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September 19, 2017

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Korean Peninsula dynamics are shifting

The election of Moon Jae-in as South Korea's president marks the re-emergence of a major player that had been silenced for five crucial months because of the country's political paralysis, which ended with the impeachment and arrest of his conservative predecessor, Park Geun-hye.

Moon in many ways is the opposite of Park. He is a liberal who, as a student activist, was imprisoned by Park Chung-hee, the father of the last president. A former human rights lawyer, he has made known his desire to improve relations with both North Korea and China, while insisting that the alliance with the United States will remain the anchor of Seoul's diplomacy and security.

Elected May 9 and sworn in the next day, Moon began immediately to tackle issues that had piled up over the previous months.

Ties with China were at the top of the list. He had a 40-minute phone conversation with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, during which the new Korean president said he would send two special envoys to Beijing for talks, one on the North Korean nuclear issue and another to discuss the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system, which has been deployed to defend South Korea from a possible North Korean attack. China, however, is vociferously opposed, saying the system threatens its own national security.

Besides China, Moon also spoke with President Donald Trump, who promised a White House invitation soon. Moon assured Trump that the Korean-American alliance would continue to be at the heart of South Korea's diplomacy and security, and Trump complimented South Korea as "not just a good ally but a great ally."

Other phone calls were held with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, during which the two men talked about the "comfort women" accord accepted by the previous Korean administration. While Abe called for following through on the agreement, Moon said that most South Korean people don't accept the accord. This longstanding thorn in the bilateral relationship is likely to continue to prove intractable.

Other phone conversations were held with the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, British Prime Minister Theresa May, Russian President Vladimir Putin, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The one regional player with whom Moon did not talk was Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader. But Moon was North Korea's favored candidate during the campaign and the new president, in his inaugural address, said that he would be willing to go to Pyongyang for talks "under the right circumstances," echoing what Trump had said 10 days prior.

Nonetheless, North Korea is pressing ahead with its nuclear and missile-development program, holding another ballistic missile test on Sunday -- one that experts said could be a new type of missile. The test precipitated the first meeting of Moon's national security council. Moon was quoted as saying that while South Korea remained open to dialogue, it would only be possible "when North Korea shows a change in attitude."

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