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South Korea’s presidential election won’t change its foreign policy

South Korea in March will hold a presidential election that some analysts hope will bring more clarity, and perhaps even change, to Seoul’s foreign policy posture, especially with regards to its position toward the growing U.S.-China rivalry. This will not happen.

Regardless of whether liberal Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) or conservative Yoon Suk-yeol of the People Power Party (PPP) wins the election, the broad strokes of South Korea’s foreign policy will not change. No matter who wins, Seoul will continue its commitment to the U.S. alliance, its cooperation with U.S.-led multilateralism, and cooperative relations with China — but also wariness toward the increasing aggressiveness of its neighbor.

This has been the policy of the Moon Jae-in government for at least two years, after it abandoned its purported balancing role between the U.S. and China. The joint statement by Presidents Biden and Moon after their June 2021 summit was fairly hawkish and, in fact, was praised by mainstream South Korean conservative thinkers.

Why will the next South Korean president side with the U.S. and keep a cautious distance from China? Above all, South Korea has problems of its own with its neighbor. The People’s Liberation Army routinely conducts naval exercises in the Yellow Sea that 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 toward China is noticeably negative, with over 75 percent of South Koreans holding a negative view of China. Even among supporters of the DPK, who are traditionally less anti-China, favorability towards Beijing was only slightly higher than that shown by supporters of the PPP. While Lee has suggested that he may implement a policy of strategic ambiguity between the U.S. and China, without some calibration he undoubtedly will rack up public disapproval given the increasing anti-China sentiment among the Korean public. 

Both candidates have iterated the importance of the Republic of Korea’s alliance with the United States. Yoon’s message has been clear: The alliance is more important than ever, not only for South Korea’s national security but also to address a diverse set of issues, including supply chains and global health. But Lee also has commented on his desire to develop the alliance into a global partnership.

In fact, Moon’s efforts towards the latter half of his presidency have raised the prospects for upgrading the alliance. Specifically, South Korea’s participation in the G7 summit last June, the Summit for Democracy, Quad Plus initiatives, and U.S.-led tech alliances, including on semiconductors, provides fertile ground to deepen the alliance and broaden South Korea’s own footprint on the international stage. No matter who replaces Moon as the next South Korean president, he is likely to build on the path that Moon set.

South Korea has shared values with the U.S. and other democracies. Simply put, it is unthinkable that any South Korean president would ditch the U.S. for China — or even treat both of them as similarly important for South Korea. Values influence foreign policy, and South Korea is no exception in that regard.

In addition, the main foreign policy advisers of the two leading presidential candidates hold mainstream views about South Korea’s foreign policy and its place in the world. As it concerns the U.S. alliance, neither is particularly liberal or conservative. Importantly, both have a strong public record of supporting the U.S. alliance. 

For example, Wi Sung-lac, foreign policy adviser to Lee Jae-myung, is optimistic about the trajectory of the alliance, arguing that, while there are no major problems in the ROK-U.S. relationship, the full potential has yet to be reached and it will be up to the next administration to unlock it. Wi’s pragmatism was also evident in his desire to develop U.S.-ROK-Japan trilateralism to address the North Korean nuclear issue, as well as his suggestion that Lee sees potential opportunities for cooperation with the Quad.

Similarly, Kim Sung-han, foreign policy adviser to Yoon Suk-yeol, envisions a broadening of the alliance, stating that bilateral relations should go beyond a military alliance to include non-traditional issues. Kim has emphasized that Yoon would strengthen bilateral consultation mechanisms for closer cooperation on extended deterrence, while promoting predictability over strategic ambiguity.

And they have the ear of the respective candidate they serve, since neither Lee, former governor of Gyeonggi Province, nor Yoon, former prosecutor general, has much foreign policy experience.

Some may believe that Lee will weaken the U.S. alliance to improve relations with China, in the hope that this will support inter-Korean reconciliation. This is simplistic and ignores the fact that liberal administrations traditionally have increased military spending even while supporting dialogue with North Korea.

Similarly, some may believe that Yoon will overhaul Moon’s foreign policy. And indeed, he may become more vocal about China’s human rights abuses, perhaps even formally join the Quad, or shun dialogue with North Korea. But he is not going to risk a return to the THAAD dispute or the 2010 military clashes with Pyongyang. 

Thus, on March 10, U.S. policymakers and analysts will wake to the face of a soon-to-be new South Korean president — but also to a familiar 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 the 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.  

Saeme Kim (@SaemeK) is a KF Indo-Pacific Programme Visiting Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Her research interests include the international relations of East Asia, particularly concerning regionalism, North Korea and middle power 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.

Tags China Lee Jae-myung South Korea Yoon Suk-yeol

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