South Koreans are already engrossed in their presidential election campaign before candidates for the ruling and opposition parties are selected this fall. Most Americans will not pay much attention until next March, when South Korean voters go to the polls. But they should, because the election is about much more than democracy. For the U.S., this is arguably the first South Korean election in recent memory where there are substantive foreign policy differences between the two camps that will have real ramifications for U.S. policy.
It is no surprise that the conservative and progressive camps have differing views on policy toward North Korea. Progressives can be expected to favor engagement with the North and the early advancement of a peace declaration and inter-Korean economic and humanitarian projects. The U.S. is familiar with the different approaches advocated by conservative and progressive camps because they roughly replicate similar policy lines from previous administrations in Seoul.
However, on other foreign policy matters, past South Korean elections generally did not feature major differences. Most of the policy debate focused on North Korea and domestic issues; with general agreement that any South Korean president would generally favor policies that support the alliance with America system and, more broadly, the liberal international order. But this time the differences are real between the two camps.
On relations with Japan and U.S.-South Korea-Japan trilateral policy coordination, the best opportunity for improvement would be a fresh start with a new leadership in Seoul and Tokyo starting next May. But the incumbent government and the ruling party have made clear their ambivalence about improving relations with Tokyo, and trilateral relations thereby give little hope for the new Kishida government to effect any change. The opposition, by contrast, has called for a reversal of the decline in bilateral and trilateral relations, which sends a very different message to Tokyo and Washington about future prospects for cooperation.
On relations with China, there are also significant gaps between the two camps. The conservatives have called for a more realistic view of China, acknowledging its economic importance, but also being wary of China’s coercive tactics. Memories of Chinese sanctions as a result of the stationing of a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery in Seongju to defend South Korea still remain very much in the forefront of their strategic thinking. By contrast, the ruling camp remains more cautious about joining in with the Biden administration’s turn to strategic competition with China. It still sees Beijing as critical to an engagement policy with North Korea. While the memories of THAAD do not easily fade, they must be subjugated to more immediate economic and security priorities.
Perhaps where the differences in foreign policies between the two political camps are most obvious is over the Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue or Quad. This was one of the last significant initiatives of the Trump administration in Asia, bringing together the leaders of the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India. I heard from reliable sources that South Korea was offered a spot at the table in advance of the first Quad summit under President Joe Biden, who took the new alliance over, in March 2021, and that the incumbent government refused the invitation. The ruling party’s presidential candidates have also remained silent on South Korea’s membership in the Quad. By contrast, I have heard opposition party leaders state openly that under their government, Korea would seek membership in the Quad immediately.
Of course, there are many areas where the two presidential camps would continue the work of the incumbent government on the alliance with the U.S. The May 21 summit between presidents Biden and Moon laid out a fantastic work agenda for the alliance that crosses party lines and that would be uncontroversial to pursue in a conservative or progressive government.
But the different approaches on the policies toward Japan, trilateralism, China, and the Quad are real. In addition, there are many more differences of significance on policies that impact the U.S. On nuclear energy, the choice is between suspending further production or growing it. On the handover of full operational troop control in case of a war, the choice is between an early handover or a conditions-based approach. On supply chains, the choice is between cooperating with Western-based networks outside of China or not. And on 5G, the choice is between permitting Huawei components in the South Korean market or not.
My point is not to say which views are the right ones. That is up to the South Korean people to decide. Moreover, the United States will work with whichever government comes into power next May as a good ally. But this election will reflect a true national debate on all these issues where none existed before. Americans should pay attention to this election because it matters a great deal to the United States and its policies in Asia.
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