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After elections, South Korea could become more hawkish, combative

Regardless of the outcome of the presidential contest, Biden will not have the luxury of leaving Korean issues on the back burner, any longer.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

The South Korean presidential election next month will have significant implications for both U.S. and South Korean foreign policies.

Depending on which candidate wins next month, South Korean foreign policy could become considerably more hawkish and combative toward both North Korea and China. If conservative opposition candidate Yoon Suk-yeol prevails, a renewed emphasis on North Korea’s denuclearization and a rejection of the engagement policy of the Moon administration threaten to undo all the gains of the last several years and put the U.S. and South Korea back on the path to heightened tensions and a new crisis on the peninsula. If the Democratic Party’s Lee Jae-myung wins, there is likely to be much more continuity in South Korean policy, but that could also mean increased friction with a Biden administration that seems to have little interest in resolving outstanding disputes with the North. No matter who wins, the U.S. will need to manage its relationship with Seoul more carefully and attentively than it has done in recent years. 

The U.S. has mostly neglected the Korean Peninsula during Biden’s first year in office, and Biden has shown no interest thus far in assisting Moon’s efforts to engage North Korea in dialogue. Biden and Moon did have a somewhat productive summit meeting in Washington last year, but the U.S. has not moved to embrace Moon’s engagement policy and South Korea remains reluctant to align itself with the openly anti-Chinese “Quad.” A change in party control in Seoul might bring South Korea closer to the Biden administration’s position on China, but South Korea’s interest in maintaining good relations with Beijing will necessarily limit the extent of their support for a U.S.-led coalition against their neighbor. Continued Democratic Party control would likely mean that South Korea pursues a more independent line in which it refuses to take sides in a contest between the U.S. and China, which Lee calls “national interest-centered pragmatic diplomacy.”

Yoon has detailed his differences with the Moon administration and his opponent in a new article in Foreign Affairs, in which he criticized the outgoing president’s tenure for alleged drift and weakness and called for a more hardline foreign policy approach. The former prosecutor made his case against Moon’s diplomacy by accusing it of being too focused on North Korea to the exclusion of other concerns, and he charged that “dialogue with the North has become an end in itself.” This is a familiar hawkish line of attack against proponents of engagement the world over, but the criticism isn’t very persuasive. Instead of Moon’s approach, Yoon insists that dialogue with Pyongyang should be focused simply on the “denuclearization of North Korea,” a Trumpian formula that neither North Korea nor South Korea has accepted in the past. This pinched diplomatic approach seems unlikely to succeed for the same reasons that the Trump administration failed: it insists on major disarmament concessions from North Korea without addressing North Korean security concerns. Limiting diplomatic engagement to pursuing the unrealistic goal of denuclearization is a good way to ensure that diplomacy leads nowhere.

The presence of a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea remains a matter of controversy after the original deployment led to massive Chinese economic retaliation against South Korea that inflicted considerable damage on their economy. Lee remains opposed to the original deployment, and he has said that it “is completely out of line with our national interest.” He accepts that South Korea may have to live with the existing deployment for the time being, but he would obviously prefer if it were no longer there. 

In keeping with his willingness to take a more combative approach with China, Yoon not only favors the existing deployment, but has also called for additional units to be placed around Seoul. Lee upbraided him for this position during the presidential debate: “Why are you trying to bring on backlash from China and ruin the economy?” Yoon repeated his support for additional deployments in this week’s article. More THAAD deployments would represent a sharp break with current South Korean policy and would almost certainly provoke another backlash from China, but Yoon maintains that South Korea “must always maintain the principled position that it will not compromise on its core security interests.” Yoon makes a habit of describing his more hardline position as the principled one, but it might just as easily be called irresponsible or reckless. 

That is exactly how Lee characterized Yoon’s rhetoric about launching preemptive strikes to thwart North Korean missile launches last month. Lee accused Yoon of playing politics with national security. While Yoon has been staking out much more aggressive positions on North Korea to emphasize his differences with the current administration, Lee has campaigned as the more sober and responsible statesman. 

President Moon Jae-in is still interested in making diplomatic progress with North Korea in the final months of his term, but he admitted in an interview this week that the approaching election will make it impractical to hold another summit with Kim Jong-un before he leaves office. One of his goals in the last year of his presidency was to secure an end-of-war declaration to serve as a foundation for further negotiations, but that seems unlikely to happen in the few months that remain. Lee Jae-myung has strongly endorsed an end-of-war declaration, saying, “This state of war has to be ended quickly on whatever basis.” Yoon has predictably opposed any such declaration if it is not paired with denuclearization, and since that condition is practically impossible to meet in the foreseeable future we can safely assume that he would have no interest in pursuing a declaration if he were elected. For its part, the Biden administration has been unwilling to make specific commitments on this issue.

A Lee victory might strain relations between the U.S. and South Korea in the short term. Lee sees his country as a significant, independent player in its own right. His emphasis on the South Korean national interest shows that he doesn’t want his country to be a pawn in the plans of other states. Washington continues to see the alliance simply as one where the U.S. sets the agenda and South Korea falls in line. Our government tends to view independent-minded allies as problems rather than recognizing the opportunity that a more confident ally represents. If the Biden administration can break that habit, it may find Lee to be a more useful partner. 

A Yoon victory would likely be easier for Washington to handle because it won’t challenge any U.S. assumptions about how the alliance works. Yoon would be more inclined to go along with what the U.S. wants on some major issues, but the policies Yoon is proposing are likely to be harmful to South Korean interests and create more tensions on the peninsula when the U.S. can least afford a new crisis. 

Regardless of the outcome, the Biden administration will not have the luxury of leaving Korean issues on the back burner. The U.S. will need to engage with the next administration early on and it should pay more attention to shoring up relations with an ally that our government has been taking for granted.

Yoon Suk-yeol, the presidential election candidate of South Korea's main opposition People Power Party (PPP), speaks during a news conference at the party's headquarters in Seoul, South Korea January 24, 2022. Ahn Young-joon/ Pool via REUTERS
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