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Why South Korea’s Presidential Election Matters to the U.S.

It’s the first in recent memory to feature substantive foreign-policy differences between the ruling and opposition camps.

By , a senior fellow in the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute, a professor at Georgetown University, and the former National Security Council director for Asian affairs.
Lee Jae-myung and Yoon Seok-youl stand side by side in front of podiums; both wear face masks.
Lee Jae-myung and Yoon Seok-youl stand side by side in front of podiums; both wear face masks.
Lee Jae-myung (left), presidential election candidate for South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party, and Yoon Seok-youl (right), candidate for the main opposition People Power Party, attend a ceremony to mark the first stock trading day of the year at the Korea Exchange in Seoul on Jan. 3. KIM HONG-JI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Americans should pay close attention to South Korea’s upcoming presidential election on March 9, as it will have real ramifications for U.S. policy.

It will be the first South Korean election in recent memory where there are substantive foreign-policy differences between the ruling and opposition camps beyond their standard divergent views of North Korea. This time, the two sides also disagree on important alliance issues; energy and climate change issues; dealings with China; and whether South Korea should pursue a seat at the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad), composed of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia.

Which means whether Yoon Seok-youl, a former prosecutor general and lawyer representing the opposition conservative People Power Party, or Lee Jae-myung, a former governor of one of Korea’s provinces and candidate from the ruling progressive Democratic Party, wins in March will make a difference across the Indo-Pacific region.

Americans should pay close attention to South Korea’s upcoming presidential election on March 9, as it will have real ramifications for U.S. policy.

It will be the first South Korean election in recent memory where there are substantive foreign-policy differences between the ruling and opposition camps beyond their standard divergent views of North Korea. This time, the two sides also disagree on important alliance issues; energy and climate change issues; dealings with China; and whether South Korea should pursue a seat at the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad), composed of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia.

Which means whether Yoon Seok-youl, a former prosecutor general and lawyer representing the opposition conservative People Power Party, or Lee Jae-myung, a former governor of one of Korea’s provinces and candidate from the ruling progressive Democratic Party, wins in March will make a difference across the Indo-Pacific region.

In South Korea, the terms progressive and conservative are largely defined by attitudes toward North Korea, and approaches to North Korea are likely to mimic previous progressive and conservative administrations in Seoul. Progressives like current South Korean President Moon Jae-in favor engagement with the North, seeing Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program as the manifestation of the North Korean regime’s insecurity and political isolation. They are likely to support the advancement of a peace declaration and inter-Korean economic and humanitarian projects. Conservatives, meanwhile, hold a more skeptical view of North Korean intentions and take a tougher line.

Where the parties are paving new ground is in other foreign-policy and alliance matters, such as the question of whether to resume joint military exercises with the United States. Then-U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally canceled these exercises after his 2018 Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The progressive ruling party candidate hasn’t committed clearly to a resumption of such exercises, which might be a bid to avert triggering North Korean belligerence. The conservative party candidate has been more willing to entertain the prospect. This matters for the United States because the indefinite cessation of exercises reduces the readiness of U.S. and South Korean forces, which could undermine the credibility of deterrence on the peninsula and invite North Korean miscalculation.

Another issue is the transfer of wartime operational command authority to South Korea. Known as “OPCON transfer,” this would see South Korea exercise control over a war against North Korea rather than the United States, which speaks to South Korea’s growth and maturation into having one of the top militaries in the world today. The United States, while agreeing in principle to completing the OPCON transfer in a timely manner, wants to confirm that its ally meets the necessary operational requirements and conditions to effect the transfer. The ruling progressive party advocates an early handover, but doing so without adequate preparation could put the alliance in danger.

A third issue relates to energy and climate. The ruling party has upheld a phasing out of South Korea’s civil nuclear energy industry after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, whereas the opposition has opposed the current government’s plan. Nuclear energy will be critical for countries like South Korea to meet their carbon-zero targets by 2050. Before the Moon government’s policies, South Korea was emerging as one of the major nuclear energy players, with a major reactor sale to the United Arab Emirates. Should the opposition candidate win and reverse the nuclear phase-out, the country could once again become an important player. The United States is much better off with allies like South Korea shaping the global civil nuclear energy market’s standards for the safety and security of nuclear reactors and fuel, without which Russia and China would dominate the market.

There are also significant gaps between the parties on relations with China. The conservatives call for “strategic clarity” and policies based on democratic values, acknowledging China’s economic importance while remaining wary of its coercive tactics—such as the unofficial but biting sanctions Beijing imposed on South Korea after the United States in 2016 announced plans to install a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile defense system in Seongju, South Korea.

By contrast, the ruling progressives are more cautious about joining the Biden administration in shifting to strategic competition with China. They do not support the Biden administration’s diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and are wary of additional missile defense cooperation with the United States. They still see Beijing as critical to engagement with North Korea. Although memories of the THAAD sanctions don’t easily fade, the progressives believe they must be subjugated to a more nuanced balancing of immediate economic and security priorities.

Differences between the two sides are most obvious over the Quad. This was one of the Biden administration’s first and most significant Asia initiatives, bringing together the leaders of four major democracies—the United States, Japan, Australia, and India—to work on the most important issues of the day, including climate change, supply chain resiliency, and COVID-19 vaccines.

I have heard from reliable sources that South Korea was offered a spot at the table ahead of the first Quad summit in March 2021 and declined. The ruling party’s presidential candidate has remained silent on South Korea’s potential membership in the Quad. By contrast, I have heard opposition party leaders state openly that, under their government, Seoul would seek immediate Quad membership.

Whether Seoul does indeed decide to pursue Quad members matters greatly for the current U.S. administration because South Korea is a critical global supplier of high-demand products such as memory chips, electric batteries, and medical personal protective equipment. Having this important U.S. ally sit outside the coalition would impact supply chains related to the manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, next-generation wireless networks, and climate change efforts.

Of course, there are many areas in which both sides would likely continue the current government’s work with the United States. Last year’s summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Moon laid out a fantastic agenda for the alliance that would be uncontroversial under a conservative or progressive government.

The United States will work with whichever government comes into power this May as a good ally. But for the first time, this election will trigger a true national debate in South Korea on all these issues, making its outcome incredibly important for the United States and its policies in Asia.

Victor Cha is a senior fellow in the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute, a professor at Georgetown University, and the former National Security Council director for Asian affairs. Twitter: @VictorDCha

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