international politics

What the New Liberal South Korean President Might Mean for U.S. Relations

South Korean presidential candidate Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea is poised to be the country’s next president. Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Liberal presidential candidate, Moon Jae-in, of the Democratic Party, will become the next president of South Korea. Moon, a human-rights attorney, declared a decisive victory in his country’s election, held early following the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye in a bribery scandal.

Moon’s victory, which would return liberals to power after a nearly decade-long hiatus, comes at a critical time on the Korean peninsula. Tensions with North Korea have reached a fever pitch in recent weeks. South Korea is under constant threat from an unpredictable Kim Jong-un. But Moon has promised voters that he would look to engage with Pyongyang, and back away from some of the isolationist policies of his predecessors.

That would also represent something of a break with the United States’ stance of ramping up pressure on North Korea for its weapons tests. Which means Moon’s election will cast some uncertainty on the traditionally ironclad alliance between Seoul and Washington. Moon has acknowledged that he’s inheriting a crisis with North Korea, but has made it clear that he wants South Korea to take a more proactive role — rather than following Washington’s lead. “We want to be in the driver’s seat,” Moon has said. “Driving would mean doing so very actively with the United States, and Pyongyang.”

Moon has also expressed skepticism over THAAD, the missile-defense system that the U.S. agreed to install last year in South Korea, and that just became operational. THAAD has faced public opposition and protests as its installation neared completion in recent days; many South Koreans see the antimissile system as a risky move that might provoke, rather than deter, Pyongyang — and won’t help relations with China, either. Moon’s public rhetoric over THAAD has been measured. He’s called for a more “democratic process” around its installation, including an environmental review and public hearings. But, according to the Washington Post, Moon and his team saw the United States’ swift completion of THAAD as an attempt to rush the system online before the presidential election.

Moon is expected to be sworn in as early as Wednesday. The White House later released a statement congratulating Moon on his win, but Trump has not, as is sometimes his wont, tweeted his congratulations.

This post has been updated to note the White House’s statement.

What the New South Korean President Might Mean for the U.S.