All eyes are on Seoul after South Korea’s Democratic Party President Moon Jae-In was sworn in Wednesday, promising to ease the crisis on the Korean peninsula and balance relations with long-time ally the United States and its rising neighbor, China.
Moon said in his first speech as president he would begin efforts to defuse tensions in the region.
“I will urgently try to solve the security crisis,” Moon said in the domed rotunda hall of the parliament building. “If needed, I will fly straight to Washington. I will go to Beijing and Tokyo and, if the conditions are right, to Pyongyang also.”
Moon’s win comes amid an ongoing war of words over a strategic U.S. missile defense system being deployed in the South.
While the U.S. claims the system — Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD — is necessary to protect Seoul from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Beijing views the deployment as going far beyond defending the south from the DPRK, instead boosting U.S. capabilities for looking deep into Chinese territory and blunting China’s “second-strike” capability in case of a nuclear confrontation with the U.S.
Moon has called the rushed deployment of THAAD prior to the Tuesday elections “strongly regrettable” as it infringes on South Korea’s sovereignty and its democratic process, stripping his government of the right to decide on an appropriate policy in relation to missile defense. U.S. President Donald Trump called last month for Seoul to shoulder the costs of the system in a move many saw as ham-fisted bluster that could only bruise relations with Moon’s administration.
On Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping noted in a congratulatory message to Moon that he would like to see China and South Korea work together in a spirit of mutual understanding and respect to ensure the development of Sino-South Korean ties in order to benefit the two countries and peoples, according to Xinhua News Agency.
In a congratulatory phone call from Washington, Trump agreed with Moon to cooperate on the nuclear issue and invited him to visit the U.S. capitol, the South Korean presidential office said. The two agreed to strengthen the U.S.-ROK alliance, according to a White House statement.
U.S. officials, however, have expressed concern that Moon’s advocacy of engagement with the DPRK could undercut the White House’s aggressive efforts to isolate Pyongyang.
In his first key appointments, Moon named two liberal veterans with ties to the 2000s “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with the DPRK to the posts of prime minister and spy chief.
Suh Hoon, a career spy agency official who was instrumental in setting up two previous summits between the North and South, was named to head the National Intelligence Service.
Lee Nak-yon, a regional governor who was a political ally of two former presidents who held summits with North Korea in 2000 and 2007 was nominated as prime minister. His appointment requires parliamentary approval.
Moon, a former human rights lawyer, won a resounding victory after his right-wing predecessor, Park Geun-Hye, was ousted following months of scandal, protests and political turmoil implicating some of the south’s most high-profile oligarchs, including the head of Samsung Group.
In his speech, Moon, 64, also pledged to sever what he described as the collusive ties between business and government that have plagued many of South Korea’s family-run conglomerates, known as chaebol, and vowed to be incorruptible.
In addition to campaigning on pledges to raise minimum wages and pensions for the elderly, Moon also promised to invest in 10 key economic sectors necessary to create jobs.
The new South Korean leader ran on a reformist ticket centered on the slogan, “National Interest First.”
In January, a book by Moon was published where he wrote that South Korea should learn to “say no to America” and become self-reliant in the field of defense capabilities, shifting wartime operational control of the South Korean armed forces from the U.S. back to Seoul.
In addition to renewed attempts at inter-Korean dialogue, Moon has also pledged to balance diplomatic and economic ties with the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.