Presidential candidates show sharp contrast in foreign policy direction - The Korea Times
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Presidential candidates show sharp contrast in foreign policy direction

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By Kang Seung-woo

In every presidential election, the candidates' vision for North Korea and their views on foreign policy have been among the most important issues. In particular, with North Korea continuing to modernizing its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles arsenal, and U.S.-Sino rivalry intensifying, their foreign policy principles are carrying additional significance.

With less than 100 days left until the presidential election, scheduled for March 9, 2022, ruling Democratic Party of Korea candidate Lee Jae-myung and main opposition People Power Party candidate Yoon Suk-yeol seem to be heading in different foreign policy directions.

Lee plans to take the initiative in the nation's diplomacy with the United States, China and Japan, based on the national interest, while continuing the Moon Jae-in administration's policy of playing an active role in Korean Peninsula issues. To the contrary, Yoon's vision for foreign affairs and diplomacy is focused on enhancing the South Korea-U.S. alliance, while reinforcing expanded deterrence and international cooperation on the denuclearization of North Korea.

On inter-Korean relations, Lee is taking a "reward first, denuclearization later" approach in order to aggressively engage the reclusive state. Believing that pre-emptive inter-Korean economic cooperation could pave the way for the North to give up its nuclear program over the long term, the 57-year-old is asserting that a conditional lifting of sanctions on Pyongyang in return for denuclearization steps along with a "snapback clause," which would re-impose sanctions immediately if North Korea fails to comply with its denuclearization promises, would be effective.

In addition, Lee is an advocate of President Moon's push for an official declaration ending the Korea War, which he believes would be a starting point to resume stalled inter-Korean talks, while pledging to play a "mediator" role in U.S.-North Korea relations by meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden or North Korean leader Kim Jong-un upon becoming president.

Lee Jae-myung, right, the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, shakes hands with Daniel Kritenbrink, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, during a meeting at the party's headquarters in Seoul, Nov. 11. Korea Times photo by Oh Dae-geun
Lee Jae-myung, right, the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, shakes hands with Daniel Kritenbrink, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, during a meeting at the party's headquarters in Seoul, Nov. 11. Korea Times photo by Oh Dae-geun

In contrast to Lee's pledges, Yoon, 60, is pushing a denuclearization-first approach, countering North Korea's threats via U.S. extended deterrence, while vowing to open trilateral communication hotlines between South and North Korea and the U.S.

Claiming that the Moon administration has favored North Korea during the past four years, thereby placing inter-Korean ties into a "master-servant relationship" and weakening the South's national security, Yoon has pledged to work together with the U.S. in order to achieve denuclearization.

Yoon opposes the push for an "end-of-war declaration," believing that there would be considerable side effects if this was done before security threats from the North are removed.

Concerning tensions between the U.S. and China, Lee emphasizes the importance to leverage Korea's position between the two powerhouses ― as Washington is a longtime security ally, while Beijing is the nation's largest trading partner.

"Solid progress in South Korea-U.S. ties and strategic cooperation with China are the cornerstone of national interest-centered practical diplomacy," Lee said, adding that he would encourage the U.S. and China to seek closer cooperation with South Korea.

In addition, he insists that the nation needs to act between the two sides on an issue-by-issue basis.

For Yoon's part, he is stressing a comprehensive strategic alliance with the U.S. on all international issues such as Taiwan and the semiconductor supply chain, believing that South Korea's response to each pending issue between the U.S. and China gives little room for Seoul to maneuver.

Yoon Suk-yeol, right, the presidential candidate of the main opposition People Power Party, poses with Chinese Ambassador to South Korea Xing Haiming during their meeting at the party's headquarters in Seoul, Nov. 19. Korea Times photo by Oh Dae-geun
Yoon Suk-yeol, right, the presidential candidate of the main opposition People Power Party, poses with Chinese Ambassador to South Korea Xing Haiming during their meeting at the party's headquarters in Seoul, Nov. 19. Korea Times photo by Oh Dae-geun

Finally, on Korea-Japan ties, like the Moon administration, Lee is also adopting a two-track approach toward Japan that separates historical and territorial disputes from social and economic cooperation.

During last month's discussion at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents' Club, Lee said perceptions that he was hawkish about Japan were a "misunderstanding" because he personally loves the Japanese people and thinks highly of their frugality, diligence and politeness.

As for Yoon, he pledges to seek a comprehensive solution to issues of history, trade and national security.

"I will design a new 50 years for South Korea-Japan relations marked by shared values and interests, and the creation of trust," he said during a meeting with foreign correspondents in Seoul, also held last month.


Kang Seung-woo ksw@koreatimes.co.kr


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