Features | Politics | East Asia

South Korea’s Presidential Showdown: The Forgotten Issue

While the economy dominates the election, South Korea’s next president will have important foreign policy choices to make.

By Jeffrey Robertson for

“It’s the economy, stupid” Bill Clinton said during the 1992 U.S. Presidential Election. The same holds true two decades later in the 2012 South Korean Presidential Election. The most important issue for the South Korean public is job creation and wealth distribution. Global economic challenges, heated island disputes with Japan and China, and increasing uncertainty regarding the future of North Korea, have hardly rated a mention.

South Korea’s Presidential Election, to be held in December, has become a three-horse race between Park Geun-Hye, Moon Jae-In and Ahn Cheol-Soo. The first, a daughter of controversial South Korean authoritarian leader, Park Chung-Hee, has the  support of the conservative elements. The second, an aide to former President Roh Moo-Hyun, is the darling of the progressive left. Meanwhile, the last candidate, a political maverick,  is a medical doctor, university professor, successful entrepreneur and now an independent presidential candidate is popular among the politically disaffected.

Despite the differences in their background and political ideology, all three candidates are similar in how little they’ve discussed foreign policy. To date, each candidate has focused overwhelmingly on domestic issues. In the place of a clear position on specific foreign policy challenges, the public falls back on popular conceptions of how each would respond. As the conservative Park Geun-Hye would be more inclined to support the U.S position in regional affairs; Moon Jae-In, as the progressive contender, would likely seek to position South Korea as a balancer between China and the U.S; and Ahn Cheol-Soo would attempt to keep South Korea out of major-power rivalry, focusing more upon the domestic and regional rather than the international.

Key issues

To date, the closest each candidate has come to foreign policy is North Korea. Each candidate has expressed an interest in moving away from the volatility that has characterized inter-Korean relations during the Lee Myung-Bak administration. Moon Jae-In, by far the most focused in this regard, aims to secure a third North-South Leaders’ Summit by June 2013 and lay the basis for peace, denuclearization, infrastructure development and, ultimately, an Inter-Korean Economic Union. At the other end of the spectrum, Park Geun-Hye’s policy champions an evolution in the current administration’s policies towards further engagement. Ahn, the political independent, holds a position somewhere in the middle.

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South Korea’s foreign policy exists only in the context of North Korea. The next administration will need to be ready to respond to what are now routine provocations, whilst at the same time preparing for a much larger eventuality. Collapse and sudden unification may be remote, but that has often been the case in artificially divided nations, and its impact would be such that the next administration will need to encourage dialogue on the issue with both regional and global partners.

Any discussion of North Korea in Seoul must incorporate the U.S. alliance. The lack of a clear foreign policy platform is likely causing a degree of concern in Washington. The Park team emphasizes the need to maintain a strong U.S. alliance. Both Moon and Ahn have emphasized the need to rebalance South Korea’s relationships between China and the U.S.

There are a number of important issues to be addressed in the South Korea-U.S. relationship, including the transition to an ROK-led military command on the Peninsula in 2015, and the renegotiation of the U.S.-ROK nuclear energy cooperation agreement that expires in March 2014. Regarding the latter, the current cooperation agreement forbids Seoul from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, something that South Korea is hoping to change. Failure to give South Korea the right to reprocess spent nuclear fuel will impact the bilateral relationship, particularly because Japan is allowed to do so under previous U.S.-Japan cooperation agreements. The specter of anti-Americanism in South Korea remains.

Visionary foreign policy leadership needed

The next South Korean president will lead during a period when its foreign policy is blossoming. South Korea has long been a middle-power in terms of capacity. It rests comfortably between major powers and minor powers in the economic, political and military realms. Over the last ten years it has also started to act as a middle-power, exhibiting an activist diplomatic stance, coalition building, accumulating strong multilateral credentials, establishing distinct niche interests, and demonstrating “good international citizenship.”

The next step in this middle-power trajectory is visionary foreign policy leadership. As an activist middle-power, South Korea can play a niche role in shaping global responses to looming issues.

South Korea holds a strong interest in supporting the global transition to green development. Over the last five years it has promoted a “green growth” model of sustainable economic growth. It has encouraged private and public sector investment in new technologies such as renewable energy, electric cars, rechargeable batteries and LEDs. It is now seeking to export these strategies by transforming the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) into an international organization.

Commensurate with that, Seoul has already demonstrated its niche interest in tackling development issues. As a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC)– and the only member to transform from an authoritarian aid recipient to a democratic aid provider–  Seoul has a particularly important role to play. Projects such as K-Developedia and the Knowledge Sharing Program (KSP) share Korea’s economic development experience and contemporary best practices with least-developed and developing partners across the globe.

Seoul’s middle-power activism is ultimately guided by self-interest. South Korea relies upon the health of the global economy with a trade dependency rate greatly exceeding comparable states. Regional and multilateral trade liberalization efforts are begging for the inspired leadership of an activist middle-power coalition builder like South Korea. Building on its development credentials, Seoul is well placed to lead developed and developing states towards a conclusion of the Doha round World Trade Organization (WTO) multilateral trade liberalization talks.

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The tools for visionary foreign policy leadership

South Korea’s foreign policy machinery is well prepared. The candidates have assembled strong foreign policy teams, relying on a number of familiar faces in South Korea’s foreign policy elite.

Heading Park Geun-Hye’s, for instance, is Yun Byung-Se, who previously served as the Senior Presidential Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Security and Unification Policy under President Roh Moo-Hyun and Deputy Foreign Minister at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT). Yun’s background and experience is built on professionalism rather than politics, ensuring policy advice will be strong.

Moon Jai-In has similarly appointed advisors with a background of service under Roh Moo-Hyun, including Moon Chung-in. Moon is a professor of political science at Yonsei University and was the Chairman of the Presidential Committee on the Northeast Asia Cooperation Initiative during the Roh administration.

Ahn Cheol-Soo’s team, like the candidate himself, appears less influenced by individuals with experience serving in previous administrations. The team has a stronger focus on the academic as opposed to the professional side of diplomacy. Those recruited to date include Paik Hak-soon, a Senior Research Fellow at the Sejong Institute; Kim Keun-Sik, a Research Professor at the Institute of East Asian Studies at Kyungnam University; and Kim Yeon-Chul, a Professor at Inje University.

The successful candidate and their team will have the tools to pursue a middle-power leadership role. Budgeting for foreign affairs, public diplomacy, aid and development, has increased over the last five years. While other states are rapidly downsizing and shuttering diplomatic posts, South Korea has opened new posts. After a long period of chronic personnel shortages, it is now on a campaign to recruit and train both diplomats and administrative staff.

The newly established Korea National Diplomatic Academy (KNDA) has moved past its previous headline-grabbing scandals involving errant diplomats and recruitment injustices, and is now drawing attention for its new moral code for diplomatic personnel. In August, it was announced that this will be the first year that more female candidates pass the foreign-service entrance exam than their male counterparts. Its efforts to engage the public through Facebook, Ustream and Twitter are also paying dividends with polls showing an increased level of public interest in foreign policy issues.

The candidates have strong foreign policy teams ready to tackle the challenges ahead. The MOFAT is revamped, modern and ready. The only question still unanswered is also the most important – are the candidates themselves ready to provide visionary foreign policy leadership? We will not know until after the votes are cast – until then, it’s the economy, stupid.

Jeffrey Robertson is a visiting professor at the KDI School of Public Policy and Management.