South Korea will hold a presidential election in March, which some analysts hope will bring more clarity and perhaps even change Seoul’s foreign policy stance, especially in terms of its position on the growing US-Chinese rivalry. This will not happen.
Whether it is liberal Lee Jae-myung from the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) or conservative Yoon Suk-yeol from People Power Party (PPP) wins the election, the broad outlines of South Korea’s foreign policy will not change. Regardless of who wins, Seoul will continue its commitment to the US alliance, its cooperation with US-led multilateralism and cooperation relations with China – but also on guard against the neighbor’s increasing aggressiveness.
This has been the policy of the Moon Jae-in government for at least two years after it abandoned its alleged balancing role between the United States and China. That joint declaration of Presidents Biden and Moon after their June 2021 summit was rather haughty and was actually praised by mainstream South Korean conservative thinkers.
Why will the next South Korean president side with the United States and keep a cautious distance from China? Above all, South Korea has its own problems with its neighbor. The People’s Liberation Army routinely conducts naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, which the Korean military sees as threatening; Chinese jets enter South Korea’s ADIZ several times a month; Chinese fishing vessels regularly enter South Korean waters; and China’s threats to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea pose a risk to South Korean exports to Europe and oil and gas imports from the Middle East.
Public opinion towards China is noticeably negative, with over 75 pct of South Koreans who have a negative view of China. Even among supporters of the DPK, which is traditionally less anti-China, the favoritism towards Beijing was only slightly higher than that shown by supporters of the PPP. While Lee has suggested that he can implement a policy of strategic ambiguity between the United States and China, without any kind of calibration, he will undoubtedly get public disapproval due to the rising anti-China sentiment among the Korean public.
Both candidates have reiterated the importance of the Republic of Korea’s alliance with the United States. Yoons message has been clear: The Alliance is more important than ever, not only for South Korea’s national security, but also for solving a variety of problems, including supply chains and global health. But so does Lee commented on his desire to develop the alliance into a global partnership.
In fact, Moon’s efforts toward the latter half of his presidency have increased the prospects for upgrading the alliance. More specifically, South Korea’s participation in The G7 summit June last year Summit for Democracy, Quad Plus initiatives and US-led technology alliances, including on semiconductors, provide fertile ground for deepening the alliance and expanding South Korea’s own footprint on the international stage. No matter who replaces Moon as the next South Korean president, he will likely build on the path that Moon laid.
South Korea has shared values with the United States and other democracies. In short, it is inconceivable that any South Korean president would drop the United States for China – or even treat them both as equally important to South Korea. Values influence foreign policy, and South Korea is no exception.
In addition, the key foreign policy advisers to the two leading presidential candidates have mainstream views on South Korea’s foreign policy and its place in the world. As far as the American alliance is concerned, none of them is particularly liberal or conservative. It is important that both have a strong public record in supporting the American alliance.
For example, Wi Sung-lac, foreign policy adviser to Lee Jae-myung, is optimistic about the Alliance’s path, argues for it, while there are no major problems in the relationship between ROK and the US, the full potential has not yet been reached and it will be up to the next administration to unlock it. Wi’s pragmatism was also evident in his desire to develop US-ROK-Japan trilateralism to address the North Korean nuclear issue, as well as his suggestion that Lee see potential opportunities for cooperation with Quad.
Similarly, Kim Sung-han, Foreign Policy Adviser to Yoon Suk-yeol, imagines an extension of the alliance, which states that bilateral relations should go beyond a military alliance to include non-traditional issues. Kim has stressed that Yoon will strengthen bilateral consultation mechanisms for closer co-operation on extended deterrence, while promoting predictability in relation to strategic ambiguity.
And they have the ear of the respective candidate they serve, as neither Lee, former governor of Gyeonggi province, nor Yoon, former prosecutor general, have much foreign policy experience.
Some might think that Lee will weaken the American alliance to improve relations with China, in the hope that this will support inter-Korean reconciliation. This is simplified and ignores the fact that liberal administrations have traditionally increased military spending, even while supporting the dialogue with North Korea.
Similarly, some may think that Yoon will revise Moon’s foreign policy. And in fact, he can become more vocal about China’s human rights violations, may even formally join the Quad, or avoid dialogue with North Korea. But he will not risk returning to THAAD dispute or the military clashes in 2010 with Pyongyang.
Thus, on March 10, US policy makers and analysts will wake up to the face of a soon-to-be new South Korean president – but also to a well-known South Korean foreign policy that they should welcome.
Ramon Pacheco Pardo (@rpachecopardo) is Head of Department and Professor of International Relations, Department of European & International Studies, King’s College, London, and Regional Envoy for East and Southeast Asia at King’s College. He is also KF-VUB Korea Chair, Brussels School of Governance, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, and an adjunct nonresident fellow, Korea Chair, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Same Kim (@SaemeK) is a KF Indo-Pacific Program Visiting Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Her research interests include international relations in East Asia, particularly regarding regionalism, North Korea, and middle-class diplomacy. Prior to joining RUSI, Saeme was a resident fellow at Pacific Forum International and a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) in South Korea.