South Korea's People Power Party candidate and former prosecutor Yoon Seok-youl has won the Blue House in the closest presidential race in South Korea's history.
A major foreign policy challenge that awaits Yoon will be to navigate relations with a more assertive yet economically critical China, all while the U.S. increases its pressure against South Korea to support its Indo-Pacific strategy that emphasizes containing rather than cooperating with China.
To maintain regional stability and good relations with both the US and China, Yoon will have to be clear about how far South Korea is willing to go on matters like defending Taiwan in case of a crisis in the Taiwan Strait.
Some in Washington will argue that South Korea should join a coalition against China despite the fact that South Koreans are far from sold on such a containment strategy. According to the 2021 survey by Korea Institute for National Unification, support for a balanced/neutral stance on U.S.-China rivalry outweighed support for strengthening the alliance or strengthening cooperation with China every year from 2016 to October 2021.
Similarly, a survey conducted by the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University from 2018 to 2021 showed stronger preference for maintaining relations with both US and China, compared to strengthening US-ROK alliance or strengthening cooperation with China. So while passions may have run high during the campaign, it would be prudent for the Yoon administration to take a more moderate stance on the “strategic dilemma” presented by the deteriorating U.S.-China relationship.
A related challenge for the new South Korean president is North Korea. During the campaign, candidate Yoon expressed support for deploying additional anti-ballistic missile defense systems while strengthening deterrence against North Korea. Yet a deterrence-only strategy without meaningful reassurances has failed to stop North Korea’s nuclear armament and increased North Korea’s desire for nuclear weapons as a security guarantee.
A recent peace game exercise conducted by the Quincy Institute, U.S. Institute of Peace, and the Sejong Institute of South Korea found that a new analytical approach to the North Korea issue that puts equal emphasis on peacebuilding and denuclearization is needed to break the deadlock in talks between the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, and other stakeholders in the region. Successful diplomacy and peacebuilding with North Korea will require a shift in the minds of conservatives in South Korea and the United States who tend to view North Korea as a permanent menace rather than as a rational actor.
From surging Covid-19 cases to the real estate bubble to mending ties with young women voters, President-elect Yoon has a full plate awaiting him. Embarking on a balanced strategy toward the United States, China, and North Korea will ensure that the Yoon administration has the flexibility to enact his campaign pledges. It will also allow him to avoid unnecessary and costly conflicts at a time of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula.