On the night between 9 and 10 March 2022, the ballots to determine the President of the Republic of Korea ended. The honour and the burden fell on Yoon Suk-yeol, former Attorney General and his first real political experience. Sino-American competition, Pyeongyang’s assertiveness and Quad are the hot dossiers of the current foreign policy of the Korean peninsula. How does the newly elected President fit into all this?
A not so obvious victory
Before even announcing his candidacy, in January 2021, polls indicated Yoon Suk-yeol in first place among the voters’ preferences as a possible successor to Moon Jae-in. In April of the same year, in conjunction with investigations into the 2016-17 maxi-trial, he released a resignation statement from his position. Many newspapers interpreted it as his political prelude. In fact, in June 2021, he announced his candidacy for the Blue House. Although he initially presented himself as an independent, it was not too long before he declared himself a candidate for the main opposition party, the Gugminhuihim – People Power Party.
At that time, Yoon Suk-yeol was given as favourite with a margin of about 30% over the ruling party’s candidate, the Deobureominjudang (Democratic Party), the governor of Gyeonggi province, Lee Jae-myung. However, from the summer of 2021 until the day immediately preceding the elections, the percentage difference in electoral preferences has been progressively reducing. The victory of the conservative candidate came with a percentage of less than 1%. The renunciation of the candidacy by Ahn Cheol-soo, theoretically between 5 and 10% of the country’s electoral preferences, was not enough to guarantee the current President a large margin of victory.
Between the anvil and the (sickle) hammer
The geographical and political position of South Korea makes it a strategic player concerning the military and economic equilibrium of the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, much emphasis has been placed on Korea’s role in the immediate post-Moon period in relations with China and North Korea. South Korean conservatives are historically unwilling to open unconditionally with Beijing and Pyeongyang, as confirmed by the experts interviewed for Geopolitica.info.
During his electoral campaign, President Yoon has repeatedly declared that he wants to hold a tough position towards the two Communist countries. First of all, he expressed his desire to upgrade the THAAD missile system to defend the country from eventual North Korean threats. However, the installation of this system in 2017 caused the wrath of the People’s Republic of China, which imposed heavy economic and cultural sanctions on South Korea, causing considerable losses to the country’s multinational giants.
The then President Moon decided to comply with the demands of Beijing and limited the ballistic potential of the system initially envisaged by the Park administration. Although, on paper, this missile apparatus is envisaged as a countermeasure to any North Korean missiles directed towards the South, the detection range of its radars is large enough to observe Chinese territory, as Prof. Antonio Fiori reminds us.
If, on the one hand, the declarations of the newly elected President show the will to take a clear stance towards the “anti-American front”, on the other hand, the closeness of the conservatives to the corporate conglomerate circles that this position would damage, do not make it is easy to predict what Seoul’s position on the missile issue will actually be. All the more so if a person in his first real political experience is elected as Head of State. The involvement of South Korea within the Quad deserves a separate mention.
Relations with Tokyo
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is the informal platform involving Australia, Japan, India and the United States. It represents the manifestation of that “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy that former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, before, and the United States after, have outlined for the region. Although of Japanese inspiration, the United States assimilated it in 2019, the first case in the history of US international relations. The importance of the Land of the Rising Sun within the platform makes it an actor with whom it is necessary and inevitable to confront.
Relations between South Korea and Japan are somewhat unstable. The colonial legacy of the Japanese Empire is deep wounds in the memory and sensitivity of South Korean citizens. The conservatives’ stance on relations with Tokyo is traditionally accommodating. A feature of this political party that perhaps does not play in his favour. The rise in the consensus towards the Democratic candidate could be correlated with the declarations expressed by Yoon about the desire of a reconciliation with Japan, showing himself willing to reach an agreement on the issue of comfort women.
The conservative Park administration signed an agreement on the definitive resolution of the dispute, which increased dissent against his government, and the Moon administration invalidated it right after the elections. The Japanese dossier, therefore, is anything but easy to manage. However, Yoon’s election could mean South Korea’s concrete rapprochement with the Quad. Former President Moon was asked several times to join the Dialogue, but he promptly denied the request.
Democrat candidate Lee Jae-myung, however, did not express a clear-cut stance either on the unresolved issues of the colonial past or on South Korean participation in the Quad. It would not be unlikely that, given the rise in anti-Chinese sentiment in the country, joining the Dialogue would find bipartisan support. Yoon’s victory was possible for a small percentage, tiny if you consider that almost 30 percentage points favoured him at the time of his candidacy. Furthermore, Democrats still hold 60% of parliamentary seats.
One election is over, and another is on the horizon
On March 9, 2022, South Korean citizens expressed their decision about the Head of State. In 2024, however, they will be called to the polls to elect their representatives to the National Assembly, South Korea’s unicameral legislative body. Whether on the initiative of a parliamentarian or the executive, the Parliament must approve a law to validate it.
So, Yoon’s victory by that margin and the majority still in the hands of the Democrats may mean that the country’s domestic and foreign policy can become a tug-of-war between the executive and the legislature for the next two years. Who will give up, and about which positions he will do so?