The campaign for South Korea’s presidency is heating up and will climax with an election on March 9, 2022. One month after the ruling Democratic Party selected former Gyeonggi province governor Lee Jae-myung as its official candidate, the main opposition People Power Party chose former Prosecutor General Yoon Suk-yeol to face off against Lee. As both candidates lack experience in international affairs, questions hang over their views on foreign policy issues.
But observers can gain insight into the candidates’ outlook through documents that their campaigns have put forward. Lee announced his “Unification and Diplomacy Initiative” (full text in Korean available here; a summary in English is here) in August and Yoon put forward his “Audacious Diplomacy: National Interest First” (full text in Korean here) in September.
While there are some differences in the foreign policy platforms of the two main contenders, it is the commonalities that are most striking. For example, they both strongly support the U.S.-ROK alliance. Subverting characterizations by casual outside observers of Korean progressives as skeptics of the South Korea-U.S. alliance, Ambassador Wi Sung-lac, foreign policy adviser to Lee, said “simply put, the United States is our ally, and China is not our ally, it’s a partner.” Wi also added that “from the values perspective, the U.S. and Korea share a lot of values, and as candidate Lee mentioned many times, the Republic of Korea has maintained an alliance with the United States for the past seven decades and we have promoted the same values.”
Similarly, Yoon’s camp has advanced a position on North Korea that goes against the “take no prisoners” stereotype often attributed to the conservative camp’s posture. While Yoon strongly insists on Pyongyang’s denuclearization, he has also expressed possible support for unconditional humanitarian assistance to North Korea and inter-Korean joint economic development to prepare for the post-denuclearization era. Moreover, Yoon vows to expand cultural exchanges, including youth and student exchanges, a position also endorsed by his opponent Lee. He has even mentioned setting up a sustainable trilateral diplomatic office with representatives of both Koreas and the United States in Panmunjom. In a recent interview, Yoon said he would meet Kim Jong-un if it was not “for show.”
In reference to South Korea’s relations with China and Japan, Yoon’s pledge of strengthening strategic cooperation with China and establishing future-oriented Japan-South relations is again almost the same as Lee Jae-myung’s position. Yoon’s foreign policy adviser Kim Sung-han described Seoul’s continued cooperation with China on the basis of mutual respect as a core tenant of Yoon’s foreign policy.
This apparent consensus is driven by electoral consideration as both candidates’ pledges are made primarily to satisfy both conservatives and progressives in the middle of the ideological spectrum. Neither side wishes to lose votes because of their foreign policy. This has led to policy positions that give something to everyone while offending no one. In the end, the question is how consistently the foreign policy platforms of the candidates would be carried out when they actually take office at the Blue House.
A country’s foreign policy is shaped by various factors and processes. According to American political psychologist Margaret Herman’s cognitive idiosyncrasy theory, the political leader’s personal characteristics are one factor that affects their governments’ foreign policy behavior.
For the first time in the history of South Korean presidential elections, the two candidates are political outsiders. They have no experience in the National Assembly and they have a weak support base within their parties because of their brief political careers. They also haven’t held any official positions dealing with foreign policy issues. Moreover, unlike past presidential elections of South Korea, regionalism and ideology are not shaping the platforms of the parties in the upcoming election. Therefore, it is likely that the candidates’ personal characteristics and histories will have a significant influence in shaping their foreign policy outlook.
Lee and Yoon have starkly different personal backgrounds that have likely shaped their beliefs, motives, and decision-making styles. Lee grew up in poverty working as a child laborer at a factory, which left him with a permanent injury to his arm. He taught himself law, passed the country’s notoriously difficult bar exam, and worked as a human rights lawyer. Lee rose through the political ranks as an outsider, a status that might help him maintain distance from the anti-incumbent sentiment.
Meanwhile, Yoon is from an affluent family with parents who taught at universities. Yoon studied law as an undergraduate at the Seoul National University, which at the time only accepted the top 1 percent of South Korea’s students. After passing the bar, he spent his entire career at prosecutors’ offices, which have been criticized for having excess political influence and meddling in domestic politics.
There are questions on whether the winner will trace the same path as late President Roh Moo-hyun. When Roh was selected as the ruling party candidate in 2002, some Korean observers worried that the international community would whisper “Roh Who?” – a sarcastic reference to the “Jimmy Who?” campaign video that sought to introduce the relatively-unknown Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter to the American people in the 1976 presidential election.
Even after Roh won the election, distrust, dissatisfaction, and anxiety about South Korea’s foreign policy, especially toward the alliance with the United States, loomed over his administration. In extreme cases, some U.S. officials reportedly called their foreign affairs counterparts in the Blue House “Taliban” due to attitudes that were perceived as anti-American. However, contrary to these concerns, the Roh administration pursued many pro-U.S. policies such as initiating the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and deploying troops to assist the U.S. occupation of Iraq. These decisions were made at the risk of losing his domestic political base because Roh thought it was necessary for the future of South Korea.
In this instance, the president’s own personal disposition – even though he was an outsider – favored the pursuit of a foreign policy that was consistent with preceding administrations’ postures. Perhaps the country’s incumbent foreign policy doctrine is pragmatic enough and sufficiently consistent with its external demands that it acts as guardrails against any dramatic changes motivated by ideological shifts.
Then will this be the course that the next administration takes? Many will claim to know, but no one will know for sure. The keyword running through Lee’s foreign policy is “practical” and Yoon emphasized prioritizing “national interest” over other matters when implementing foreign policy. There’s no doubt that South Koreans would want their next president to shape and implement “pragmatic diplomacy” based on “national interest.” It would be interesting to watch how the winner adjusts and refines his foreign policy pledges after the election.