The March 9th South Korean election comes down to a race between the two leading candidates, Lee Jae-myungof the ruling liberal Democratic Party and Yoon Suk-yeol of the opposition conservative People Power Party.
While the two candidates are nearly neck and neck in South Korea’s highly polarized electoral environment, Lee’s mastery of political affairs has struck an obvious contrast with Yoon’s lack of knowledge and experience. As a result, the majority consensus among voters is that Lee would be better able to handle the challenges facing the country, with polls consistently showing that voters trust Lee over Yoon on issues such as international relations and security policy. According to the latest poll, 43 percent say that Lee is more capable in the sphere of diplomatic and security policy, while only 31 percent favor Yoon in this category. Regardless of which side wins the election, however, Washington’s redoubled emphasis on China-North Korea containment will severely constrain the foreign policy of any new South Korean administration.
First, Korea’s geographic location makes it a lynchpin of Washington’s anti-China campaign. The US perceives South Korea as a “force multiplier” whose military assets and personnel will be freely used by the US to supplement its military needs anywhere in the Asia-Pacific region–even beyond the Korean Peninsula. According to Tim Beal, as long as its hegemonic rivalry with China persists, the US will never permit peace in Korea, thereby forcing South Korea to the frontline of a new US-led regional containment coalition.
Second, with regard to US-DPRK relations, US containment policy is the main roadblock to rapprochement. While waging war on the entire population of North Korea through sanctions, cutting off trade relations, and staging provocative live-fire drills, Washington, according to Gregory Elich, has shown no sign of changing its behavior and seems unprepared to offer the DPRK anything in exchange for denuclearization. Elich stresses that the crippling US sanctions against North Korea remain the most serious underlying challenge to the incoming South Korean administration.
Third, in spite of US maximum pressure and sanctions, North Korea has advanced its nuclear capabilities while maintaining its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear detonations and ICBM launches for the past 3 years. However, analysts predict that the longer that the US posture toward the North remains essentially unchanged, the more likely it becomes that North Korea will resume nuclear and ICBM tests at some point.
Because of these geopolitical constraints, analysts predict that regardless of which party prevails in the elections, the broad strokes of South Korea’s foreign policy will not change, and Seoul will be forced to continue its commitment to the US alliance. A more hawkish and combative South Korean policy toward North Korea and China is also a possibility. In spite of this, key differences do exist between the two main presidential candidates with respect to their views on South Korean sovereignty, as well as their overall leadership qualifications.
Yoon, on the one hand, promotes a hawkish view that prioritizes almost exclusively the broadening of South Korean military commitments to the US and the effective further subordination of Seoul to Washington’s Asia policy. Yoon has also called for preemptive strikes against the North, has increasingly resorted to McCarthy-era red-baiting against liberals, and engages in harsh anti-China rhetoric. He adopts a hawkish line of attack against proponents of engagement while insisting on major North Korean concessions without addressing Pyongyang’s security concerns. During the recent presidential debates, Yoon went as far as expressing his support for a US-ROK-Japan military alliance even if it would mean allowing Japanese troops to deploy in the Korean Peninsula, stirring a controversy and criticism among South Koreans, the majority of whom are apprehensive about Japan’s growing militarism.
Yoon’s hawkish view even goes beyond existing US policies. He insists on purchasing additional batteries of the infamously controversial US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, even though the Biden and Moon administrations implemented a policy decision capping these batteries to the extant six currently deployed in Seongju. Yoon also declared that he would request redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, only to be forced to retract this statement following criticism by the Biden administration.
The former-general prosecutor’s amateurish leadership skills, lack of knowledge of geopolitical affairs, and anachronistic zero-sum thinking, coupled with his combative persona, could be a deadly combination which would bring about disastrous consequences and lead to a new crisis in the Korean Peninsula. The Korean scholar in Kim Nury states:
[As a] developed country South Korea calls for a mature, rational leader, but Yoon’s authoritarian personality, deficient sensibility for human rights, and shamanistic tendencies are not fit for a leader of a developed country.
In contrast, Lee has stated that Seoul should take the lead in inter-Korean affairs, making relevant decisions independently and putting South Korean national interests first. Lee refrains from taking sides between Washington and Beijing, opposes a joint-ROK-US-Japan military alliance, and seeks to build relations with North Korea through engagement and economic cooperation. He has a stated emphasis on South Korean national interests and resists the prospect of Koreans becoming a “pawn in the plans of other states”, promising to pursue peace and unification based on the principles of independence and sovereignty.
In contrast to Yoon’s lack of practical governing experience, Lee has long-standing experience in government and has a demonstrated commitment to productive and result-oriented policies. These qualities would strengthen Lee’s ability to foster a stable and pragmatic US-ROK alliance while cultivating cooperative relationships with China, Russia and Japan.
Further, in contrast to Yoon’s all-or-nothing approach, Lee’s pragmatism would yield much-needed progress in the emergent geopolitical environment of Northeast Asia. Russia and China recently submitted a draft resolution to the UNSC calling for easing of economic sanctions against North Korea in response to Pyongayng’s 3-year long moratorium on nuclear and ICBM testing and its destruction of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. Lee’s presidency would welcome such a pivot toward diplomacy, as he favors sanctions relief as part of denuclearization talks and is committed to re-engagement with the North. “What the country needs is pragmatism and a focus on problem solving,” Lee wrote in his piece published on February 23 in Foreign Affairs.
Glibly advocating for a preemptive strike against Pyongyang, for example, evokes Cold War posturing that is no longer relevant and serves only to stoke fear and division. A second Korean War, which would likely be a nuclear war, is unacceptable. It is important to win a war; it is even more important to win without a war. This can be achieved with a mixture of deterrence, diplomacy, and dialogue.
Lee’s rational pragmatism would result in more stable and productive policies that would benefit not only South Korea’s interests, but also US-ROK relations as well as regional partnerships. These qualities would enable him to better navigate the turbulent geopolitical environment of Northeast Asia and deal with potential geopolitical crises in a measured and forward-thinking manner.