North Korea, China and the United States are closely watching the South Korean elections

Supporters wait for the arrival of presidential candidate Yoon Seok-yeol of the main opposition People’s Power Party during the presidential election campaign on February 15, 2022 in Seoul, South Korea.

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A conservative victory in South Korea’s upcoming presidential election could result in the country adopting a tough stance toward North Korea and China, potentially igniting new tensions in the Asia-Pacific region.

Yoon Seok Yeol of the conservative People’s Power Party and Lee Jae Myung of the ruling Democratic Party were among the frontrunners in the March 9 elections. A series of polls by Gallup Korea, a research company, have shown Yoon and Lee running neck and neck, indicating a tight race ahead. In a survey of 1,000 adults on February 25, Lee’s general approval rating was 38%, compared to Yoon’s 37%. Another poll in early February showed the two tied at 35%.

Economic issues, especially housing, are at the forefront of this election. but given North Korea’s continuing missile activity And anti-China sentiment at home, foreign policy issues are also expected to affect public sentiment. With each candidate having mixed opinions on relations with North Korea, China and the United States, there is much at stake about South Korea’s geopolitical fate.

North Korea

Kim Jong Un’s government is stepping up its missile tests as diplomatic talks with The United States and its allies remain at a standstill. This is not a new development, but against the background Russia’s invasion of UkraineIt heightens rising fears of regional unrest. Most recently, on February 27, Pyongyang launched what is likely to be a medium-range ballistic missile, according to officials in South Korea and Japan.

In keeping with his conservative predecessors, Yun is demanding North Korea denuclearize first before the two Koreas agree on peace deals and economic aid. In late November, he told South Korean newspaper Kookmin Ilbo that he would consider canceling the 2018 Comprehensive Military Agreement, a diplomatic milestone under President Moon Jae-in, if North Korea did not change its stance.

South Korean presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party looks on ahead of a televised presidential debate for the upcoming March 9 presidential election at KBS Studio on March 2, 2022 in Seoul.

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In contrast, DPRK’s Lee supports Moon’s approach to diplomatic engagement and economic cooperation with North Korea as a way to initiate denuclearization. He also advocates easing existing sanctions if North Korea complies. Unlike Yun, Lee is also open to declaring an end to the Korean War in order to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.

However, despite sharing similar views, analysts said, Lee is unlikely to imitate Moon’s policies. “While Moon has been heavily personally invested in engineering an inter-Korean summit, and trying to build sustainable cooperative relations with North Korea, Lee is likely to stick to the principle of peaceful coexistence while reluctant to spend a lot of political capital on trying to make it happen, especially if Pyongyang is uncooperative,” Jenny Town, senior fellow at the Stimson Center for Independent Research, told CNBC. Towne is also the director of 38 North, the research arm of the center focused on North Korea.

Complicating matters further, Yoon is focused on resuming joint military exercises with the United States. These exercises have been scaled back since 2018, “due to North Korea’s perception of the exercises as preparation for war,” Fei Zhou, an Asia analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, told CNBC. Thus the recovery is likely to anger Kim Jong Un. Yun’s position “is tough enough to make North Korea abandon diplomacy entirely, as it was during the Lee and Park terms,” ​​Kang X-fu, a doctoral student who specializes in East Asian politics at Boston College, wrote in a note published by the Lowy Institute.

China and the United States

A wave of anti-China uproar has swept the South Korean media in the following recent weeks The controversy over the Beijing Winter Olympics. Combined with broader concerns about Beijing’s aggressive stance toward its neighbors in the South China Sea, Indian Ocean, and Pacific Ocean, the Asian giant has become a central talking point in this election. South Korea’s attitude toward China is closely related to its relationship with the United States, given the historical rivalry between Beijing and Washington, which means that Seoul often finds itself in a position to prioritize one of the two superpowers.

“Li is expected to adhere to the relationship of strategic ambiguity with China, aiming to balance security and economic relations,” Town said. Like Moon, Lee understands that he needs Chinese support both on the North Korean issue as well as on the economic front. “Lee Jae-myung is more concerned about China’s economic impact on South Korea, so he will take a more neutral stance,” Xue echoed. “However, the escalating tensions between the United States and China will make it increasingly difficult to continue this approach,” Xue added.

Yoon Seok Yeol delivers his speech after winning the final race of the People’s Power Party to choose its presidential candidate for the South Korean elections 2022 on November 5, 2021 in Seoul.

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Meanwhile, Yun is seeking stronger security cooperation with the United States, specifically calling for additional defensive deployments in the high-altitude region, which would almost certainly provoke economic punishment from China. The installation of the US anti-missile system in South Korea led to a year-long standoff between Beijing and Seoul from 2016 to 2017, as South Korea’s tourism, cosmetics and entertainment industries were affected by the Chinese backlash. Xue said Yun also wants to apply for membership in the Quartet Security Dialogue as well as participate in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing program “despite China’s possible opposition to such moves.” Town said Yun’s willingness to openly side with the United States would be called into question, “if or when China starts putting pressure on Seoul.”


Relations with Tokyo worsened under the current Moon Jae-in administration due to trade disputes and unresolved issues regarding Japan’s colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945. The latter include issues such as Japan’s purchase of military brothels for South Korean women. Kang Chang-il, South Korea’s ambassador to Japan, said in January that bilateral relations were at their “worst level” since 1965.

This is expected to improve under a conservative regime. In a televised discussion last month, Yoon said Seoul’s relationship with Washington and Tokyo had deteriorated due to “submissive pro-China and North Korean diplomacy,” adding that he would change that dynamic. Several experts told CNBC that Yun is widely expected to put aside historical disputes with Japan in order to resolve bilateral trade disputes and establish closer security cooperation.

While Lee agrees on the importance of improving bilateral relations between South Korea and Japan and is open to talks, he insists that Japan make efforts to properly address historical differences.

Increased regional tension stemming from China’s assertion, US efforts to contain China, or North Korea’s long-range missile and nuclear tests will reduce the number of policy options that the next South Korean president can pursue.

Khang X. Vu

PhD student and specialist in East Asian Politics

The nature of Asian geopolitics

While each candidate offers fundamentally different perspectives on inter-Korean relations and the rivalry between the United States and China, many analysts have said that the security and political dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region do not allow for major shifts in foreign policy.

“The increase in regional tension caused by China’s assertion, the United States’ efforts to contain China, or North Korea’s long-range missile and nuclear tests, will reduce the number of policy options that the next South Korean president can pursue,” Fu wrote in his book. Note. “Unfortunately, such a deterioration in regional dynamics is increasingly likely.”

“Even in trying to cultivate deeper ties with other middle powers, as South Korea is currently trying to create some buffer for itself amid the escalating rivalry between the United States and China, this is a long-term process,” said the Stimson Town Center. “In the short and medium term, South Korea will continue to find itself in a strategic dilemma as it navigates the competition between the United States and China while strengthening its defenses against significant improvements in North Korea’s weapons capabilities,” she added.

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