On foreign affairs, presidential candidates are far apart
“The situation in Ukraine shows us that national security and peace cannot be maintained with agreements on paper,” said Yoon Suk-yeol, candidate for the opposition People Power Party, during a recent televised debate on Feb. 25. “War can be prevented only by securing a pre-emptive strike capacity. The Democratic Party emphasizes signing an agreement to formally end the Korean War, but that is no way to guarantee peace and security of our country.”
Rival Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party called Yoon a warmonger and said Korea has enough military and economic power to take on the North Korea issue with diplomacy and dialogue instead of a show of force.
“The conflict in Ukraine is a result of failed diplomacy,” Lee said. “Korea has always been at the center of geopolitical rivalry. What this country needs is a seasoned and experienced leader.”
Foreign affairs have hardly driven the campaign, which has been dominated by personal mudslinging and idiosyncratic scandals over the candidates' wives and family histories. But at campaign's end, it has become more important, and differences between the two main candidates — who were neck-in-neck in the last polls allowed before the election — have emerged.
Lee has been a politician for more than a decade, having served as two-term Seongnam mayor and Gyeonggi governor. Yoon is a former prosecutor general who gained conservative support after high-profile public battles with the liberal Moon Jae-in administration.
The two have very different, sometimes opposite, ideas about how to steer Korea in the next five years through its tumultuous regional geopolitics, including the deadlocked dialogue with North Korea on denuclearization, growing U.S.-China rivalry and tattered ties with Japan over historical, territorial and trade disputes.
Here’s a look at Lee and Yoon’s foreign policy views.
On North Korea, dialogue and sanctions
Lee plans to accept the baton from the liberal Moon Jae-in administration and attempt to bring North Korean and American leaders to the negotiating table.
Lee has emphasized since his campaign launched in July that he will follow Moon, but as “more independent and active mediator” to address the North Korean denuclearization issue.
“I will meet President Biden and Chairman Kim Jong-un in person to solve the problem,” he said at the Korea Press Center on Nov. 25.
Exactly how he will do that is unclear, but Lee, much like his liberal predecessors, has emphasized a dovish approach to dealing with the North.
He is on board with Moon’s idea of promoting inter-Korean economic projects, including restarting tourism to the North’s Mount Kumkang resort, which has been shut since 2008 when a South Korean tourist was shot and killed. Individual tourism into North Korea is not forbidden by the United Nations.
On sanctions on North Korea, Lee suggested relieving them in a step-by-step manner on the condition that North follow up with “corresponding measures on denuclearization,” according to his foreign policy report released last August.
If the North does not follow through, sanctions relief can "snap back" in response, Lee said.
Yoon has expressed his willingness to pursue dialogue on denuclearization with the North, and suggested creating a trilateral communications office between Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington. A liaison office for the two Koreas near Kaesong was blown up by the North in 2020.
But Yoon says he will consider sanctions relief for the North only after it opens its doors to international inspectors, something that has not happened since International Atomic Energy Agency officials were kicked out in 2009.
Yoon, like his conservative predecessors, has a hawkish outlook on security. Throughout his campaign he has stressed the need for a pre-emptive defense strategy including a stronger missile defense system.
“Above all, we must restore and strengthen the 'three-axis system,' which has become obsolete,” Yoon wrote on Facebook on Jan. 17, referring to the Kill Chain, Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR) and Korea Air Missile Defense (KAMD) systems.
Kill Chain is a pre-emptive strike system against the North’s nuclear and missile facilities. KMPR is designed to launch attacks on the North’s leadership if signs of nuclear-weapons attack are detected and KAMD focuses on terminal-phase, or low-altitude missile defense.
The Korean government dropped these terms in the latter half of the Moon administration to promote “better camaraderie” with the North, according to the Ministry of Defense.
Yoon’s fiery calls for pre-emptive strike capacity, characterized by Lee as “warmongering calls,” are not new among conservative presidential candidates. Former President Park Geun-hye spoke in the same vein on the campaign trail in 2012, though once in office, the rhetoric is often softened.
“The talk of pre-emptive strikes is not new to Korean politics, but it has been toned down during the Moon administration,” said Go Myung-hyun, a senior researcher on foreign policy at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a Seoul-based think tank. “Washington has been talking about disabling missiles at their boost phase, and Tokyo has also been reviewing its missile defense options against the North. Korea has never stopped developing its three-axis system, it just hasn’t been talked about as much.”
On U.S.-China rivalry and the KORUS alliance
Lee has kept his comments on Sino-U.S. rivalry vague, following Moon’s approach.
