been dubbed “Sunshine Policy 2.0” — a revival of the conciliatory approach pursued by Roh — is not in the offing.

“It’s hard to imagine he will go so far as to unconditionally reopen the Kaesong industrial park or prioritize going to Pyongyang over Washington, despite what he said during the campaign,” Asaba said.

He said the direction Moon takes on inter-Korean policy will hinge on how he will weigh those international constraints against the need to heed staunch calls among the most hard-core of his leftist constituency that he should put greater emphasis on dialogue over pressure.

“That’s the kind of dilemma that is in store for Moon,” he said.

Moon’s inclination to respect the united international front pressuring the North could further be reinforced by the U.S., despite President Donald Trump’s recent suggestion that he is open to meeting Kim under certain circumstances, effectively retaining its hard-line attitude toward Pyongyang.

“Even while Trump has signaled a willingness to meet with Kim Jong Un under the right circumstances, this does not underscore a shift in U.S. policy,” the Peterson Institute’s Boydston said. “President Obama also sent signals of openness toward engagement with Pyongyang early in his presidency that were never reciprocated.”

Also at issue is what stance Moon will take toward the long-simmering controversy over “comfort women” — a euphemism for women forced into sexual servitude by the Imperial Japanese Army before and during World War II.

On the campaign trail, Moon ratcheted up his condemnation of a landmark 2015 deal between Tokyo and Seoul that included an apology from Abe and promises for funding a foundation to provide support for the former comfort women. He pledged to “correct” what he termed a “wrong” deal, despite international recognition that it resolved the dispute “finally and irreversibly.”

Tokyo is fiercely opposed to any form of renegotiation.

“Even though the deal was made with the former administration by Park, an agreement between a state and a state is not that easily meant to be broken,” the Foreign Ministry official said. “Do we correct it just because there has been a leadership change? Of course not. That’s a commonsense understanding among the global community.”