Historically, South Korea has engaged in a delicate balancing act between the United States and China, with its domestic priorities oscillating between economic considerations and values. As the China-U.S. rivalry intensifies in their quest for global dominance, both countries have been exerting pressure on South Korea to pledge its allegiance to their respective sides.
A review of the foreign policies rolled out during the first year of President Yoon Suk-yeol’s administration suggests that South Korea has made a choice. However, it is important to recognize that this decision appears to reflect the stance of the administration itself and not necessarily a consensus within the country, especially from the opposition party. Ironically, despite Yoon’s concerted efforts on foreign policy, it is this very area of external strategy that the main opposition, the Democratic Party, is exploiting as a means to critique him and his People Power Party (PPP).
South Korea’s positioning in the geopolitical tensions between the United States and China has developed into a domestic conflict between the two major parties. Each offers a distinct diplomatic vision, intensifying the already heightened polarization within the electorate.
The PPP’s Standpoint: Aligning with the U.S. and Japan
The heightened tensions between China and South Korea, characterized by sharp criticisms from the Chinese side, seem to have been exacerbated by recent events. The Yoon-Biden summit in April and Yoon’s collaboration with allies in the G-7, including Japan, contributed to the momentum of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at containing China. Additionally, Yoon’s interview with Reuters, in which he criticized China’s actions toward Taiwan, further aggravated the situation.
The infuriated reaction from the Chinese end, as demonstrated by the Chinese Ambassador Xing Haiming’s recent remarks, dampened the optimism for positive relations between South Korea and China. The episode also showcased the domestic political tensions lying underneath Seoul’s foreign policy, as Democratic Party leader, Lee Jae-myung, was sitting next to the Chinese envoy while Xing delivered his criticisms.
The PPP has defended Yoon’s pro-American Indo-Pacific strategy, the stance they maintained since the presidential election. PPP figures vehemently criticized the remarks made by the Chinese ambassador, but also lambasted Lee for aligning with criticisms of Seoul’s foreign policy made by a foreign government representative. In an official statement released after Lee’s meeting with Xing, the PPP described the event as a “diplomatic tragedy” that undermines South Korea’s national stature.
Since then, the ruling party has furthered their efforts against China, as signaled by PPP leader Kim Gi-hyeon, who proposed revoking the voting rights of Chinese residents in South Korea. While the bill based its rhetoric on reciprocity, this proposal reflects the escalating tensions and the deepening divide in South Korean politics concerning the nation’s diplomatic direction and relations with major global powers, notably China and the United States.
The Democratic Party’s Orientation: Leaning Toward China, Critical of Japan
While the Yoon administration is focused on strengthening the value-based alliance with the United States and its main allies, the Democratic Party (DP), which holds a majority in the Korean National Assembly, is taking a different approach by calling for more cooperation with China. The DP is critical of Yoon’s policies, which emphasize strengthening ties with close allies, labeling this approach as confrontational and biased. They argue that these policies jeopardize the security and prosperity of the Korean Peninsula.
In addition to their domestic political maneuverings, the Democratic Party is actively pursuing its own diplomatic channel with China. In addition to Lee’s meeting with the Chinese ambassador, the DP has dispatched delegations of lawmakers to engage with Chinese government officials and business representatives, signaling an effort to maintain and foster bilateral relations independent of the administration’s policies.
Moreover, the DP is notably critical of Japan. They have been vocally opposing the Yoon government’s decision to engage with Japan concerning the forced labor dispute, part of a broader attempt to fortify the South Korea-U.S.-Japan trilateral alliance.
The DP’s skepticism extends to environmental issues; recently, DP politicians have been particularly active in criticizing the administration and the PPP’s perceived tacit support of Japan’s plan to release Fukushima wastewater into the ocean. Using the nationalist rhetoric of framing Seoul and PPP members as pro-Japanese traitors, the opposition is seeking ways to bolster their position while vilifying their opponents as National Assembly elections draw closer.
The Risks of Continued Division
The discord over South Korea’s foreign policy direction is exacerbating the already substantial polarization within Korean politics. A recent poll conducted by the Eurasia Group Foundation indicates that more than two-thirds of South Koreans are anxious about the China-U.S. conflict, as they believe it will further intensify domestic polarization due to political parties taking sides between the two superpowers. Unfortunately, the political struggle between the two major parties in South Korea – the People Power Party and the Democratic Party – is expected to persist.
The biggest impeding factor is the severe lack of cross-party dialogue. The PPP and DP haven’t engaged in meaningful dialogue since the presidential election. It seems that both the leadership of the ruling party and Yoon, who openly displays his party allegiance, are hesitant to engage in dialogue with the DP leader, who was also Yoon’s rival in the 2022 presidential election. Since the conclusion of the election, both Yoon and the PPP leadership have persistently declined Lee’s invitations for a meeting, seemingly out of concern that it could provide Lee with a platform to solidify his image as a competent leader.
Meanwhile, Lee is embroiled in ongoing legal allegations of corruption during his tenure as mayor of Seongnam city. Lee and the DP have decried the criminal probes as politically motivated.
The political division poses a significant risk to South Korea by undermining its foreign policy credibility and sustainability. When foreign leaders, particularly those in the United States and Japan, perceive the South Korean public and opposition party as consistently unsupportive of Yoon’s foreign policy, concerns may arise regarding the potential reversal of agreed-upon policies after Yoon’s term ends. This apprehension may cause allies to hesitate in establishing long-term agreements essential for the alliance’s future and mutual benefits.
Moreover, this internal discord can, on occasion, be exploited by China or North Korea, who may use the division to impede South Korea’s efforts to strengthen alignment with the U.S. and Japan.
It is crucial for Seoul to exert efforts toward building a robust and enduring framework that is pivotal to both alliances and South Korea’s economy. Engaging in an economic strategy that tangibly and gradually benefits South Korean citizens and corporations will likely dissuade future administrations from retracting from such engagements, as doing so could result in public repercussions. Joining economic frameworks like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) can be particularly beneficial.
Concurrently, the government should capitalize on existing diplomatic achievements, like the South Korea-U.S. Nuclear Consultative Group, by expanding and showcasing their pragmatic benefits and long-term assurances of security. This would garner public support assuring the imperative of the closer alliance, potentially leading the opposition to align themselves at least with these popular policies. It is essential for Seoul to enhance its policy’s appeal by emphasizing practical benefits that are more visible to the public rather than adhering solely to value-based approaches that can sound ideological.
In the realm of cross-party dialogue, it is vital for the government and the ruling party to proactively engage the opposition in discussions concerning national issues. The absence of communication intensifies public doubts regarding cooperation and may suggest the government’s lack of interest in securing public and oppositional support. Although high-level engagements are desirable, alternative channels for dialogue and cooperation can be explored, such as the Foreign Affairs Committee at the National Assembly. Channels that are less visible to the public could provide an easier path to initiate dialogues and reach essential consensus on pressing foreign policy matters.
Both parties should strive to identify common ground as a foundation for cooperation and continuously seek avenues for further collaboration, potentially through the establishment of a bipartisan caucus or special committee focusing on specific foreign policy issues.
From a strategic perspective, the party that boldly reaches out for cooperation stands to gain favor among undecided voters, who are growing weary of political division and polarization. Conversations and collaboration in the midst of China-U.S. rivalry should not be seen as compromises but as opportunities for the polarized parties to enhance their prospects in the 2024 legislative election.