“We will also advance the Korea-U.S. alliance and strengthen future-oriented Korea-China relations,” Lee said in a meeting with members of the international press on Nov. 25. “The solid development of the Korea-U.S. alliance and the promotion of strategic cooperative relations between Korea and China will be the foundations of our diplomacy centered on our national interest.”
When Yoon speaks, it’s pretty clear whose side he’s on.
“A deeper alliance with Washington should be the central axis of Seoul’s foreign policy,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs on Feb. 8.
The Korea-U.S. military alliance dates to the years of the Korean War (1950-53), after which the two countries signed a mutual defense treaty, providing the legal grounds for the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) and the United Nations Command to be stationed in the country. Korea has the largest U.S. Forces in the region after Japan.
“The U.S.-Korea alliance has weakened over the years of the Moon administration,” Yoon said during a televised debate on Feb. 3. “It is my intention to defend the country using extended deterrence based on a strengthened alliance with the United States.”
Yoon intends to expand the controversial Washington-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system in Korea, if the country’s security needs require it.
“The so-called ‘three-nos’ policy in regards to China is something the Moon administration came up with on its own,” said Yoon during his meeting with the international press on Nov. 12, referring to the administration’s pledges not to make additional deployments of Thaad, participate in an American missile defense network and transform the U.S.-Korea-Japan alliance into a military alliance.
“We need to consider the best options for our national security, and that should include the Thaad system and deeper military cooperation with Japan and the United States,” Yoon said.
Thaad deeply dented Korea-China relations after its installation in Korea in 2017. Beijing protested the system as an American scheme to spy on China, a claim both Washington and Seoul denied, and for years banned Korean cultural content and prohibited tourists from visiting Korea.
Lee steered clear of the Thaad issue during the televised debate on Feb. 25, emphasizing that Korea’s long-range surface-to-air missile (L-SAM) “should be enough to protect the country.”
Disputes with Japan
On Japan, both candidates have supported a "future-oriented" policy, an expression not new among politicians in both Korea and Japan. It is meant to be positive and to wish away historical issues that bedevil the two countries.
Yoon and Lee both hearken back to the Kim-Obuchi statement signed by then Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in 1998.
Kim and Obuchi held a summit and signed a declaration called “A New Japan-Republic of Korea Partnership towards the 21st Century,” on Oct. 8, 1998, seen as a breakthrough in bilateral ties.
Obuchi recognized Japan in the past caused “tremendous damage and suffering to the people of the Republic of Korea through its colonial rule” and expressed his “deep remorse and heartfelt apology.” In turn, Kim called for the two countries to “overcome their unfortunate history and build a future-oriented relationship based on reconciliation as well as good-neighborly and friendly cooperation.”
“We need to approach relations with Japan with a two-track method,” Lee said during his international press briefing last November. “Whether Japan should apologize for its invasion of Korea and compensate [people] is a matter of the past that should be dealt with separately from the economic and political relations of Korea and Japan today.”
Yoon in his own meeting with the international press in November also emphasized the Kim-Obuchi breakthrough and said that historical issues and disputes can be resolved through means “acceptable to the publics of both countries.”
Ongoing diplomatic irritants between Korea and Japan include the issue of compensation for Korean victims of Japanese wartime forced labor and sexual slavery. After local courts in Korea ruled in favor of victims in 2018, Japan placed export restrictions on Korea targeting its semiconductor industry. Seoul at the time mulled over whether to end its military intelligence sharing pact with Tokyo, also known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement.
Where Yoon stands out from Lee’s Japan policy is his openness to consider the possibility of transforming the Korea-U.S.-Japan partnership to a defense alliance, not unlike the military alliance between Korea and the United States.
When asked during the televised debate on Feb. 25 whether he would consider such a trilateral military alliance -- which the Moon administration promised China it would not consider -- Yoon dismissed the question as speculative, but did not deny the possibility.
“There’s no need to promise China that such an alliance would never happen,” Yoon said. “In the case that there is a security emergency in the country, one could consider the possibility [of having Japan step in to defend Korea.]”
Lee put his foot down on the possibility of a trilateral defense alliance.
“Such an alliance would be dangerous,” he said in a meeting with the press at the Korea Press Center on Nov. 10. “As long as Japan is taking an ambiguous position on its past of imperialism and aggression, a trilateral military alliance would be too risky.”
Lee has been portrayed by Japanese media outlets as hawkish toward Japan, which is not without cause, according to some experts.
"Earlier on in his campaign, Lee demanded Japan apologize sincerely regarding its past conduct and that future cooperation will hinge on Japan's sincerity," said Jin Chang-soo, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, a Gyeonggi-based think tank. "Both candidates have put forward a future-oriented policy with Japan, but it remains to be seen if they will follow through with action once in office."
BY ESTHER CHUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]