[Election 2022] How rival presidential candidates differ on US politics

At a time when uncertainty hangs over the regional and international security order, South Koreans will go to the polls in March to elect a new president.

The main candidates are Lee Jae-myung of the ruling liberal Democratic Party of Korea and Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative opposition People Power Party. While domestic issues such as runaway house prices and the continued economic fallout from the pandemic are expected to be at the forefront of voters’ minds, the outcome will also have a huge impact on Seoul’s foreign policy, all the more so. that it treads cautiously amid growing rivalry between its security ally Washington and key trading partner Beijing.

Seoul’s new leadership will also have wider ramifications for the Joe Biden administration, as it sees its East Asian ally as a key partner in Washington’s battle to contain an increasingly assertive Beijing in the region, as well as to deal with nuclear-armed Pyongyang.

Both Lee and Yoon emphasize that “national interest” is the bedrock of their foreign policy, but what that entails and how to build it is where their differences lie. Lee, who is expected to continue incumbent President Moon Jae-in’s diplomacy, said he would take a “pragmatic and balanced” approach, hinting he would refrain from overtly taking sides between Washington and Beijing. Meanwhile, Yoon sees strengthening the South Korea-US alliance as essential, as well as building stronger ties with like-minded democracies in resolving issues on the Korean peninsula and in the world.

“The United States would traditionally prefer a conservative president from South Korea. But when it comes to Seoul’s American politics, personal characteristics and background have also shaped their politics, in addition to party ideology,” said Park Ihn-hwi, professor of international politics at Ewha Womans University. . “There is also the North Korean factor. Depending on the candidate’s stance on Pyongyang, the allies could either clash or work well together.

For decades, South Korean conservatives have generally put more emphasis on the US alliance, as it has angered China in the past, including with the 2017 deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system. American made in the South. Korea, despite the backlash from China. Meanwhile, progressives tend to emphasize nationalism and diplomatic autonomy, and have opted for “strategic ambiguity” between the United States and China.

Observers note, however, that the two candidates are not all black or white when it comes to dealing with the United States. Despite the ideological split in their respective parties, both also took into consideration the complexity of the geopolitical environment and changing voter dynamics, and left the doors open for diplomatic leeway, keeping their distance of the polarized position of their parties.

“Both candidates are well aware of the security environment facing Seoul, and despite the differences between the liberal and conservative parties, they both take the U.S.-Korea alliance for granted,” said Seo Jung-kun, a professor. of political science at Kyung Hee University.

For example, Lee set up a “practical diplomacy committee” and recruited experts like Wi Sung-lac, a former ambassador to Russia who once voiced criticism of the Moon administration’s foreign policy, for a more balanced position.

“Lee reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-South Korea alliance and expressed a stronger stance against North Korea than the outgoing Moon administration,” Seo said. “Meanwhile, Yoon stresses the importance of a ‘US-South Korea alliance’ – which is essential for conservative voters who don’t want a reassessment of the alliance – but showed a new conservative side, as in expressing that he is ready to be more open in the face of the question of the denuclearization of the North.

Observers say the two candidates, who are both relatively inexperienced in foreign affairs, have only scratched the surface at this point and have not gone into detail about their US policies. But remarks about US politics from the candidates and their advisers could provide insight into the thinking of presidential candidates.

Yoon Suk-yeol: A stronger, tougher US alliance with China

Former Attorney General Yoon has insisted on the need to forge a stronger alliance with the United States, hinting that he will align himself more closely with the United States and get tougher on China.

“I cannot stress enough the importance of a comprehensive alliance between South Korea and the United States covering all areas, not only security, but also health, administration, climate change and technologies. peak,” Yoon said last month when meeting the visiting U.S. senator. Jon Ossoff and Daniel Kritenbrink, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. “A strong alliance between South Korea and the United States has become increasingly important in global issues beyond national security.”

Yoon, who focused on global coalitions of democratic states, hinted at the possibility of joining the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue that involves like-minded regional democracies – Japan, the United States. Australia and India – which is widely seen as a mechanism to contain China.

He also stressed the need to cooperate with the Five Eyes alliance – the intelligence-sharing club between the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – to protect the interests of security against North Korea’s nuclear threats, but stopped short of supporting Seoul’s eventual full membership in the group.

Meanwhile, the conservative candidate also said that South Korea could further deploy THAAD and strengthen its missile security system as a matter of “national sovereignty”.

The remarks will be widely welcomed by Washington, but could potentially rattle Beijing again. In 2017, Seoul’s decision to deploy the US missile system angered China, which views THAAD as a threat to its national security, and retaliated in Seoul with economic retaliation.

But a Camp Yoon official stressed that defending the US alliance doesn’t mean it won’t appreciate its ties with China.

“The Moon administration has taken a position of strategic ambiguity in the US-China rivalry, and we are not breaking away from that completely,” said a foreign affairs adviser to Yoon’s camp who wished to remain anonymous. “We are focused on strengthening the alliance (with the United States) and upgrading to the next level, while managing ties with China.”

Lee Jae-myung: Balanced diplomacy amid US-China rivalry

Lee’s campaign emphasized the importance of his alliance with the United States, but stressed that there was no need for Seoul to limit its diplomatic maneuverability by siding with a superpower rather than ‘another.

This largely echoes the position of the Moon administration, which has maintained “strategic ambiguity” as it juggles its security partnership with Washington and its trade dependence on Beijing.

“Amid the escalating rivalry between the United States and China, there have been many situations where South Korea is forced to choose,” Lee said in a press conference with media. strangers last month. “Our diplomatic principle is based on pragmatic diplomacy centered on the national interest. We should not be influenced, but establish a situation where we can make a choice.

“We cannot ignore the security alliance with Washington and must deepen our ties,” he said, describing the United States as “Korea’s only ally” and China as a “strategic partner”. . “But at the same time, we cannot neglect our ties with China, which is geographically very close and trade is growing.”

At another event last month, Lee said “there aren’t just two options for Seoul to choose from,” when asked what Seoul would do if it had to choose a side between the rivals.

On the possible fear that “strategic ambiguity” could weaken the U.S.-Korea alliance, Camp Lee assured that the decades-old alliance is the basis of Seoul’s foreign policy.

At a forum last week, Lee’s adviser Wi said Seoul’s role was to be “close to the United States and not too far from China.”

“The United States is our ally and China is our partner, and we can say that we have a closer relationship with the ally,” he said. “If we aim to do value-based diplomacy in a democratic market economy, we have to get closer to the United States.”

On the controversial THAAD issue, Lee has in the past called for the withdrawal of South Korea’s missile defense battery, but his recent intentions on the matter have not been so clear.

“In principle, I cannot accept that the (THAAD deployment) is fully in accordance with the national interest of the country in East Asia, but I am aware that we cannot just get rid of it because it has already been deployed,” he said last month, adding that if Seoul were to additionally install another battery, it would need a full review before making the decision.

By Ahn Sung-mi ([email protected])

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