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Impact of Korean Presidential Election

Impact of Korean Presidential Election

18 May 2017

Opening a panel discussion on 18 May on the impact of the Korean presidential elections, Fraser Cameron, Director, EU-Asia Centre, said that it was most timely to hold this discussion following the election of President Moon Jae-in. With the impeachment of former President Park Korean politics had entered a new phase. It had been an exciting election campaign with Moon winning a decisive majority. But he would not have a majority in parliament and would have to make compromises.

Kim Hyoung-zhin, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the EU, said that President Moon was well qualified to be president having served as chief of staff to former President Roh Moo-hyun. He was a strong supporter of democracy and human rights and had promised a more transparent approach to government. He would likely demonstrate a mix of unity and continuity at home and abroad. The biggest threat was from the nuclear programme of the DPRK. Seoul would maintain the sanctions policy but be open to dialogue under the right conditions. This would imply a change in the DPRK’s attitude. The new administration would also seek to strengthen ties with China and Japan. The future of the THAAD anti-missile defence system would be an issue with China while there remained a number of sensitive issues to tackle with Japan. But each side recognised there was too much at stake to allow relations to deteriorate.

The new President was a keen supporter of free trade and would work for FTAs with regional partners (Japan/China), ASEAN and India as well as the wider Asian-Pacific region. The ROK would also be a strong supporter of the multilateral system and seek to fight protectionism.

Relations with the EU were good and it was a positive move that the President had appointed a special envoy for the EU who would be arriving in Brussels that evening. (The envoy was Cho Yoon-je, a professor at Sogang University in Seoul, who served as an economic aide to former President Roh and was also ambassador to Britain from 2005 to 2008). President Moon would also be speaking by telephone with President Tusk the following day. Since the start of the EU-ROK FTA seven years ago trade had gone up over 30% from ^&-5 billion euros to over 90 billion. The EU was Korea’s third trade partner after the US and China and the largest provider of FDI in Korea.

As regards the impact of Brexit, Korea would be monitoring developments and seek to engage with the UK on a new trade agreement when the time was right.

Julian Wilson, Head of Division, EEAS, said that the EU welcomed the election of the new President and noted his very genuine commitment to democracy, human rights and free trade. The swift sending of an envoy to the EU was also very positive and bodes well for the future of the relationship. There was already much agreement between the EU and Korea on most international issues such as trade and security (Korea was contributing to Operation Atalanta). The one issue where the EU would like Korea to take a stronger approach was climate change and the Paris agreement commitments. On the DPRK the EU was fully supportive of the ROK’s position. An improvement in ROK relations with China and Japan would also be welcomed by the EU.

Professor Luis Simon, VUB, Brussels, said that it would be interesting to observe the new sunshine policy which was a mix of engagement and deterrence. President Moon inherited a complicated security situation with regard to the DPRK and also the three major powers – China, Japan and the US. The key question was what mix would make Pyongyang return to the negotiating table knowing that its top priority was regime survival? The new president had signalled that he would improve Korea’s own deterrence capabilities. THAAD was unlikely to be reversed as it was established to protect US forces there. But over time the ROK could develop its own anti-missile systems and a retaliation capability that would inflict severe punishment if there was a DPRK attack. Although difficult there was no alternative to maintaining the security dialogue with all key partners – Japan, China and the US.

In the discussion there were questions about the implications of Brexit, the prospects for unification and the efficacy of the sanctions policy towards the DPRK.