Author: Peter K Lee, Center for United States Studies
South Korea has at times seemed like a lonely reed refusing to sway with the geopolitical winds blowing across Northeast Asia. While the United States and its allies and partners have slowly stepped up cooperation in response to coercion from China, South Korea under President Moon Jae-in has been more circumspect about its alignment preferences.
Moon’s campaign promise to create “a friendly, peaceful and cooperative environment in Northeast Asia” may not have materialized, but he has charted his own course through five years of nuclear crises, summits, trade wars, diplomatic disputes and growing regional tensions.
For his supporters, Moon saved the Korean peninsula from nuclear war in 2017 and achieved detente with North Korea through visionary summits. He preserved the alliance with the United States during the Trump era, repaired relations with China after the THAAD crisis, stood up to Japan, elevated the position of Southeast Asia and brought South Korea closer together. of the dream of self-defence.
For his critics, Moon’s engagement with North Korea made no progress on denuclearization while being hijacked by an end-of-war declaration. For his efforts to resume aid and joint projects, he was rewarded with the destruction of the Inter-Korean Liaison Office. His “balanced diplomacy” between the United States and China was excessively respectful of both, rather than principled and firm.
Time will tell which of these accounts was more accurate. As in other countries, the upcoming presidential election on March 9 will be largely decided on national issues – including the response to COVID-19, the recovery of small businesses, housing affordability, income inequality, social polarization, gender conflicts, as well as the usual personal and family problems. scandals in South Korean politics.
But the foreign policy stakes in the election are higher than they have been in more than a decade. There are four leading candidates in this year’s race – Lee Jae-myung, a progressive former mayor and provincial governor, Yoon Seok-youl, a conservative former attorney general, Ahn Cheol-soo, a centrist tech entrepreneur, and Sim Sang-jung, leader of the Minor Progressive Justice Party.
The candidates laid out mostly predictable foreign policy commitments, including which capital they would visit first if elected, whether to pursue Moon’s inter-Korean policy, the role of nuclear deterrence and energy nuclear, and how to reform the army.
While the progressive Lee has carefully distanced himself from many of Moon’s domestic policies, he has vowed to stay the course on foreign and defense policy. Meanwhile, Yoon has promised a globalist foreign policy that is more reminiscent of the conservative Lee Myung-bak era (2008-2013) than the Park Geun-hye administration (2013-2017).
While polls put Lee and Yoon in a close race, centrist Ahn has also polled between 8% and 17%, which could make him kingmaker or spoiler. Although he is unlikely to win, his eclectic base reflects the dissatisfaction many continue to have over the two favourites. The last-minute merger between Ahn and Yoon on March 3 in favor of Yoon will make the final days of the election a suspenseful one.
But the biggest challenge facing whoever wins the Blue House on March 9 will be reconciling the North Korean issue with the region’s geopolitical shift towards China. South Korean leaders left and right have long asserted that denuclearizing North Korea is the top priority for the region and world peace.
Yet North Korea is increasingly secondary to the United States. The latest US Indo-Pacific Strategy Report devoted two full paragraphs to China, followed by a list of “other major challenges” like the effects of climate change on South Asia and the Pacific Islands, as well as than the pandemic, and only then North Korea.
This reversed the logic of the South Korea-US alliance. The United States is increasingly debating how the alliance and its 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea fit into a China-centric regional force posture. The United States is actively trying to reinvigorate its long-standing efforts for closer trilateral cooperation between South Korea, the United States, and Japan, but also to expand it beyond an exclusive focus. on North Korea.
Recent trilateral talks and joint statements between the defense and foreign ministers of the three countries have explicitly referred to “preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”. This builds on last year’s Moon-Biden summit, where the joint statement was swiftly condemned by China after being the first to mention Taiwan.
But how far is Seoul prepared to redirect the alliance and its own capabilities beyond the peninsula at the risk of upsetting China? One of the “three noes” that Seoul promised Beijing to resolve the THAAD crisis was not to form a trilateral alliance with the United States and Japan. The subsequent collapse of South Korean attitudes towards China – which is now viewed more unfavorably than Japan – suggests that a tougher stance against Beijing would enjoy broad domestic support.
South Korea’s next president will face a difficult conundrum between North Korea and China. Their choices will inform South Korea’s stance on the Indo-Pacific, wartime operational control, trilateral cooperation with Japan, participation in groupings like the Quad, and prospects for deeper cooperation with partners like Australia.
Forget the winds, the monsoon may be coming. Gone are the days when Seoul could mainly pursue its relations with the major powers through the prism of the 38th parallel, which divides the peninsula.
Peter K Lee is a Research Fellow in the Foreign and Defense Policy Program at the Center for United States Studies at the University of Sydney.