A “political novice” will soon be in charge of South Korean foreign policy, with what result?

South Korea’s March 9 presidential race between progressive ruling Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung and conservative opposition People’s Power Party candidate Yoon Suk-yeol understandably revolved around domestic scandals and prescriptions contrasts to manage pressing economic problems. However, foreign policy made an appearance during the February 25 presidential debate.

The debate illustrated a familiar contrast in the default foreign policy positions of candidates and their parties, but it also brought to the fore the reality that, regardless of the electoral outcome, a country’s foreign policy in the vortex of great power rivalry in Northeast Asia and as one of the world’s top ten economies will be in the hands of a president with no prior foreign policy experience.

Ironically, the lightning rod foreign policy issue facing the candidates in the debate was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Candidate Lee Jae-myung tried to use the invasion to brand Yoon as too aggressive by emphasizing defense first on the need for additional missile defense systems and preemptive strike capabilities in response to the development North Korea’s nuclear. But in doing so, Lee called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “political novice” who must have enticed Russia to invade his country by courting NATO.

Yoon immediately jumped on Lee’s comment to emphasize the need for deterrence and defense rather than pursuing paper peace deals against potential aggressors such as North Korea. After the debate, Lee’s gross misinterpretation of the Ukrainian situation reverberated, forcing Lee to apologize for his inability to express himself more clearly.

Yoon, on the other hand, found himself on the defensive during the debate over his support for stronger trilateral relations with Japan and the United States, including the possible development of an integrated missile defense system between the three countries to counter North Korea’s missile threats. and China. Minor Justice Party candidate Sim Sang-jung attempted to portray Yoon’s stance as permissive toward the Japanese military’s potential involvement in emergency operations on the Korean peninsula in the event of a crisis.

Japan’s military role vis-à-vis the Korean peninsula has been a hot national issue in South Korea for decades due to Japan’s colonization of the peninsula before World War II. Yoon declined to be dragged into the hypothesis, but also expressed his view that South Korea should not make promises to China that limit prospects for future trilateral security cooperation, such as those made by the Moon Jae-in administration in place ahead of Moon’s first visit to China in 2017.

The debate revealed well-known contrasts in the postures and platforms of South Korea’s leading presidential candidates. Ruling party candidate Lee has signaled that his administration will pursue a pragmatic and self-sustaining foreign policy that will pursue progressive reconciliation efforts with North Korea based on a strong alliance with the United States. Lee would persist in his efforts to avoid making choices between South Korea’s biggest trading partner, China, and its security ally, the United States.

South Korea’s current two-pronged policy toward Japan of being open to forward-looking cooperation while insisting that Japan address historical grievances would remain despite the deep unease surrounding Japan-China relations. South Korea. Lee’s campaign team continues to face internal tensions between North Korean idealists and pro-alliance pragmatists.

Yoon’s campaign platform and team draw on the experiences of former South Korean conservative administrations. The Yoon administration would pursue a strong, values-based alignment with the United States and strengthen the deterrence toward North Korea to maintain peace through force. Yoon emphasized reconciliation with Japan and deeper alignment both trilateral with Japan and the US and multilateral with the US-led Quad, while insisting on pursuing better relations with China.

Yoon will likely face an even tougher challenge in North Korea as well as a bumpy road in pursuit of better relations with Japan and China. But given Yoon’s inexperience as a former prosecutor and as a newcomer to Korean politics, the biggest constraints on Yoon’s leadership could be internal, given that the Democratic Party-controlled National Assembly will carefully examine the policies and personnel of the Yoon administration in an effort to weaken Yoon’s position. Power.

Despite their starkly contrasting postures and platforms, the broad outlines of South Korean foreign policy will remain subject to structural constraints imposed by North Korea’s continued hostility, Sino-US rivalry, the Biden administration’s efforts to revitalize the US-Korean alliance and a broad consensus among the South Korean public on the importance of close relations with the United States, growing concerns about China’s influence and intentions, and pride in China’s international contributions South Korea.

Regardless of who wins the election, South Korea’s next president, as a political novice in foreign policy, will face a steep learning curve and high expectations commensurate with expanded capabilities and contributions. from South Korea.

Scott A. Snyder is the author of South Korea at a Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in the Age of Rival Powers.

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