Who can protect America’s national interests in Korea?
On March 9, South Koreans will elect their eighth president since the country was transformed into a democracy in 1987. Currently, Korean voters are sizing up two candidates: Lee Jae-myung from the progressive, ruling Democratic Party and Yoon Suk-yeol from the conservative People Power Party. Koreans appreciate that, although Lee served well as the former governor of Gyeonggi Province, Yoon, as the former prosecutor general, contributed to the fight against government corruption. Koreans trust that the next president — whoever that will be — must be the nation’s guardian against unjustified foreign aggression.
To what extent does each candidate’s foreign policy align with America’s national interests? Given that America and Korea have been strong allies, it is crucial that the two countries continue to form a united front against any future security threat in East Asia. In particular, they must work together to fend off the emerging challenges of China to maintain regional peace and stability. America, whose hegemonic power seems to have declined in recent decades, needs the help of South Korea, a country that has enjoyed prosperity largely because of the sacrifice of young U.S. men and women in uniform.
Which Korean presidential candidate, then, is better suited to America’s national interests?
Yoon Suk-yeol promotes foreign policy that is in sync with U.S. interests. He emphasizes that, since America is Korea’s close ally and China is only a neighboring country, Korea must satisfy America’s request to upgrade the U.S. THAAD anti-missile system deployed in South Korea in 2017. Although the THAAD purports to defend South Koreans against North Korean missile threats, it has provoked China’s objections on the grounds that it has hurt China’s security interests in the region.
Yoon dismisses Beijing’s concerns and supports Washington’s security plan. He prefers to create a close security alliance among America, Japan and Korea vis-à-vis China, even though the latter two countries do not get along. Yoon also supports the notion that North Korea must be punished until it corrects its rogue behavior, dismantles its nuclear weapons program, and improves its human rights record. Yoon proposes preemptive strikes against Pyongyang when Seoul faces an imminent threat of nuclear missile attacks.
Lee Jae-myung espouses foreign policy that takes a balanced position between America and China. He does not want to lose the country’s long-term best friend, America, but recognizes the rising influence of China on South Korea’s economy and defense (e.g., China has emerged as the top export and import partner for South Korea). He wants to avoid possible conflict with Beijing because Beijing previously retaliated against Seoul whenever it sided with Washington. He foresees another harsh reprisal from Beijing if he endorses the upgrade of the THAAD, if he forms a new security alliance with America and Japan against China, or if he ignores North Korea and helps America impose further political and economic sanctions on the North Korean dictatorship.
As of today, it may appear that Yoon should be America’s man, since his foreign policy agenda better suits the Biden administration, whose Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, tries to keep the rising Chinese power at bay. However, Yoon’s election as the next president might cause problems because of his lack of experience and knowledge of foreign affairs. Yoon appears to have been repeating what his foreign policy advisers tell him to say. His words seem to be memorized foreign policy points, but does he understand the intricacies of each issue? Lack of expertise may have made Yoon reluctant to debate Lee, or others, on foreign policy. When Yoon answers a journalist’s question without a script, his response is often off the mark and causes public uproar.
If Yoon succeeds in his presidential bid, he will get “on-the-job” training in foreign affairs. Such an approach would not compromise America’s national interests as long as there is no major crisis on the Korean peninsula. However, significant crises almost certainly will occur in the coming years.
When a crisis arises in East Asia, America needs an ally that is capable of promptly dealing with it on its own. Although Lee may not appear to be the better partner for America as of today, he could be a better problem-solver, given the negotiation skills and the knowledge that he acquired as governor of Gyeonggi Province. To resolve political crises swiftly, Lee would rely on the principles of democratic politics: cooperation, collaboration and compromise.
In contrast, Yoon, who was an elite prosecutor until March 2021, learned to see things in black or white. His lack of democratic political experience could make him less likely to be an astute president. Since Yoon possesses amateur leadership and has demonstrated all-or-nothing thinking, his foreign policy probably would be confrontational and bring about negative consequences in the event of an unforeseen contingency on the Korean peninsula. Lee has been an experienced democratic leader and would be a safer bet for America’s national interests.
Seung-Whan Choi teaches international relations and Korean politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. A retired Army officer, he is the author of several books, including “Emerging Security Challenges: American Jihad, Terrorism, Civil War, and Human Rights” (Santa Barbara: Praeger).