2022 South Korean Presidential Elections:  No Public Mandate for a Hawkish Pivot

An end-of-war declaration would be an important step towards reducing the dire threat of war and opening the way to further accommodations… The best policy I think would be in the general spirit of the Sunshine policy: steps toward accommodation, relaxation of tensions, withdrawal of threats and provocations.

– Noam Chomsky

Conservative Yoon Suk-yeol’s razor-thin 0.7% victory margin in South Korea’s March 9 presidential election was far from a public mandate for his much-touted hawkish foreign policy. Yoon’s sharp rhetoric on a tougher stance toward North Korea–including repeated references to pre-emptive strikes against Pyongyang–is out of step with the South Korean electorate, the majority of whom want peace with the North. His foreign policy stance promises to force South Korea into the front lines of a new US-led Cold War. By doing his part to ensure that a state of tension is maintained in the Korean peninsula, Yoon is faithfully serving US strategic interests by placing the Korean nation at risk while enabling Washington to continue justifying its nearly eight-decade occupation of South Korea in order to secure its forward military position against China.

Five years after the ignominious end of the conservative Park administration, South Korea’s conservatives are back in power, a development that does not bode well for Korea or the rest of the world. Yoon’s controversial past, his lack of practical experience, and his hawkish views combine to form a dangerous political free radical in the game of brinkmanship that continues to be played out in the Korean Peninsula. Yoon lost no time in labeling Pyongyang as Seoul’s “main enemy,” marking a departure from his predecessor Moon Jae-in. Amplifying Yoon’s rhetoric, his foreign policy delegation to Washington has advocated for a policy of Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Denuclearization (CVID) with respect to the North. The delegation also stressed South Korea’s commitment to the US strategy of containing China and advocated for the redeployment of US strategic assets such as nuclear-capable aircraft carriers, bombers and submarines to the Korean peninsula.

Unsurprisingly, Yoon’s hawkish pivot has been welcomed by the Biden administration and the foreign policy elite in Washington, who believe his victory will give the US an upper hand in arm wrestling South Korea into its strategy of containing China. Conservative US news outlets lauded the “pro-US Yoon victory” and predicted that “South Korea’s hawkish new president will be good for the western alliance”, while emphasizing that Yoon’s victory signaled that “The time to reconstitute pressure on Pyongyang is now.”

Echoing this chorus, Philip Goldberg, the nominee for US ambassador to South Korea and former enforcer of UN sanctions against the North, stated that the United States should “resolutely pursue complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” of “the rogue regime in North Korea”. However, Washington’s strategy of demanding concessions in the absence of meaningful assurances has only increased Pyongyang’s determination to acquire nuclear deterrence capability as a security guarantee against the US. Daniel DePetris observes that:

The chances of Kim relinquishing his nuclear deterrent at this late stage in the game is somewhere between slim to none. No country has undergone such large opportunity costs over a period of decades to develop as many as 65 nuclear warheads, only to suddenly trade those weapons away in exchange for economic and political concessions and vague security guarantees.

Only last week, China, stressing that the additional US sanctions imposed on Pyongyang were only raising tensions, proposed a halt to the historically provocative annual US-South Korea military drills in exchange for the North’s suspension of ICBM and nuclear testing. The US rejected China’s proposal.

On March 31, South Korea and the United States upgraded their joint wartime operations plans to include a response to North Korean nuclear measures, and senior US, Japanese, and South Korean military leaders discussed trilateral cooperation, ostensibly to “deter the North’s threats”–a euphemism for the Biden administration’s priority of hemming in China. A majority of Koreans oppose such a provocative military alliance that would threaten regional peace and stability.

On April 14, under the pretext of deterring the North’s “aggression,” the US dispatched the USS Abraham Lincoln strike group to conduct bilateral operations with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force near the Korean Peninsula, marking the first time since 2017 that a US carrier group has been deployed to the waters between South Korea and Japan.

On April 18, the US and South Korea began their controversial annual joint military drills, in spite of the opposition of the majority of Koreans and over 350 US, South Korean, and international organizations who released a statement calling for their suspension. The drills, which mobilize considerable numbers of US troops and ordnance on the Korean Peninsula and simulate military engagement against the North, have historically served as a reliable means to increase regional tensions:

In recent years, these war drills have been based on operation plans that reportedly include preemptive strikes and “decapitation measures” against the North Korean leadership. They also have involved the use of B-2 and B-52H bombers (which are designed to drop nuclear bombs) and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines. While the United States and South Korea have called them defensive in nature, these military exercises have long been a trigger point for heightened military and political tensions on the Korean Peninsula, due to their scale and provocative nature.

Thus far, Yoon’s hawkish policies have failed to garner public support.  According to a series of recent polls conducted in 2021, over 70 percent of South Koreans do not regard the North as an enemy; 70 percent support an End of War declaration; 61 percent support relaxing sanctions on the North; and, 79 percent support peace with Pyongyang. This sentiment persists even among Yoon supporters, a majority of whom support a peace treaty, breaking with his rhetoric calling for a tougher stance toward North Korea.

While Yoon’s victory bodes well for Washington’s unrelenting campaign to drive Seoul into the front lines of its anti-China crusade, his stated policy stance of  “no” to North Korea and China and “yes to the US” will be easier said than done, not the least because of the far-ranging economic interdependence between South Korea and China. In 2021, China took in more than a quarter of all Korean exports, while the United States accounted for only 15 percent. According to a 2021 survey, Koreans remain unenthusiastic about America’s anti-China containment strategy, with a majority supporting a neutral stance in the US-China rivalry”.

Yoon’s refusal to engage with the North or to exert any degree of sovereignty vis-a-vis the US ensures that South Korea remains a semi-occupied subservient “force multiplier” existing primarily to serve Washington’s growing strategic interests in Northeast Asia. The US itself, having waged a brutal war in the Korean peninsula that left millions dead, continues to block all attempts at reconciliation by the two Koreas, refusing to support constructive diplomacy, sign a peace treaty or even declare a symbolic end to the nearly eight-decade Korean war. Instead, Washington’s policies, and the limits they place on South Korean sovereignty and inter-Korean relations, ensure the maintenance of a permanent state of tension in the Korean Peninsula, providing the US with perpetual justification for its unprecedented seventy-seven year military occupation and political subjugation of the South. The “North Korean threat” serves as a cover for Washington’s anti-China policy and its expanding military projection into Asia. In this context, Yoon’s victory is a component of a transnational hawkish pivot that threatens peace and stability in the Korean peninsula and all of Northeast Asia.