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South Korea’s Presidential Race Is Neck and Neck

With less than six weeks to go, neither main candidate has a strong grip on voters.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Yoon Seok-youl and Lee Jae-myung shake hands.
Yoon Seok-youl and Lee Jae-myung shake hands.
Yoon Seok-youl (right), presidential election candidate for South Korea’s main opposition People Power Party, shakes hands with Lee Jae-myung (left), presidential election candidate for the ruling Democratic Party, in Seoul on Jan. 3. KIM HONG-JI/POOL/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: South Korea’s presidential race enters final six-week stretch, the United States hands over written responses to Russia’s demands, and Xiomara Castro assumes the presidency of Honduras.

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South Korea’s Presidential Race Heats Up

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: South Korea’s presidential race enters final six-week stretch, the United States hands over written responses to Russia’s demands, and Xiomara Castro assumes the presidency of Honduras.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


South Korea’s Presidential Race Heats Up

South Korea’s presidential race is heating up as the main contenders are set to meet next week for their first live debate to make their cases to succeed President Moon Jae-in.

With less than six weeks to go until a vote on March 9, the choice is largely between two candidates: Yoon Seok-youl of the conservative People Power Party and Lee Jae-myung of Moon’s Democratic Party.

Both men are relative outsiders in South Korean politics, as S. Nathan Park noted in FP this month, with neither following the customary path from the legislature to the Blue House. Yoon made his name as the prosecutor who helped put former South Korean President Park Geun-hye behind bars, whereas Lee was most recently the governor of Gyeonggi, the country’s most populous province.

Yoon had initially been the front-runner by a large margin until a series of scandals and party infighting dragged him down. Lee has led most polls in January, but Yoon has shown some resilience, leading in the two most recent polls.

As well as the immediate issue of navigating South Korea out of the coronavirus pandemic, the winning candidate will be expected to address widening inequality and a cost of living crisis that has plagued the world’s 10th largest economy. The problem is most acute in the housing market, where the average price for homes in the greater Seoul area has doubled in the past five years.

Lee has talked up one solution to the country’s economic divide: a universal basic income as well as plans for basic housing and finance programs.

Those lofty goals have yet to be matched by the campaign’s tone, which has been noted for its mudslinging. With both candidates campaigning while managing a slew of scandals, voters will have to decide between which party they think is the lesser of two evils, Soo Kim, a Korea analyst at the RAND Corporation, told Foreign Policy. The choice will essentially come down to “which one can we tolerate for the next five years,” Kim added. “Hopefully, either Lee or Yoon will be able to disprove that.”

On foreign policy, the two men present starkly different visions, as Victor Cha notes in Foreign Policy. Although it’s common for a progressive and conservative candidate to disagree on North Korea policy, an array of other diplomatic issues divide the candidates this time around, with differences apparent on China, the military relationship with the United States, and energy policy.


What We’re Following Today

Ukraine developments. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has declared the ball in Russia’s court after written responses to Russian demands on NATO expansion and security guarantees were returned to Moscow on Wednesday. Although yet to be published, the responses are likely to track with verbal statements already made by Blinken, which included a rejection of any attempts to restrict NATO expansion but offered cooperation on arms control and military exercises.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko indicated that Russia would be in no rush to react. “We will read it. Study it. The partners studied our project for almost a month and a half,” Grushko said.

While the United States awaits Russia’s response, the prospects for a resolution to Ukraine’s war with pro-Russian separatists have become brighter following Wednesday’s Normandy Format talks in Paris. Russian official Dmitry Kozak said the meeting had reconfirmed a cease-fire and that four-way talks would continue in two weeks to talk through interpretations of the Minsk Protocol.

Castro’s inauguration. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris will be among the audience of dignitaries today in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, for the inauguration of Xiomara Castro, who is set to become the country’s first female president. Castro’s first days in office are already likely to prove difficult after a rebellion in her Libre party blocked the election of her preferred candidate for president of the National Congress last week.

Her immediate predecessor, Juan Orlando Hernández, is expected to face a much stiffer challenge, with a U.S. indictment for drug trafficking reportedly imminent.

The India-Central Asia summit. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the virtual host of today’s India-Central Asia summit, with the presidents of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan all expected to attend the online event. The meeting, which is expected to discuss Afghanistan as well as regional integration, is the first to take place at the leader level.


Keep an Eye On

Afghanistan’s crisis. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has called for the unfreezing of around $9 billion of Afghan central bank reserves held in U.S. institutions, as he warned that the country is “hanging by a thread.” The United States froze the funds in August 2021 to prevent them from entering Taliban hands. Chinese U.N. ambassador Zhang Jun has condemned the U.S. asset freeze as “no less lethal than military intervention.”

Lukashenko speaks. Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko is set to address an extraordinary session of parliament today, though his office has yet to give a reason for the speech. It’s possible Lukashenko is delivering a long-delayed annual address after he failed to deliver one in 2021.


Odds and Ends

The tiny European nation of Andorra suffered a widespread internet outage earlier this week, affecting more than half the population of roughly 77,000 people, as a result of a cyberattack on the country’s sole telecom company. Was the culprit a state actor? A ransomware gang? Authorities have yet to find those responsible, but they have a motive: forcing competitors offline in a livestreamed tournament for the online game Minecraft, with the last player standing set to win a $100,000 prize.

Although they were knocked out due to the outages, Andorra-based players Auron (who has more than 11.5 million followers on his Twitch channel) and Rubius (11 million followers) have not given up their competitive streak and have offered a $10,000 reward for whoever finds the hacker responsible.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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