South Korea's new president talks to leaders of China, Japan

Kim Jong Un

Kim Jong Un

The election victory of Moon Jae-in in South Korea confronts Washington with a scenario it faced a decade-and-a-half ago, when differences on how to deal with Pyongyang fueled tension with an ally that hosts USA forces.

With corruption and the economy uppermost in voters' minds, surveys showed that only around 18 percent considered security the most important issue in the election. But South Korea's supreme court ruled in 2012 that the former workers still could individually seek compensation from Japan, overturning the understanding between Tokyo and Seoul.

To his critics, any concession to Pyongyang is unsafe and they accuse Moon - whose parents fled the North during the Korean War - of being a Communist sympathiser.

In his first key appointments, President Moon named Lee Nak-yon, the current governor of South Jeolla Province, to the post of prime minister, and Suh Hoon, who played a key role in preparing the two inter-Korea summits in the 2000s, to head the National Intelligence Service. And how does President Moon work through the maze of bureaucratic and legislative obstacles, not to mention the shrill protests of those who opposed him?

On Thursday, the US director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that North Korea posed "a very significant, potentially existential threat to the United States that has to be addressed".

Moon's policy is much closer to China's than to the United States' policy, he noted.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said their countries faced common challenges "led by responses to the North Korean issue" but they could "further contribute to peace and prosperity of the region by working together".

But North Korea's nuclear weapons program has made remarkable progress since Moon worked for a liberal government that engaged the North with big aid shipments and economic cooperation projects 10 years ago. It had previously hinted that Mr Moon was its preferred candidate.

In their phone call, Trump congratulated Moon on his election victory and his country's "peaceful, democratic transition of power", a White House statement said.

"South Korea has tremendous influence in the worldwide community on this issue, and that in itself is a challenge for President Trump", Straub said, noting that Kim Dae-jung and Roh both bad-mouthed President George W. Bush's approach at that time. Moon also said he would review the THAAD deployment. They believe that maintaining inter-Korean relations will lay the groundwork for reunifying the peninsula, just as Ostpolitik did in Germany. Beijing, meanwhile, likely hopes to win big concessions from Moon, and Tokyo worries he'll upset a delicate arrangement meant to settle the two countries' hard past. So his government will have no fundamental disagreement with the U.S., especially now that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said Washington is not seeking regime change in North Korea.

Although North Korea experts have dismissed the suggestion that Kim Jong-un's regime has the technological capability to launch a nuclear missile attack against the US, others have raised fears that the country's aim could be to develop the capability to launch attacks against Seoul.

The South's biggest trading partner, China has been infuriated by the deployment of the USA anti-missile system THAAD in the country, which it sees as a threat to its own military capability. Ironically, both the main contenders are politicians from the progressive left.

A final but crucial issue is China, with which Korea has had a bitter history. Mr Moon might try to soothe Chinese concerns by suggesting that the system is temporary, and could be removed, pending the North's denuclearisation.

World leaders offered congratulations to the new South Korean president. "South Korea can't unilaterally hold talks while everyone else is sanctioning North Korea".

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