South Korea’s 20th presidential election: Finding a Korean balance between the US and China in the Indo-Pacific region

South Korea’s presidential election is scheduled to be held on 9 March 2022. The two major parties, the ruling liberal Democratic Party (DP) and the conservative People Power Party (PPP), nominated their presidential candidates, both of whom have no legislative experience in the National Assembly. The former Gyeonggi Province Governor, Lee Jae-Myung, was nominated by the DP to succeed incumbent President Moon Jae-In, and the former Prosecutor-General, Yoon Suk-Yeol, was nominated by the PPP (opposition camp) to rebrand the party following the 2017 impeachment of former President Park Geun-Hye.

Whether Candidate Lee or Candidate Yoon wins the election will, however, influence relations across the Indo-Pacific region, especially given the substantive differences in both candidates’ foreign-policy outlooks on the region, excluding their divergent views of North Korea. In what follows we will analyse the two front-runners’ election manifesto promises, in addition to discussing how the EU and South Korea can envision cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region over the next five years.

Presidential Elections

South Korea’s presidents are elected directly for a single five-year term, which overlaps with the four-year terms of legislators and local council members. It is not easy to predict who will become the next president of South Korea, with the current two front-runners, Lee Jae-Myung and Yoon Suk-Yeol, having been neck-and-neck for weeks. Ahn Cheol-Soo of the People’s Party (PP) was also competing for the presidency until the PP and PPP decided on 3 March 2022 to merge their campaigns and increase their likelihood to win the upcoming election.

One of the last opinion polls by Realmeter before the election showed that Yoon’s support stood at 46.3 percent and Lee’s at 43.1 percent, whilst another survey by Media Research indicated that Lee garnered 45 percent support in the poll, slightly ahead of Yoon, following with 44.9 percent. Both the ruling and the opposition parties have been engaged in besmearing campaigns accusing each other and their families of corruption and moral misconduct.

Despite the Moon administration’s best efforts, the wealth gap and social inequality have grown under his tenure – unemployment has increased from 22.9 percent to 27.2 percent for South Koreans aged 15 to 29 years old, and the average apartment price in Seoul has increased by 90 percent, with, salaries having only increased by 20 percent over the same period.

A recent survey by Statista further underlined the public’s concern for the aforementioned issues, revealing that 32 percent of respondents consider boosting the economy and solving the country’s real estate problem as the next president’s top priorities, with another 15% believing that appropriate policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are important. With such a backdrop and unlike previous elections, it is unsurprising that both candidates have placed Chaebol reforms on the backburner, bringing post-pandemic economic recovery and the stabilization of the housing market to the forefront of their campaigns.

The Candidates’ Economic Policy

In economic terms, Lee supports interventionist solutions to manage the real estate market, and advocates for government-led social initiatives, such as universal basic income, increasing access to affordable housing, and access to financing. He plans to invest considerably in the shift toward a digital and renewable energy-led economy. On the other hand, Yoon supports market-led solutions to manage the real estate market, in particular through its deregulation. He also supports the removal of government impediments on small and medium-sized businesses, and intends to further invest into nuclear energy.

Nevertheless, both candidates are likely to keep the 190 billion USD ‘Korean New Deal 2.0’ stimulus package, which is composed of the Digital New Deal (strengthening the Data, Network, and AI Ecosystem), the Green New Deal (for achieving carbon neutrality), the Human New Deal (for investing in human resources), and the Regionally Balanced New Deal (for shifting the economic balance toward regions outside of greater Seoul).

Foreign Policy

Lee Jae-Myung’s foreign policy continues the one started under the Moon administration. He aims to continue using pragmatism as the base of his decision-making, and be guided by South Korea’s national interests. Such will include developing a strategic partnership with China while maintaining a close alliance with the US. With regard to North Korea, he aims to work towards peaceful denuclearization and economic integration on the Korean peninsula. With Japan, he aims to build a practical Korea-Japan relationship on a two-track basis, and aims to improve relations by comprehensively addressing past, present, and future issues. Mr. Lee also aspires to promote a multilateral consultative body for comprehensive security cooperation in Northeast Asia and to lead the establishment of a new order in East Asia.

Candidate Yoon’s foreign policy will also work to be guided by South Korea’s national interests, but will focus more on strengthening relations with the US and Japan, instead of China, and on economic security. Some of his diplomatic pledges include strengthening the South Korea-US comprehensive strategic alliance, further work to establish South Korea-China relations on a basis of mutual respect, while not weakening South Korea-US-Japan security cooperation, and realizing the era of the Obuchi-Kim Declaration which is a declaration made on 8 october 1998 between Japan and South Korea to reconfirm its friendly relations.

Yoon has criticized the current Moon administration’s strategic ambiguity policy, believing it has created the impression of South Korea having been tilting towards China, away from the US. He has also underlined his interest in joining the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). Mr. Lee on the other hand insisted that “there is nothing ambiguous about South Korea’s stance” and added that “Seoul needs to get along with Beijing to resolve Pyongyang’s nuclear issue, while the US is South Korea’s sole treaty ally”.

Surprisingly, a survey conducted in December 2021 has demonstrated that about 42 percent of respondents agreed that South Korea needs to strengthen its alliance with the US to solve the problem on the Korean Peninsula, while nearly 30 percent of respondents favored a shift away from unilateral policies toward the US, further illustrating the divide among South Korea’s populace.

Expanding Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region

According to its Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, the EU is working to deepen its engagement with partners that already have Indo-Pacific approaches of their own, such as South Korea’s New Southern Policy. This policy was launched in 2017 as the signature foreign policy initiative by the Moon administration, and aims to promote greater cooperation with the 10 ASEAN member states and India in the political, economic, and social and cultural spheres, in addition to South Korea’s strong existing relations with the US, China, Japan, and Russia. Moreover, at the 21st ASEAN-ROK Summit in 2020, Moon announced the New Southern Policy Plus which focuses more on overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic with the respective countries.

Given the importance of the Indo-Pacific region for South Korea, there are many areas in which both Lee and Yoon are likely to continue the current government’s work, in particular through the New Southern Policy Plus. They understand that through such, they can further engage with key global actors and substantially contribute to peace on the Korean Peninsula. Thus, whichever government comes into power in South Korea this May, cooperation with the EU in the Indo-Pacific region is expected to continue in various fields, with matters between the EU and South Korea in the region such as connectivity, green transition, digital governance, and research and innovation, being further discussed. However, even though relations with the EU have not been as prominent during their election campaigns, the different accents between the two Presidential candidates’ envisioned policies may have an important impact on how the EU and the ROK will cooperate throughout the upcoming five-year tenure, as the outcome of the election will emphasize.

Author: Mi Im, EIAS Visiting Fellow

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons