What Are Challenges for the New South Korean President?

By Lisa Collins & Victor Cha —

President Moon Jae-in during his first press conference on May 10, 2017. Source: Korea.net’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Exit polls from the May 9th election in South Korea indicate that Moon Jae-in will be the country’s next president.  Moon will enter office after more than six months of domestic political turmoil following the impeachment of former South Korean president Park Geun-hye. Under these circumstances, Moon is likely to face a series of domestic and foreign policy challenges early in his presidential term.

  1. Pursuing indictment of former president Park Geun-hye
    The challenge is to pursue this goal and the legitimacy of Park’s impeachment while maintaining unity in the country. The scandal involving the former South Korean president has exposed both corruption between the corporate world and the government and deep-rooted divisions in South Korean society. Moon Jae-in has promised to reform the system and bridge the divide between various political and social groups.
  2. Absence of majority coalition in the National Assembly
    The challenge is to make policy that can forge a working coalition with conservatives. The Democratic Party will not have majority control of the National Assembly when Moon enters office.
  3.  Defending against the North Korean threat
    The challenge will be to seek opportunities for North Korean engagement while coordinating such policies with an overall strategy for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula with the U.S., Japan, and other stakeholders. Moon Jae-in favors engagement with North Korea and an improvement in inter-Korean relations.
  4. Dealing with continued pressure from China on THAAD
    The challenge is for the Moon administration to find an effective way to stand up to Chinese retaliatory actions while also dealing with domestic constituent groups who are opposed to Terminal High Altitude Area Defense.  China continues to retaliate against South Korea for the deployment of the THAAD battery in the southeastern part of the country.
  5. Repairing the damage in ROK-Japan relations
    The challenge is to pursue better relations with Japan in order to deter against the growing North Korean threat while managing domestic opposition to the comfort women agreement signed between the two countries in 2015.  Relations between South Korea and Japan deteriorated significantly over the last six months due to disagreements over the long-standing issue of comfort women.
  6. Establishing a relationship with the Trump administration without a transition period
    The challenge is the Moon administration will begin work on May 10th with no official transition period. While some members of the Park government will remain temporarily until the appointment of new government officials, the lack of a transition period will compel the new administration to hit the ground running in shaping diplomatic relations with the U.S. and other countries.

Navigating these major challenges will constrain the incoming administration’s potential space for bold and radical shifts in policy. This means that policy will need to be executed with a scalpel rather than a chainsaw. But this could also comport with Moon Jae-in’s cautious and pragmatic nature.

Ms. Lisa Collins is a fellow with the Korea Chair at CSIS. Dr. Victor Cha is senior adviser and holds the CSIS Korea Chair. Follow him on twitter @VictorDCha. This Korea Chair Snapshot first appeared here.

Lisa Collins

Lisa Collins

Lisa Collins is a fellow with the Korea Chair at CSIS.

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