Moon Jae-in was not president-elect for long. He won the South Korean election on Tuesday and was in office on Wednesday. Normally, he would have had a two-month transition period, but his impeached predecessor, Park Geun-hye, is in jail facing corruption charges. But then, it could be argued that no amount of time could fully prepare Mr. Moon for what lies ahead as he and his fellow liberals take charge after years of conservative rule.
The many South Koreans who took part in the street protests over the corrupt status quo that preceded Ms. Park’s fall are impatient for thorough economic and political reforms. On the North Korean front, the steady escalation of tensions could become worse over potentially sharp differences on strategy between Mr. Moon and President Trump, with his fast-shifting views on North Korea.
Mr. Moon’s conservative predecessors generally shared America’s approach to North Korea, which is basically to pressure the North through sanctions and other measures to abandon its nuclear program. Mr. Moon is closer in outlook to his late friend and ideological ally Roh Moo-hyun, who as president from 2003 to 2008 pursued a “sunshine policy” of seeking to engage North Korea through dialogue, aid and joint projects. Though much has changed since then — including the rise of Kim Jong-un, the third ruler of the Kim dynasty, and the relentless development of nuclear weapons in the North — the liberals Mr. Moon leads believe sanctions alone have failed to deter North Korea, and are wary of being drawn into a struggle between the United States and China.
An immediate source of friction with Washington is a potent antimissile system the United States has deployed in South Korea, which the liberals opposed. The opposition has been intensified by China’s furious reaction, including a boycott of South Korean brands, and President Trump’s statement last month — promptly pulled back — that Seoul should pay $1 billion for the battery. Mr. Moon has said he will review the deployment, though he insists he will fully consult with the United States before making any decision on this or any other North Korean matter.
In general, Mr. Moon has tried hard to reassure Washington. In an interview with The Washington Post this month, he said the American-South Korean alliance “is the most important foundation for our diplomacy and national security.” And while he argued that it was desirable for South Korea to take the initiative in dealing with the North, and that he was prepared to meet with Mr. Kim if it might help, he said he believed that he and Mr. Trump were “on the same page.” Indeed, Mr. Trump said this month that he’d be “honored” to meet with Mr. Kim if the conditions were right.
In the end, neither carrots nor…