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(News Focus) Landslide victory likely to strengthen Moon's foreign policy hand

Diplomacy 11:10 April 16, 2020

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, April 16 (Yonhap) -- This week's resounding election triumph for the ruling party is likely to set President Moon Jae-in's foreign policy agenda, including engagement with North Korea, on a steadier and stronger footing, observers said Thursday.

The win in the parliamentary elections gave a much-needed boost to the Moon administration whose external policy has faced resurgent skepticism due to North Korea's muscle-flexing, tensions with Japan and doubts over the alliance with the United States.

In the elections held Wednesday, the Democratic Party and its satellite Platform Party secured 180 seats in the 300-member National Assembly -- a sweeping victory that allowed the Moon Jae-in administration to keep a steady hand on the policy tiller.

President Moon Jae-in speaks during a video conference of the ASEAN-plus-three summit at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on April 14, 2020, in this photo provided by his office. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

"Fresh off a win, the government may seek to seize on the fresh momentum to strongly push for its foreign policy initiatives, including its pursuit of humanitarian aid to Pyongyang to help tackle the COVID-19 pandemic," Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University, said.

In the lead-up to the voting day, the South's push for engagement with the North was called into doubt amid the communist state's continued weapons tests, including the latest cruise missile launches Tuesday.

On the campaign trail, conservatives had cast the North's saber-rattling and the lull in inter-Korean exchanges as evidence that the Moon administration's efforts for reconciliation and cooperation with the North have floundered.

But on the back of the victory, Seoul could strive to resume engagement with Pyongyang by first seeking cooperation in combating the new coronavirus through such efforts as providing the North with virus test kits and other quarantine supplies, analysts said.

Should inter-Korean cooperation pick up pace, this could provide renewed vigor for Seoul to push for a series of cross-border projects that President Moon proposed in his New Year's address.

The projects include the co-registration of the Demilitarized Zone as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the resumption of the industrial complex in the North's city of Kaesong and of tours to Mount Kumgang on its east coast, and the reconnection of roads and railways.

To push for such projects, the South is expected to reinforce coordination with the United States, as U.S.-led international sanctions on the North have remained a major hurdle for any engagement with the regime on a larger scale.

Still, it remains to be seen whether Washington will be fully supportive of Seoul's drive for cross-border exchanges that have the potential to loosen the sanctions regime, which the U.S. sees as a key driver to put Pyongyang on the denuclearization track.

Currently, the biggest stumbling block to the Seoul-Washington alliance is their defense cost-sharing negotiations that remain at an impasse amid the U.S. demand for a hefty increase in Seoul's financial contributions for stationing the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea.

U.S. President Donald Trump has reportedly rejected Seoul's offer of at least a 13 percent increase from last year's cost-sharing deal, the Special Measures Agreement (SMA). Last year's SMA that expired in December called for Seoul to pay around US$870 million.

Some analysts said the election win could give more political flexibility for the Moon administration to maneuver the SMA negotiations in a way that will help ease tensions with its key ally.

"The maneuvering space for the government seems wider now, though the scope was narrower in the pre-election period," Nam Chang-hee, a professor of diplomacy at Inha University, said. "But the government still faces limits as the negotiations should proceed under the underlying SMA framework."

Washington has been demanding the scope of the SMA be expanded to cover a greater range of the defense costs, such as the transportation of rotational troops from outside the peninsula. But Seoul maintains that the existing SMA framework limited to supporting the upkeep of American troops here should remain intact.

But a turnaround in the negotiations could emerge as the South and the U.S. step up cooperation in curbing COVID-19 infections. This week, Seoul helped Washington secure large shipments of virus test kits, highlighting their alliance in the face of the public health care crisis.

The landslide victory has also raised questions over the future trajectory of relations between Seoul and Tokyo that have frayed amid a protracted row over trade and wartime history.

Some analysts predicted that the Moon government might seek to move beyond the rough patch with Japan through cooperation in pandemic response efforts and other forms of engagement, as it may not see any political gains from tensions with the neighboring country at a time when the ruling party has a parliamentary majority.

They also noted the possibility that the Shinzo Abe government might look to repair relations with Seoul to make its foreign policy scorecards look stable amid a drop in public support caused largely by its unpopular handling of the coronavirus outbreak and the subsequent postponement of the Tokyo Olympics to next year.

The pandemic has threatened to undermine the Japanese premier's much-vaunted "Abenomics" formula, a mixture of fiscal and monetary stimulus programs with structural reforms, putting Tokyo in no position to escalate tensions with neighboring countries, observers forecast.

"There may be little for Tokyo to gain from bashing Korea, given the general tenor of the positive international sentiment in favor of Korea, particularly about Seoul's fight against the coronavirus," Professor Nam said. "South Korea would not gain from bashing Japan either when Japan is in a predicament now."

On the relations with China, the South is expected to use the planned visit to Seoul by Chinese President Xi Jinping this year to further enhance cooperation particularly in the efforts to denuclearize the North.

But it remains uncertain whether Xi will be able travel to Seoul in the first half of this year as planned, given that the two countries are still heavily consumed with curbing the COVID-19 outbreak and countering the pandemic's economic repercussions.

sshluck@yna.co.kr
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