Presidential elections will be held in South Korea in early March. Given that there will be about a dozen candidates, as one might expect, everyone understands that the real struggle for the presidency will be led by representatives of the country’s two main political camps: Yoon Seok-youl, representing the right-wing conservative camp, which is now in opposition, and Lee Jae-myung, representing the moderate left-wing nationalists, who have been in power since 2017. Nobody can predict the outcome of the elections: as often happens in Korea, polls show that both main candidates have almost equal support, so that everything will be decided in the last days or even hours.
Here, perhaps, an explanation is needed. For more than 30 years, South Korea has had a fairly stable two-party system, with just one peculiarity: once every few years, usually on the eve of the presidential elections, South Korean political parties undergo “rebranding”. Each of the two political camps from time to time announces the dissolution of the party that until that moment was its, so to speak, political face, and the creation of a new party in its place. At the same time, however, in the new party practically all key posts are occupied by the leaders of the disbanded party, and its programme is practically the same as the programme of the predecessor party. By and large, this is just a regular change of a logo, which does not mislead anyone in Korea.
Over the past 15-20 years, the differences between the two political camps (we will use this term instead of the term “parties”) have significantly decreased. This applies to all spheres, including, of course, foreign policy, which is what interests our readers.
The right-wing conservative forces, now in opposition, generally continue the political tradition of the military regimes that ruled Korea in 1961-1987. In foreign policy, these forces are almost unconditionally oriented toward Washington.
South Korean left-wing nationalists, or, as they prefer to call themselves, “progressists”, in large part come from the radical, nationalist and left-wing revolutionary student movement of the late 1980s. During their romantic revolutionary youth, many of their leaders fought with the police, read the works of Mao Zedong, Kim Il Sung and Che Guevara (sometimes also Marx and Gramsci) and, of course, burned American flags.
However, already in the 1990s these people began to largely lose their former radicalism. The dreams of a socialist revolution on South Korean soil, which they had in their student years, gradually melted away. Nationalism, which was directed primarily against the United States and Japan, also weakened — although not as quickly as dreams of a proletarian revolution.
In our time, the differences on foreign policy between the two camps may have not disappeared, but they have become much less profound. However, we should remember that foreign policy issues in Korea usually have little impact on the outcome of elections, and are on the periphery of the interests of South Korean voters. The upcoming 2022 presidential election appears to be no exception in this regard.
In recent years, Korea has been recovering its consensus on relations with the United States that existed until the end of the 1980, sometimes shaken by student radicalism.
Representatives of the right-wing conservative camp (Yoon Seok-youl and his advisers) are supporters of an unconditional orientation towards the United States. However, even the “progressists” led by Lee Jae-myung no longer question not only the need for a U.S.-South Korean alliance, but also the desirability of focusing on the United States in matters of foreign policy.
The changing attitude towards China in recent years also plays a role. Until 2016-2017, a moderately positive (albeit somewhat arrogant) attitude towards the nation’s giant eastern neighbour prevailed in South Korea. However, in the last 4-5 years, public opinion towards China began to deteriorate rapidly — as indicated by opinion polls and simply the experience of direct communication with Koreans. It is enough to say that, according to the Pew Institute, in 2002 only 31% of South Koreans said they had “negative feelings” towards China, whereas in 2020 71% of South Koreans had such feelings. In addition, it is significant that the degree of hostility towards China largely depends on age: the younger the resident of South Korea, the more likely it is that he or she will have a negative attitude towards China.
In such an environment, it is not surprising that both the right-wing conservative and the progressive camps are almost equally emphasising their readiness to orient themselves towards Washington. Nevertheless, the conservatives accuse their opponents of not being pro-American enough in their stance. Of course, these accusations, like any election propaganda, are an exaggeration, but there is some small grain of truth in them. From the point of view of Russia, this circumstance should be of some interest. In general, it will be somewhat better for Russia if the next president of South Korea is Lee Jae-myung.
Lee Jae-myung is inclined to maintain a certain, albeit moderate, degree of autonomy in relations with Washington. In practice, this may mean that in the event of a further aggravation of relations between Russia and the United States, the Lee Jae-myung administration will show some caution in supporting Washington’s anti-Russian initiatives. In the case of Yoon Seok-youl and his entourage, this cannot be counted on — the need to maintain an alliance with the United States is an absolute imperative, while Russia occupies a marginal position in his vision of the world.
One can pay attention to the fact that the main foreign policy advisor to Lee Jae-myung is the career diplomat Wi Sung-lac, an expert on Russia and Eastern Europe, who, in particular, was the ambassador to Moscow in 2011-2015. In general, Wi Sung-lac is a supporter of a pragmatic course, which given South Korea’s condition, of course, means a pro-American course. Nevertheless, he has a rather positive attitude towards Russia and is in favour of maintaining a certain autonomy in the American-Chinese confrontation. On the other hand, the Americanist Kim Sung-han is responsible for Yoon Seok-youl’s foreign policy programme, he is undoubtedly knowledgeable and erudite, but unconditionally focused on preserving and strengthening the alliance with the United States.
Perhaps the only foreign policy issue where there are noticeable differences between the two candidates is the policy towards Japan and North Korea. Traditionally, South Korean “progressists” are supporters of contacts with Pyongyang, including trade and economic ties. They understand perfectly that this trade is possible only if it is subsidised by the South Korean budget, and they are ready to provide these subsidies.
This circumstance allows the opponents of the “progressists” to accuse them of being “Pyongyang sympathisers”, which many of them, incidentally, really were 30 years ago. These accusations are greatly exaggerated, although, unlike the conservatives, the “progressists” do not view North Korea as an enemy on a reflex level.
On the contrary, conservatives are supporters not so much of a tough position in relations with North Korea as of the maximum disregard for the very fact of the existence of another Korean state. The conservatives are confident that practically all economic and trade ties with North Korea represent a loss for the South (this, by the way, is absolutely true) and ultimately contribute to the build-up of North Korean nuclear missile potential. Therefore, the conservatives would prefer not to have any relations with the North at all.
Another area in which there may be a discrepancy between the likely Lee Jae-myung administration and a possible Yoon Seok-youl administration is the nation’s policy toward Japan. Traditionally, Japan has been the main enemy of South Korean nationalists, both right and left. In recent years, however, sentiment in favour of reconciliation with Japan has grown stronger among the South Korean right.
On the contrary, among the “progressists”, who are far more nationalistic than their opponents, anti-Japanese sentiment remains strong. Lee Jae-myung tries to gain political points on this issue from time to time. He emphasises that he will seek concessions from Japan on issues related to Korea’s colonial past.
In general, the importance of the elections should not be overestimated: both candidates operate within the rigid framework set by the current political situation, their freedom of manoeuvre is limited, and any election outcome will have little effect on Seoul’s foreign policy. Nevertheless, there are “nuances” in the situation that foreign observers should pay attention to.