Where’s bipartisan diplomacy?
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Even without borrowing Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign slogan “It’s the economy, stupid,” livelihood issues dominate presidential elections. But the contest over economic issues in this presidential race in Korea has been relatively dull, with platforms from the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and opposition People Power Party (PPP) being more or less identical. During a TV debate among four candidates, they agreed to pursue pension reform and just repeated themselves about real estate policy, the Covid-19 response, and stimuli measures.
They may have intentionally tried not to be too progressive or conservative to appeal to one-the-fence voters with a reasonable approach. But on security and foreign policy, there were clear differences. One wonders if voters are really more apprehensive about national security and the future than business and livelihood matters.
The traditional wrangling over big versus small government or growth versus distribution, cooperative inter-Korean relations versus denuclearization or détente versus pressure in an approach to North Korea usually define the conservatives and liberals. Assertiveness on the security front can be more appealing than economic platforms to muster votes from their traditional bases. The liberal front had a field day attacking Yoon Suk-yeol, presidential candidate for the conservative PPP on his promise of additional deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system and a pre-emptive strike at clear signs of missile provocations from North Korea.
Whether the plan is reasonable or not is not important. The choice comes down to peace versus war. DP candidate Lee Jae-myung pledges to inherit the engagement approach and pursuit of a war-ending joint declaration of the liberal Moon Jae-in administration.
However, foreign and security issues of complicated factors should not be addressed as sensational election strategy and in black-and-white theory. How will they answer to the consequences of populist platforms promising peace and security?
Domestic policy can be alternated if the president yields. But changing foreign and security policies cannot be easy as they involve other parties. There is also a limit to the work accomplished over a five-year term. It is therefore important to seek bipartisan and cooperative platforms. A foreign policy without bipartisan and public support cannot appeal as reliable to the other party.
Consistency and sustainability are other important features. A policy with the risk of changing five years later cannot convince other governments. “Politics stops at the water’s edge” was the reasoning of the Republican Party in 1947 for abandoning the isolationist view of U.S. foreign policy in support of bipartisan front on foreign affairs.
South Korean governments repeated the error of mixing foreign affairs with domestic politics and the contest over ideology. Their approach to North Korea flip-flopped every time a ruling power changed. When the Moon administration overturned a governmental agreement with Tokyo on compensating survivors of sexual slavery at imperial military camps, it did not seek bipartisan support. The country was sharply divided over the Thaad installation and other measures related to Beijing. The consequence could have differed if each action had been based on a bipartisan agreement.
South Korea is not entirely foreign to bipartisan diplomacy. In 1989, conservative President Roh Tae-woo announced his plan for the basic framework of uniting the Korean people at the National Assembly. The idea from the president of a minority ruling party drew a standing ovation. Even the leftist front did not oppose. The proposal encompassed ideas from all around. The guideline remains intact as the basis for South Korea’s unification vision.
The country will be picking its new president in two weeks’ time. Will we ever see a president of the conservative front announcing a reconciliatory approach to North Korea or one from the progressive front declaring an assertive stance against China? Or will domestic politics continue to spill over the water’s edge?