(Adds timing of meeting with Chinese ambassador)
By Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith
SEOUL, Nov. 10 (Reuters) – A senior US diplomat will meet newly selected presidential candidates in South Korea this week ahead of next year’s elections that will shape the future of relations between the two allies.
US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink is set to arrive in Seoul on Wednesday, with plans to hold separate talks with ruling Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung and Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party.
While domestic issues like house prices are expected to dominate the March 9 election, analysts say the outcome will also determine South Korea’s balancing act between China and the United States, and how South Korea coordinates with its US ally on North. -Korea.
“With the partisan divisions over the issue of US-China relations, the upcoming elections will determine how South Korea remains balanced between the US and China over the next five years,” Washington-based think tank Stimson Center said in a statement. recent report.
US President Joe Biden’s administration is focused on building Asian alliances to counter what it has termed potential “coercion and aggression” by China.
That is a challenge for South Korea, which is not eager to provoke China, its largest economic partner.
South Korea paid a heavy economic price when China retaliated for the deployment of a US missile defense system in South Korea in 2017. South Korea’s deep reliance on China was further highlighted this week by a critical shortage of urea -11-05, an additive used in diesel vehicles to reduce emissions, after China tightened exports.
Democratic Party candidate Lee has argued that there is no need for South Korea to limit itself by choosing between China and the United States as they become increasingly competitive.
“I wish our country would go down a path where we are not unilaterally influenced, abandoned or excluded by either side, and I am confident I can do that,” he told reporters on Wednesday.
“If you ask me to choose between the United States and China, I would say there are not just two options that we can choose,” he said.
In a display of his balancing policy, Lee’s campaign said he had scheduled talks with the Chinese ambassador just after his meeting with Kritenbrink on Thursday. Yoon’s campaign said it has not yet scheduled a meeting with Chinese officials.
The United States is South Korea’s largest and oldest ally, stationing approximately 28,500 troops in South Korea as part of its efforts to deter North Korea since the 1950-1953 Korean War.
NORTH KOOREAN TIRES
About the US missiles that infuriated China, Lee said it was difficult to see them as wholly in South Korea’s best interests, but since they were already deployed, he would work to resolve any issues with them.
Conservative Yoon has indicated that he would take a more openly pro-US stance, calling on Seoul to be less ambiguous in Washington-Beijing relations.
Conservatives have indicated they could be open to officially joining the Quad, a diplomatic group that includes the United States, Japan, Australia and India.
Over the summer, Yoon became embroiled in an unusual public debate with the Chinese ambassador over comments about the US missile defense system.
The dispute, which played out in dueling newspaper articles, sparked a warning from South Korea’s foreign ministry, which told the Chinese ambassador to “use discretion” when commenting on the country’s politicians, media reported at the time. .
As for North Korea, neither candidate is taking a position that would mean a drastic shift in the status quo, with both saying they would be willing to meet and strive to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. to improve relations.
Lee has said he wants to approach North Korea from a “practical” point of view, using language consistent with the Biden administration.
But Yoon may be closer to the US stance in demanding that any economic cooperation between the two Koreas depend on the North’s progress toward denuclearization. (Reporting by Josh Smith, editing by Robert Birsel)