By Mehmet Emre Öztürk
The South Korean elections scheduled for March 9, 2022 will not only constitute a turning point in the country’s history; the will also have a great influence on the political balances in the Asia-Pacific. The Democratic Party under the leadership of Moon Jae-In is struggling with internal strife and a series of political scandals, while the conservative People’s Power Party enjoys a rising trend in surveys, indicating possible governance. How will the Presidential elections in the Republic of Korea, the country’s official name, affect the political balances in the Asia-Pacific?
The South Korean politics takes shape along traditions under a fragile democratic roof, and though it seems to enjoy stable and strong bases, it has only after 1987 been able to overcome chaotic rules, coups military dictatorships, transiting to a full constitutional democracy. In 1987, a great workers’ uprising started, supported by the trade unions and the general population, opening the path to the first democratic elections in the country. Having been an important ally of the United States in the region, South Korea in consequence of the protests felt the need to pursue adjustments in domestic and foreign politics under American umbrella.
Elections of March and the candidates
Let us take a look at the candidates of the Presidential elections in March. The flag carrier of the People’s Party is Yoon Suk-yeol is the former Prosecutor-General and a rookie in politics. He has become part of a nation-wide scandal, being accused of helping his wife in falsifying official documents.
The Democratic Party’s candidate is Lee Jae-myung, former governor of the Gyeonggi Province, a ranking member of his party and an experienced political. But public opinion debates his capability of becoming president along accusations that he had beaten his wife, and his son was a gambling addict.
For the people of South Korea, elections are a time when traditional values dominate the debate, but it seems that the U.S. and other governments of the region will be the ones most affected by the results. The U.S. has currently centered its focus on the strategic competition with China in the Asia-Pacific. Washington and its allies are pursuing the goal to unite forces via dialogue forums such as the recently formed QUAD with the US, Japan, India and Australia and security agreements such as the AUKUS.
The Moon administration has followed the tradition of the Democratic Party and rejected to sign any agreement imposed by the U.S. that would have sided Korea with Washington or positioned the country openly against China. This very openly pursued “policy of balance” has to a certain degree helped to maintain possible tensions in the Asia-Pacific under control.
The candidates’ discourses carry existential importance for regional policies. Democratic Party candidate Lee is expected to continue the current Moon administration’s foreign policy line. Lee already establishes a discourse indicating he would reject taking sides in a conflict between Washington and Beijing. He also stated his rejection of a trilateral alliance with the U.S. and Japan and qualified alliances such as the QUAD as “dangerous”.
The conservative candidate Moon on the contrary defends the positions that the cooperation with the U.S. should have greater weight in Korea’s national security policies, technology and climate crisis matters. Yoon met with a group of persons from the U.S., including Washington’s former ambassador in Korea, Kathleen Stephens, and expressed hopes that the U.S.-led alliance would be widened in future. Yoon stated that Seoul should play an active role in constructing a coalition of countries worldwide that defend democracy, human rights and the rules-based-order of international relations. In case of Yoon’s election as president, there is a high probability that Korea and China take adverse positions in foreign policy.
Global Research has published a survey conducted in December, showing that 37% supported Lee, while Yoon received the support of only 28%. But the most recent local surveys indicate that both candidates achieve approximately the same support.
Two incidents in the last weeks have affected the survey results. First was the step of President Moon to issue a special pardon for former President Park Geun-hye, resulting in the latter’s release from jail. This step may have caused disappointment and distance among the supporters of the Democratic Party. But at the same time, it is argued that lots of conservative voters, undecided ones and the supporters of Park maybe positively influenced by this decision of Moon. As a second aspect, the public opinion generally considers that Moon has not pursued a successful policy in the bilateral relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The majority of the young voters considers Moon’s policy of peace and unity with the north as a concession from national security.
Relations with the DPR of Korea
For the Moon Jae-in administration, the Intra-Korean Peace and Unity Process was a “last mission”, but in reality, this is known as the traditional policy of the Democratic Party from the past till today. Moon has followed the path of the former Democratic Party Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-Hyun and crossed to the north of the 38th parallel, enabling an atmosphere of peace.
Intending to continue the policy of peace till the very last day of his administration, Moon called on his New Year address on the DPR of Korea to finish the war and sign a peace treaty. He said “the government will continue its efforts to normalize intra-Korean relations and to achieve peace till the end”.
But the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has realized two different missile tests in the first days of the year, pushing the Moon administration into a difficult context in front of public opinion. Now, political circles discuss that the Democratic Party may leave the Korea policy aside the agenda to get rid of negative news and pursue positive and concrete steps benefiting the voters.
But it would not surprise if Moon, who states to have taken the 9th President Roh Moo-hyun as a role model in both the occupation as lawyer and in is political life, would continue efforts till the very last day. The United States does not consider Moon as an important player in the imperialist competition. But it will be of great importance what political grounds Moon leaves for the time after the elections.