SEONGNAM, South KoreaÂ âÂ South Korea is on the brink of electing a liberal president with distinctlyÂ different ideas from the Trump administration on how to deal with North Korea â potentially complicating efforts to punish Kim Jong Unâs regime.Â Â
Heâs also a candidate who fears that the U.S. government has been acting to box him in on a controversial American missile defense system and circumvent South Koreaâs democratic process.Â
âI donât believe the U.S. has the intention [to influence our election], but I do have some reservations,â Moon Jae-in told The Washington Post in an interview.Â
Barring a major upset, Moon will become South Koreaâs president Tuesday, replacing Park Geun-hye, who was impeached in March and is now on trial for bribery. Because Park was dismissed from office, Moon will immediately become president if elected, without the usual transition period.Â
With Moon pledging to review the Park governmentâs decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) antimissile system, the U.S. military has acted swiftly to get it up and running. This has sparked widespread criticism here that the United States is trying to make it difficult, if not impossible, for Moon to reverse it.Â
The final components for THAAD were taken onto the site into the middle of the night last week, triggering protests, and the system became operational Monday. It is designed to shoot down North Korean missiles, but many in South Korea fear it will make them more of a target.Â
âIt is not desirable for the [caretaker] South Korean government to deploy THAAD hastily at this politically sensitive time, with the presidential election approaching, and without going through the democratic process, an environmental assessment or a public hearing,â said Moon, sitting on the floor in a Korean restaurant after an evening rally in Seongnam, south of Seoul.
âWould it happen this way in the United States? Could the administration make a unilateral decision without following democratic procedures, without ratification or agreement by Congress?âÂ
Privately, Moon aides say they are âfuriousâ about what they see as the expedited installation of THAAD. U.S. Forces Korea said the deployment is in line with plans to have the system operational as soon as possible.
But Moon warned that the U.S.âs actions could contribute to rising anti-American sentiment in South Korea and complicate the countriesâ security alliance.Â Â
âIf South Korea can have more time to process this matter democratically, the U.S. will gain a higher level of trust from South Koreans and therefore the alliance between the two nations will become even stronger,â Moon said.
But in a move that shocked South Koreans, President Trump last week and said he would make Seoul pay $1 billion for THAAD, despite an agreement that South Korea provides the land and the U.S. supplies and operates the battery.
Ironically, this insistence could boost Moonâs chances of becoming president, as it has angered people who were on the fence about THAAD and enraged the systemâs opponents even more.
âIs South Korea a colony that has to cough up cash whenever the U.S. wants it to?â Park Hee-ju, an anti-THAAD activist, told the left-leaning Hankyoreh newspaper, which Moon helped found.
Even conservative papers have been taken aback by the sudden change. âTrumpâs mouth rocking South Korean-U.S. alliance,â declared a headline in the right-wing Chosun Ilbo.
Moon, 64, a former human rights lawyer who was chief of staff to former progressive president Roh Moo-hyun, has a commanding lead in opinion polls. He is now regularly attracting twice the support rate of his closest rival, centrist Ahn Cheol-soo.Â
Thanks to THAAD, and to North Koreaâs recent provocations and Trumpâs tough response, foreign policy is at the top of the election agenda.Â
Moon, who is closely associated with the âsunshine policyâ of engagement with North Korea, could hardly be more different from Park â or from Trump.Â
He wants to reopen an inter-Korean industrial park and in TV debatesÂ has talked about South Korea taking the initiative on North Korea. He wants South Korea, not the United States, to have operational control of the military alliance if a war breaks out.Â
American analysts say that some of Moonâs campaign pledges â such as his promise to reopen the industrial park â are âfantastical,â and the candidate struck a markedly more measured, more diplomatic tone in the interview.
âThe answer is no,â Moon said when asked whether he would seek to rebalance the security alliance with the United States.Â Â
âI believe the alliance between the two nations is the most important foundation for our diplomacy and national security. South Korea was able to build its national security thanks to the U.S. and the two nations will work together on the North Korean nuclear issue.âÂ
But MoonÂ did say he wants South Korea âto able to take the lead on matters on the Korean Peninsula.âÂ
âI do not see it as desirable for South Korea to take the back seat and watch discussions between the U.S. and China,â he said, although he would not approach or open talks with North Korea without âfully consultingâ the United States.Â
Moon has said he would be willing to go to anywhere, including Pyongyang, to make progress on denuclearizing North Korea.Â Â
âI could sit down with Kim Jong Un but I will not meet him for the sake of meeting him,â he said. âI will meet Kim Jong Un when preconditions of resolving the nuclear issue are assured.âÂ
There is some overlap here. Trump said this week that he would be âhonoredâ to meet Kim âunder the right circumstances.â This comment struck a markedly different tone from Trumpâs recent talk about the potential for military action, sending warships to the region and warning of the possibility of a âmajor, major conflict.âÂ
Indeed, Moon stressed the things that he and Trump have in common â such as their shared belief that the Obama administration policy of âstrategic patienceâ toward North Korea was âa failure.â He agreed with Trumpâs method of applying sanctions and pressure to North Korea to bring them back to negotiations â although this is essentially what âstrategic patienceâ was.Â
âI believe President Trump is more reasonable than he is generally perceived,â Moon said. âPresident Trump uses strong rhetoric toward North Korea but, during the election campaign, he also said he could talk over a burger with Kim Jong Un. I am for that kind of pragmatic approach to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.âÂ
Even if there is a large divide between Moon and Trump on most issues related to North Korea, analysts doubt how much strain this will put on the alliance.Â
âFor the last decades, through two conservative presidents, South Korea had a more friendly relationship with the United States,â said Kang Won-taek, a professor of political science at Seoul National University.Â Â
âMoon Jae-inâs position is clearly different from those conservative presidents, but generally speaking, I donât think relations between the two countries will change that much,â Kang said. âAfter all, we have a common enemy.â
Â Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.