SEOUL — The front-runner in next week’s South Korean presidential election says the U.S. moved too hastily to deploy a major missile defense system here and promises to push a conciliatory policy toward North Korea that might clash with the Trump administration’s bare-knuckle approach.
But liberal human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in, a former backer of the “Sunshine Policy” of diplomatic outreach to North Korea, has also said he wants to work more closely with Washington — as long everyone understands there will be no military action on the Korean Peninsula without Seoul’s consent.
Largely overlooked in the war of words between Pyongyang and Washington and Mr. Trump’s efforts to enlist China in the press against the North’s nuclear and missile programs, the presidential vote on Tuesday could have an outsized impact on Mr. Trump’s hope to resolve one of the world’s most dangerous standoffs.
The election has triggered uncertainty over South Korea’s role in the Trump administration’s push to revamp U.S. strategy amid heightened concern over the North’s accelerating pursuit of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles that could threaten allies such as South Korea and Japan and reach the American homeland.
Artful posturing may be what propelled the 64-year-old Mr. Moon and his liberal Democratic Party to the front of the pack in a nation whose voters are bitterly divided on North Korea and other issues after the spectacular downfall and impeachment of President Park Geun-hye.
The last public polls before the vote give Mr. Moon roughly a 20-percentage-point lead over his nearest challengers, including centrist Ahn Cheol-soo and conservative Hong Joon-pyo.
While Mr. Moon has made headlines for months with comments signaling a more open approach toward the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un — at one point saying he would prefer to visit Pyongyang before going to Washington — the front-runner is seen to be embracing a more measured approach now that the presidency is in reach.
How Mr. Moon, a onetime adviser to liberal former President Roh Moo-hyun, will govern if he wins is an open question, South Korea political watchers say.
“I have my eyes on the emptiness of Moon’s foreign policy ideas at this point,” said Byoung-Joo Kim, who teaches at Seoul’s Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
“People have been talking about this possibility that he’ll try to go to Pyongyang to just shake hands with Kim Jong-un,” Mr. Kim told The Washington Times this week. “But the chance of that, the way I see it, is quite slim.
“The likelihood is he’ll actually maintain the traditional pattern of South Korean presidents in dealing with North Korea and the United States,” he said. “That would be to not upset the status quo by taking actions that would surprise Washington.”
But a President Moon would face domestic pressures to distance himself from Washington, with a strong anti-American strain among some South Korean voters and anger over the expedited Pentagon move to install the missile defense system in the final days of the campaign.
“But Americans should be concerned about which groups will influence Moon once he gets elected,” Mr. Kim said. “Will it be groups who make him less or more friendly toward the United States?”
The question looms large behind the contest in South Korea, where streets were quiet Wednesday as the nation celebrated Buddha’s birthday — or just grabbed a moment of calm ahead of the election hype.
An end to ‘patience’
Mr. Trump dispatched Vice President Mike Pence to the region last month to assert that the “era of strategic patience” — a reference to Washington’s long-held policy of trying to pressure Pyongyang through sanctions and diplomacy — “is over,” although the administration so far has followed much the same blueprint while staging some high-profile military demonstrations.
But how willing is South Korea, where some 30,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed, to go along with what many believe will be a Trump-era military buildup toward possible U.S. airstrikes against Pyongyang?
Others in the region, particularly Japan, are wary of how a Moon victory will impact the delicate the three-way alliance among Washington, Seoul and Tokyo against North Korea.
“The Japanese are concerned about this election because of uncertainty over what a victory by the Korean left might mean,” said Christopher R. Hill, a career diplomat who served as special envoy on North Korea under President George W. Bush. “Traditionally, the Korean left tends to be more Korean nationalist and less supportive of a close relationship with Japan.”
Mr. Moon declined to be interviewed by The Washington Times this week. But a spokesman for his campaign said if he becomes president, Mr. Moon intends to engage with Mr. Trump over the best way forward on North Korea.
The election also comes on the heels of political tumult and uncertainty in South Korea, where Ms. Park was impeached in early March after a corruption scandal. Five candidates are vying for the job in a vote that was moved up after Ms. Park’s abrupt removal from office.
Mr. Moon, who narrowly lost to Ms. Park in 2012, has been rising through the nation’s political left for more than a decade. Analysts say his background undergirds his posture toward North Korea.
On his way to the top, Mr. Moon was chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun, a strong proponent of the Sunshine Policy set into motion by Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim Dae-jung, who held the presidency from 1998 to 2003.
Some believe Mr. Moon is eager to re-establish the policy, but his campaign seems eager to downplay it.
Mr. Moon’s aides say comments he made to the Korean media about wanting to visit Pyongyang were taken out of context. Mr. Moon would make the trip “only if it were helpful to the nuclear issue and also only with a close consultation with the U.S. government would he consider visiting,” the spokesman said.
Leaders from North and South Korea haven’t held such a meeting since 2007, two years before the collapse of six-party talks among China, the U.S., North and South Korea, Japan, and Russia. The negotiations were derailed by Pyongyang’s missile tests and nuclear pursuits in defiance of U.N. resolutions.
Mr. Moon’s camp appears to be taking a low-key approach to another point of contention with the U.S. government: Mr. Trump’s demand that the 5-year-old bilateral free trade deal be substantially renegotiated, claiming the U.S. got the short end of the deal. A top aide told Reuters that Mr. Moon does not fear new talks on the pact.
The U.S. “has a trade deficit with us, and they can complain about that, sure,” adviser Kim Kwang-doo told the wire service. “But the deficit is partly due to the fact South Korean products have the upper hand when it comes to trade.”
Meeting with Kim
A U.S. president hasn’t met a North Korean leader since before the 1950-1953 war that divided the Koreas. But Mr. Trump has flirted with the idea, saying on the campaign trail last year that he might have “a hamburger” with Kim Jong-un and telling Bloomberg News this week that, if “appropriate,” he would “be honored” to meet with Mr. Kim.
The comments suggested common ground between Mr. Trump and Mr. Moon.
Mr. Moon, at least, seemed to promote such in an interview with The Washington Post. “I think I am on the same page as President Trump,” he said.
But analysts point to friction over the Pentagon’s deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system that became active in South Korea this week. The Park government agreed to provide the land, but the system remains deeply divisive. Some argue that it will only make South Korea even more of a target for the North’s nuclear and conventional arsenals.
North Korea and China have sharply criticized THAAD. Beijing has retaliated with economic pressure on Seoul, and Mr. Moon has said Washington rushed the deployment without taking into consideration the fallout for South Korea.
He has called for THAAD to be reviewed by whatever government takes hold — a position that might have been strengthened by Mr. Trump’s assertion this week that South Korea should pay for THAAD. The White House has since walked back the president’s remark, but the friction sparked widespread resentment in South Korea.
“Ironically and indirectly, this call by Trump to make the South Koreans pay for THAAD probably helped Moon,” said Scott Snyder, a U.S.-Korea analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Korean voters may feel they need a president who’s more willing to stand up to the Americans. The real thing is they want more autonomy within the alliance.”
Bruce Klingner, an Asian studies fellow at The Heritage Foundation, sees it differently. “The reality is the majority of South Koreans are in favor of THAAD. “Moon was originally against it,” he said, “but more recently he’s backed down on his rhetoric.”
Mr. Hill, meanwhile, said Mr. Moon can be expected to “soften” on THAAD if he wins, but he “does appear to be of the mind that the North Koreans are somehow misunderstood and that we may ease tensions by having more dialogue with Pyongyang.”
“At the same time,” he said, “I think he wants to show the South Korean people that he would succeed at managing the Washington-Seoul alliance.”