Supporters await the arrival of presidential candidate Yoon Seok-youl from the main opposition People Power Party during a presidential election campaign on February 15, 2022 in Seoul, South Korea.
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A conservative victory for South Korea’s upcoming presidential election could cause the country to take a rigid stance on North Korea and China, which could potentially ignite new tensions in the Asia-Pacific.
Yoon Seok-youl of the Conservative People Power Party and Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) are frontrunners in the March 9 vote. A series of polls conducted by Gallup Korea, a research firm, show Yoon and Lee running neck and neck, indicating a close race ahead. In a survey of 1,000 adults on February 25, Lee’s public approval rating was 38% compared to Yoon’s 37%. Another poll in early February showed that the two were equal at 35%.
Economic issues, especially housing conditions, are at the forefront of this choice. But given North Korea’s ongoing missile activity and anti-China sentiment in this country, foreign policy issues are also expected to weigh on the sentiment of the public. With each candidate having divergent views on relations with North Korea, China and the United States, much is at stake for South Korea’s geopolitical fate.
Kim Jong Un’s government has stepped up missile tests as diplomatic talks with The United States and its allies remain stationary. This is not a new development, but on the basis of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it contributes to growing fears of regional unrest. Most recently, on February 27, Pyongyang fired what was likely a medium-range ballistic missile, according to officials in South Korea and Japan.
In line with its conservative predecessors, Yoon demands that North Korea first become afatomare before the two Koreans agree on peace pacts and economic aid. In late November, he told South Korean newspaper Kookmin Ilbo that he would consider canceling the 2018 Comprehensive Military Agreement, a diplomatic milestone during President Moon Jae-in’s reign, if North Korea does not change its position.
South Korean presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung from the ruling Democratic Party watches before the televised presidential debate for the upcoming presidential election on March 9 in the KBS studio on March 2, 2022 in Seoul.
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In contrast, the DP supports Lee Moon’s approach to diplomatic engagement and economic cooperation with North Korea as a means of initiating nuclear disarmament. He also supports a relaxation of existing sanctions if North Korea complies. Unlike Yoon, Lee is also open to declaring an end to the Korean War to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.
But despite sharing similar perspectives, analysts said, Lee is unlikely to copy Moon’s policies. “While Moon has personally been heavily invested in developing an inter-Korean summit and seeking to build sustainable, cooperative relations with North Korea, Lee is more likely to uphold the principle of peaceful coexistence, while refraining from spending too much political capital on try to achieve that, especially if Pyongyang is uncooperative, “Jenny Town, a senior fellow at the independent think tank Stimson Center, told CNBC. Town is also the director of the center’s North Korea-focused research division, 38 North.
Further complicating matters is Yoon’s emphasis on resuming joint military exercises with the United States. These have been scaled down since 2018, “because of North Korea’s perception of these maneuvers in preparation for war,” Fei Xue, an Asia analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, told CNBC. Thus, a revival is likely to anger Kim Jong Un. Yoon’s stance is “harsh enough to force North Korea to abandon diplomacy altogether, as was the case during Lee and Park’s tenure,” wrote Khang X. Vu, a doctoral student and East Asian political specialist at Boston College, in a note published. of the Lowy Institute.
A wave of anti-Chinese insurgency has swept across South Korean media in recent weeks controversy surrounding the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Combined with broader concerns about Beijing’s aggressive stance towards its neighbors in the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific, the Asian giant has become a central talking point in this election. South Korea’s attitude toward China is also closely linked to its relationship with the United States, given Beijing’s historic rivalry between Beijing and Washington, which means that Seoul is often in a position to prioritize one of the two superpowers.
“Lee is expected to stick to a relationship of strategic ambiguity with China, which wants to balance security and economic relations,” Town said. Like Moon, Lee understands that he needs Chinese support on both the North Korea issue and on the economic front. “Lee Jae-myung is more concerned about China’s economic influence on South Korea and will therefore take a more neutral stance,” Xue reiterated. “But the growing tensions between the United States and China will make this approach increasingly difficult to sustain,” Xue added.
Yoon Seok-Youl delivers his speech after winning the People Power Party’s final race to select his presidential candidate for South Korea’s election in 2022 on November 5, 2021 in Seoul.
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Yoon, meanwhile, is seeking stronger security cooperation with the United States, specifically calling for additional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense broadcasts, which will certainly trigger economic punishment from China. The installation of the US anti-missile system in South Korea led to a years-long standoff between Beijing and Seoul from 2016 to 2017, when South Korea’s tourism, cosmetics and entertainment industries were hit by Chinese setbacks. Yoon also wants to apply for membership of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue as well as participate in the Five Eyes Intelligence Sharing Program “despite possible China’s opposition to such measures,” Xue said. However, Yoon’s willingness to openly side with the United States will be questioned, “if or when China begins to put pressure on Seoul,” Town said.
Relations with Tokyo have worsened under the current Moon Jae-in administration due to trade problems and unresolved issues of Japan’s colonial rule over Korea from 1910 to 1945. The latter include issues such as Japan’s purchases of South Korean women for military brothels. Kang Chang-il, South Korea’s ambassador to Japan, said in January that bilateral relations were at their “worst” level since 1965.
It is expected to get better under a conservative regime. In a televised debate last month, Yoon said Seoul’s relations with Washington and Tokyo were deteriorating due to “submissive diplomacy that is pro-China and pro-North Korea,” adding that he would change that dynamic. Yoon is widely expected to override historic disputes with Japan to resolve bilateral trade disputes and forge closer security cooperation, several experts tell CNBC.
While Lee agrees with the importance of South Korea and Japan in improving bilateral relations and is open to negotiations, he insists that Japan make an effort to resolve historical disputes properly.
While each candidate offers fundamentally different views on inter-Korean relations and US-China rivalry, several analysts said the dynamics of Asia-Pacific security and policy do not allow for major shifts in foreign policy.
“An increase in regional tensions caused by China’s assertion, US efforts to contain China or North Korea’s long-range missile and nuclear test explosions, will shrink the number of policy options that the next South Korean president may pursue,” Vu wrote in his statement. Note. “Unfortunately, such a deterioration in regional dynamics is increasingly likely.”
The Stimson Center’s Town said: “Even in trying to cultivate deeper relations with other middle powers that South Korea is currently trying to do to create a buffer for itself in the midst of rising US-Chinese rivalry, this is a long-term process.” She added: “Except for the medium to long term, South Korea will continue to face a strategic dilemma while working to navigate US-China competition while strengthening its own defenses against significant improvements in North Korea’s weapons capability.”