Author: Peter K Lee, United States Studies Centre
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 strengthened cooperation with each other in response to China’s coercion, South Korea under President Moon Jae-in has been more circumspect about its alignment preferences.
Moon’s election pledge to create ‘a friendly, peaceful and cooperative environment in Northeast Asia’ may not have come to pass, but he charted his own way through five years of nuclear crises, summitry, trade wars, diplomatic disputes and rising regional tensions.
To 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 Southeast Asia’s standing, and brought South Korea closer to the dream of self-reliant defence.
To his critics, Moon’s engagement with North Korea failed to make any headway on denuclearisation while getting side-tracked 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 deferential to both, rather than principled and firm.
Time will tell which of these narratives was more accurate. Like in other countries, the upcoming 9 March presidential election will be largely decided on domestic issues — including the COVID-19 response, small business recovery, housing affordability, income inequality, social polarisation, gender conflicts, as well as the usual personal and family scandals of South Korean politics.
But the foreign policy stakes in the election are higher than they have been in over a decade. There are four prominent candidates in this year’s race — Lee Jae-myung, a progressive former mayor and provincial governor, Yoon Seok-youl, a conservative former prosecutor-general, Ahn Cheol-soo, a centrist tech entrepreneur, and Sim Sang-jung, leader of the minor progressive Justice Party.
The candidates have set out mostly predictable foreign policy pledges, including which capital they would first visit if elected, whether to continue Moon’s inter-Korean policy, the role of nuclear deterrence and nuclear energy, and how to reform the military.
While the progressive Lee has carefully distanced himself from many of Moon’s domestic policies, he has promised to mostly stay the course on foreign and defence policy. Meanwhile, Yoon has promised a globalist foreign policy more reminiscent of the conservative Lee Myung-bak (2008–2013) era than the Park Geun-hye (2013–2017) administration.
While polls have Lee and Yoon in a close race, the centrist Ahn has also polled between 8 per cent and 17 per cent, potentially making him the kingmaker, or spoiler. Although unlikely to win, his eclectic base reflects the dissatisfaction that many continue to have about the two frontrunners. The last-minute merger between Ahn and Yoon on 3 March in favour of Yoon will make the final days of the election a cliff-hanger.
But the biggest challenge facing whoever wins the Blue House on 9 March will be reconciling the North Korean issue with the region’s shifting geopolitics towards China. South Korean leaders on both the left and right have long claimed that North Korea’s denuclearisation was the foremost priority for the region and world peace.
Yet North Korea is increasingly of secondary importance 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 climate change’s effects on South Asia and the Pacific Islands, as well as the pandemic, and only then North Korea.
This has overturned 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 regional force posture focussed on China. The United States is actively trying to revive its longstanding efforts at closer South Korea–US–Japan trilateral cooperation, but also broaden it beyond an exclusive North Korea focus.
Recent trilateral talks and joint statements between the three countries’ defence and foreign ministers have explicitly referenced ‘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 willing to reorient the alliance and its own capabilities beyond the peninsula at the risk of antagonising China? One of the ‘three no’s’ 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 in South Korean attitudes towards China — which is now viewed more unfavourably than Japan — suggests a tougher stance against Beijing would enjoy broad domestic support.
The next South Korean president will face a difficult conundrum between North Korea and China. Their choices will inform South Korea’s position 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. The time when Seoul could primarily pursue its relations with great powers through the lens of the 38th parallel, which divides the peninsula, is over.
Peter K Lee is a Research Fellow in the Foreign Policy and Defence Program at the United States Studies Centre, the University of Sydney.
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