South Korea election

Moon Jae In unlikely to be pushover over North Korea

Those who obsess about geopolitics and nuclear war may be surprised to learn that the South Koreans who elected Mr Moon Jae In as their new president on Tuesday are more concerned about jobs and corruption than the threat of North Korean missile and artillery strikes, and a "sea of fire" in their capital Seoul.

Mr Moon, a 64-year-old former human rights lawyer, won a clear victory with more than 41 per cent of the votes, nearly twice as many as his nearest rival.

He is seen as a solid politician of the left who represents a break from nine years of conservative rule, and as a leader who can restore stability in the chaotic aftermath of the corruption scandal that led to the impeachment of his predecessor Park Geun Hye.


In the outside world, however, he will inevitably be judged not for how he deals with youth unemployment, but for his handling of the simmering crisis over Pyongyang's vow to develop nuclear-armed missiles capable of reaching the United States. That threat has prompted a confusing response from US President Donald Trump, who has veered from threatening a pre-emptive strike to saying he would be "honoured" to meet North Korea's supreme leader Kim Jong Un.

It has also led to hand-wringing in China, whose leaders have yielded reluctantly to US demands that they apply economic pressure on their awkward ally and neighbour to curb its nuclear ambitions.

Mr Moon's hawkish critics fear he will be a soft touch for the North Koreans, and will be eager to emulate the "sunshine" policies of left-wing predecessors who made economic and diplomatic concessions to Pyongyang but failed to win much in return.

Fortunately, Mr Moon, born in a refugee camp to parents who fled from the North during the Korean War, is unlikely to be a pushover.

South Korea's new president Moon Jae In is seen as a solid politician of the left who represents a break from nine years of conservative rule. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

It is true, as he told the Financial Times, that he believes sanctions and pressure are not enough and that he wants to push for "active engagement, including dialogue", to persuade Pyongyang to change course.

But he cannot be accused of being merely a wishy-washy liberal lawyer. Mr Moon's national security credentials include his record as a member of South Korea's special forces and a parachutist trained to fight behind enemy lines.

And while he has expressed a desire to mend fences with China and has doubts about a US missile shield installed in his country, to the consternation of Beijing, he has not said he will remove it and has promised to consult the US on any talks with Pyongyang.

He has even said he is "on the same page" as Mr Trump.

The reality is that while engagement with North Korea has failed in the past, there is no evidence military confrontation will succeed - certainly not without bloodshed and economic disruption on a frightening scale.

After months of political vacuum, South Korea has a thoughtful leader - described by an aide as "always very, very serious" - well placed to grapple with this geopolitical dilemma.


•The writer is the Financial Times' Asia news editor.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2017, with the headline 'New president unlikely to be pushover on N. Korea'. Print Edition | Subscribe