Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

South Korea’s New President Understands the Threat From Pyongyang

Yoon Suk-yeol’s victory tightens the alliance with Washington.

By , an assistant professor at the Wilder School of Government & Public Affairs.
South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol gestures during a ceremony at the National Assembly Library in Seoul on March 10.
South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol gestures during a ceremony at the National Assembly Library in Seoul on March 10.
South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol gestures during a ceremony at the National Assembly Library in Seoul on March 10. Song Kyung-Seok/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Populist conservative candidate Yoon Suk-yeol’s victory in the recent South Korean presidential election is a victory for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. Primarily campaigning on an effort to reduce soaring housing prices, Yoon appealed to social traditionalism and populist economics to draw in voters. For Washington, Yoon’s victory will strengthen the U.S.-South Korea alliance and reinvigorate this vitally strategic partnership. For the last five years, the leftist Moon administration in Seoul has appeased Pyongyang. Yoon’s victory will be a boon for the U.S.-South Korea alliance and strengthening South Korea’s own democratic defenses against North Korean antagonism.

Outgoing President Moon Jae-in’s inter-Korea policy was premised on the naive belief that dialogue with Pyongyang would yield tangible peacebuilding measures. His party’s candidate in the 2022 election, Lee Jae-myung, would have continued this approach. Moon continuously sought to sign a peace treaty with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that would ostensibly end the Korean War.

Many progressives saw a peace treaty as an important step in restoring goodwill between the two Koreas. In actuality, this peace treaty would have removed any rationale for the continued presence of U.S. troops on South Korean soil and, more importantly, endangered the internal stability of the South with a constitutional crisis. For their part, the family-run autocracy north of the Demilitarized Zone saw these engagement efforts from Seoul as important legitimacy-building measures.

Populist conservative candidate Yoon Suk-yeol’s victory in the recent South Korean presidential election is a victory for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. Primarily campaigning on an effort to reduce soaring housing prices, Yoon appealed to social traditionalism and populist economics to draw in voters. For Washington, Yoon’s victory will strengthen the U.S.-South Korea alliance and reinvigorate this vitally strategic partnership. For the last five years, the leftist Moon administration in Seoul has appeased Pyongyang. Yoon’s victory will be a boon for the U.S.-South Korea alliance and strengthening South Korea’s own democratic defenses against North Korean antagonism.

Outgoing President Moon Jae-in’s inter-Korea policy was premised on the naive belief that dialogue with Pyongyang would yield tangible peacebuilding measures. His party’s candidate in the 2022 election, Lee Jae-myung, would have continued this approach. Moon continuously sought to sign a peace treaty with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that would ostensibly end the Korean War.

Many progressives saw a peace treaty as an important step in restoring goodwill between the two Koreas. In actuality, this peace treaty would have removed any rationale for the continued presence of U.S. troops on South Korean soil and, more importantly, endangered the internal stability of the South with a constitutional crisis. For their part, the family-run autocracy north of the Demilitarized Zone saw these engagement efforts from Seoul as important legitimacy-building measures.

Despite the often repeated stereotype of North Korea as an isolated government, Pyongyang wants to be accepted as a member of the international community. However, it wants to do this under its own terms. That would mean the unequivocal acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear-armed state and a recognition of the North as the legitimate Korean government. Under Moon, Seoul often turned a blind eye to North Korea’s human rights violations and nuclear provocations.

The North Korean government’s goal on the peninsula is not a mere peace treaty but eventual reunification of the two Koreas under Pyongyang’s terms. North Korea is not in the business of peacebuilding but rather militarism and belligerence. It seeks the slow withering away of South Korean political institutions and democratic norms. South Korean engagement with the North will not stem the nuclear provocations of the Kim family regime but rather embolden Kim Jong Un to push for more conciliations from Seoul.

The Kim family regime will keep moving the goal posts for inter-Korean dialogue until the progressives in Seoul are stretched so far that they start undermining their own political institutions in service of a hereditary dictatorship. Moon’s Democratic Party already has a history of appeasing the North Korean leadership. After furious remarks from Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong, South Korean lawmakers—led by the Democratic Party—voted in 2020 to ban the flying of leaflets toward North Korea by South Korean human rights activists.

This fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the North Korean regime has long hampered the South Korean left. The left views North Korea from an ethnonationalist lens and emphasizes the ethnic kinship between the two Koreas. This nativist perspective emphasizes anti-Japanism, a distrust of great powers, and the purity of the Korean people. South Korean leftists view the North Korean government as wayward brothers more than a dangerous enemy.

During his campaign, Yoon pledged to meet Kim Jong Un only if working-level talks preceded a diplomatic summit. Meanwhile, Moon met the North Korean leader, without preconditions, three times in 2018 alone and did little to address human rights abuses in talks with the North Korean leadership. Yoon compared Moon’s summit diplomacy to a “show” that worked well for media coverage but yielded no real results in securing peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Yoon also said he would launch a preemptive strike on North Korea’s recently developed hypersonic missiles in the event of a military conflict. This strong language may seem inflammatory, but the realists in Pyongyang only understand hard power and military strength. It seems that Yoon understands North Korea for what it is: a pro-reunification revolutionary regime that violates the personal freedoms of its citizens on an unprecedented scale and is hellbent on developing its military capabilities. Yoon has already identified the Kim family regime as South Korea’s “main enemy” and signaled that he will prioritize human rights in inter-Korean relations.

Yoon’s victory is also important for realigning U.S. and South Korean security interests. Yoon has promised “strategic clarity” in declaring South Korea’s pro-American stance on matters of U.S.-China relations. The president-elect has also spoken of the importance of liberal democracy and human rights in Seoul’s foreign policy. Compared with Yoon’s stance that South Korea needs to rise to the status of a “global pivotal state,” the Moon administration was often hesitant in condemning Chinese human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. In an era of authoritarian resurgence and great-power competition, Moon failed to assert South Korea’s global commitment to the rule of law and democratic norms.

Fearing an economic backlash from China, Moon simply eschewed raising human rights in talks with Beijing. Despite his background as a human rights lawyer, Moon’s moral weakness toward confronting authoritarian aggression was recently on display when his administration decided to not issue unilateral sanctions on Russia after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The incumbent administration’s softhanded approach to authoritarianism was shortsighted and signaled to the world that Seoul was not ready to play a leading role in the international liberal order.

Putin’s war on Ukraine may embolden the autocrats in Beijing and Pyongyang to carry out their own military adventurism in the Asia-Pacific region. For the past five years, a China-backed Pyongyang has viewed the leadership in Seoul as weak and easily manipulated. South Korea is geographically located in a complex security theater, and the Yoon administration will have to be strong against the rising tide of authoritarianism. It is imperative that Yoon follow through on his campaign promises to take a principled stand on human rights and combating authoritarianism in South Korea’s foreign policy.

Benjamin R. Young is an assistant professor at the Wilder School of Government & Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of Guns, Guerillas, and the Great Leader: North Korea and the Third World.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.