March 9, 2022
SEOUL – South Korea went to the polls on Wednesday to elect its new president, whose term will begin at the most challenging time for Korea in recent history.
On the domestic front, the new administration will need to wrestle with runaway housing prices, the coronavirus pandemic, gender and economic inequality among many other pressing issues.
As pressing as these issues may be, the diplomatic situation facing the new president could have a long lasting impact on both South Korea and its place in the international community.
From North Korea’s weapons program, which many expect will escalate, to the US-China rivalry, Seoul’s feud with Japan and most recently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the new administration is tasked with navigating difficult waters for the next five years.
Seoul, caught between Washington and Beijing
The outgoing President Moon Jae-in largely sought a middle ground between the US and China, avoiding picking sides between its security ally Washington and key trade partner Beijing.
But the new president faces an even more difficult balancing act, as Washington is pushing its allies for deeper ties against an increasingly assertive China, as outlined in its recently updated Indo-Pacific strategy.
Whoever becomes president, the security alliance with the US will be important, especially as it tackles the North Korean nuclear issue. But how far Seoul is willing to align with Washington, such as on sensitive issues like Taiwan and joining the informal grouping of the Quad, will determine its ties with not only Washington, but also Beijing.
Seoul had to pay a heavy economic cost in 2017, when its decision to deploy a US anti-missile system on its soil rattled China, which views it as a threat to its national security. China hit back at Seoul with economic retaliation.
Since then, South Korea’s relations with China still have not been fully restored, and anti-China sentiments among the Korean public continued to build. Most recently, anti-China sentiment erupted again at the Beijing Winter Olympics, where a Chinese performer wore traditional Korean attire, hanbok, at the opening ceremony. The public here viewed this as a form of cultural appropriation by Beijing. The disqualification of two South Korean short-track speedskaters, which allowed the Chinese skaters to win, flared up further anger.
Anti-China sentiment will need to be addressed by the next president, as China is South Korea’s biggest trade partner as well as an important country in dealing with North Korea’s denuclearization.
Russia‘s ongoing aggression against Ukraine brought national security to the forefront of the campaign here, which was largely defined by corruption scandals and personal mudslinging. It sparked concerns that North Korea, which has been expanding its arsenal with a barrage of missile tests this year, could follow in Russia’s footsteps and launch provocations down the road.
Some also worry that the North will be even more determined to develop nuclear weapons after seeing Ukraine — which gave up its nuclear arsenal in return for security guarantees from world powers — being invaded by the nuclear-armed Russia. It also renewed skepticism over the reliability of Washington’s security commitment to Seoul in light of the US’ response — or lack thereof — in Ukraine.
The situation in Ukraine is also testing where Seoul stands in an era of intensifying geopolitical rivalries.
“With the invasion, we’ve seen China siding with Russia, while the US and European countries are on the other end. The polarization of the world between the so-called ‘liberal democracies’ and the ‘authoritarian bloc’ is accelerating even further,” said professor Kang Seon-ju of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.
She stressed that it would be difficult for South Korea to remain ambiguous for too long, and that it will have to choose depending on its national interest.
“When the world is rapidly changing, the new president has to consider where Korea’s national interest and objectives lie and choose,” said Kang. “That window of time where Seoul could maintain ‘strategic ambiguity’ is diminishing.”
Fraught Seoul-Tokyo ties
Seoul is also tasked to repair relations with Tokyo at a time when the two countries are mired in a protracted row over territorial and historical disputes stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
The already-fraught bilateral relations reached a new level of acrimony under the Moon Jae-in administration, especially in 2019 when Tokyo imposed export restrictions on Seoul, in apparent retaliation over a Seoul court decision that Japanese firms must pay compensation for the use of Korean forced labor during World War II.
In the last half of the Moon administration’s term, Seoul has been seeking to mend ties, betting on Tokyo’s leadership change from Shinzo Abe to Yoshihide Suga to now Fumio Kishida. But no significant progress has been made, as the neighbors remain miles apart on key historical matters, including compensation for wartime forced laborers and sexual slavery victims. Tokyo insists all wartime issues were settled under a 1965 treaty that normalized bilateral relations, and that Seoul must come up with ways to settle the feud.
Meanwhile, many in Korea believe Japan has not taken adequate responsibility for its colonial atrocities.
Analysts here are pessimistic on a dramatic shift in restoring ties between the neighbors under Seoul’s new leadership.
“There could be political gestures seeking improvement in bilateral relations when the new administration takes office,” said Choi Eun-mi, a Japan expert at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “But it appears difficult for both countries to budge from their basic position. It would require considerable political leadership and efforts to change, which won’t be easy.”
Bumpy road ahead in NK’s nuclear challenges
North Korea’s nuclear challenges also bring the Korean Peninsula to a crossroads. Pyongyang’s recalibrated approach to South Korea and the US and its signal to resume major weapons tests will certainly complicate the next government‘s efforts to resuscitate nuclear talks.
The Kim Jong-un regime has intensively pushed forward its five-year defense development plan since early this year, while alluding to its intent to renounce the self-imposed moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The world is likely to see a long-range rocket launch in the coming months in light of North Korea’s repeated claims that two recent ballistic missile launches this month were to develop a reconnaissance satellite.
The first and foremost task for the incoming government is to mend inter-Korean relations and to create momentum to revive nuclear negotiations. But the question remains as to whether Seoul can create a virtuous cycle of inter-Korean reconciliation and US-North Korea dialogue, and if it can play a leading role.
The prospects for the South-North relationship and nuclear talks will remain dismal in light of Pyongyang’s strategic calculus, reflected in its recent spate of missile launches.
North Korea seeks to raise the stakes for dialogue and engage in nuclear negotiations with enhanced nuclear and missile capabilities to gain an upper hand over the US. It is concurrently preparing for a “long-term confrontation” with the US.
The Kim Jong-un regime has not expressed any interest in coming back to the negotiating table, urging South Korea and the US to withdraw their “hostile policy” toward North Korea and “double standards” over its military buildup and weapons development. Pyongyang’s apathy has led Washington to relegate the North Korea nuclear issue to a lower foreign policy priority.
Under such circumstances, it will be more challenging for the incoming government to pave the way to break the yearslong stalemate and the vicious cycle of nuclear negotiations.