Perizat RISBEK KIZI
In South Korea, the start of the election campaign has officially been announced, the final of which will be the election of a new President in three weeks, on March 9. According to the constitution of the Republic of Korea, the presidential term is five years, and the same person has the right to be elected only once without the right to re-election. This means that the current leader of the Republic of Korea, Moon Jae-in, will soon resign and a new president will appear in the country. And since the outcome of the presidential election is important not only for South Korea, but also for its allies, neighbours and the wider region, public attention is fixated on the main candidates in the upcoming presidential election.
Main candidates in the Presidential election
At least 11 candidates have registered in the presidential race with the National Election Commission. However, despite such a number of candidates, many experts and observers note that everything will really be decided in the confrontation between two people, each of whom represents the country’s dominant political camps – Yoon Suk-yeol from the right-wing conservative camp, now in opposition, and Lee Jae-myung, who represents moderate left nationalists in power since 2017.
The two candidates’ differing perceptions of the geopolitical situation and their preferred course of action will determine whether the next administration will prioritize its security ties with the United States or its political and economic ties with neighbours. No doubt both Yoon and Lee support a strong US-South Korea alliance, but they differ in degree. Thus the Democrat Lee Jae-myung is for the independence of Seoul in foreign policy, while the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol is for further rapprochement with the United States.
- Relations with Japan
In the first televised debate involving Lee, Yoon and two other presidential candidates on Feb. 3, Yoon has revealed that the focus of his diplomatic policies will be centered on a strong alliance with the US and Japan. Yoon is also called for resuming so-called shuttle diplomacy with Japan involving the two countries’ leaders making reciprocal visits to each country, a practice that has been halted since 2011.
Lee on the other hand said that he would decide on the order in a way that is most beneficial depending on circumstances of the time. Kyodo news reported that last November, Lee demanded Japan offer a sincere apology to Koreans mobilized for wartime labour and also condemned Tokyo’s claim to islets in the Sea of Japan, known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea.
- Relations with North Korea
According to many experts, Lee’s stance on security and North Korea in general will be a continuation of the policies of the current administration. On North Korean denuclearization, Lee endorses an “action for action, simultaneous” and “small deal” approach, in which corresponding measures are taken incrementally and in a synchronized manner in exchange for denuclearization steps from North Korea.
As far as Yoon’s security policy is concerned, he is more in favor of tough measures in bringing peace. Thus, Yoon proposes to further strengthen South Korea’s ability to respond to North Korean threats by speeding up the completion of its own triaxial missile defense system. In this context, Yoon seeks to secure preemptive strike capabilities known as Kill Chain, strengthen military capabilities required for implementing the Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) and the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR) systems.
- Relations with China
Lee’s foreign policy stance is emphasizing solid ties with China. “We cannot escape from economic cooperation with China,” he said in one of the interviews. He said Korea should continue to develop a strategic cooperative partnership with China, as 25 percent of Korea’s trade depends on China with a trade surplus of over 50 trillion won a year.
However, Yoon Suk-yeol’s attitude is different from Lee’s. Yoon urges South Korea to reconsider its relationship with China due to serious disagreements over North Korea.
“Seoul must also retool its complex relationship with Beijing. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, and South Korea is a major market for Chinese goods. Despite these economic ties, the countries differ strongly on security concerns, especially when it comes to North Korea. The Chinese government seems to support the denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula rather than just North Korea,” he said.
- Relations with Russia
Lee Jae-myung, as mentioned earlier, tends to maintain a certain 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 Suk-yeol and his entourage, this cannot be expected, since for him maintaining an alliance with the United States is an absolute imperative, while Russia occupies a marginal position in his picture of the world.
Polls of public opinion. Who will win the presidential election?
The latest Realmeter poll published on Sunday indicated that Yoon Suk-yeol from the opposition People Power Party held a narrow lead over the ruling Democratic Party’s Lee Jae-myung. According to the survey, Yoon garnered 41.6 percent of support to Lee’s 39.1 percent. However, other polls show that both main candidates have almost equal support, so that none of the experts and observers undertakes to predict the outcome of the elections, and most likely everything will be decided in the last days or even hours.