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North Korea, China and U.S. closely watching South Korea’s election


While the People Power Party is running for president, supporters awaited Yoon Seok, the candidate from the main opposition People Power Party, during a campaign to win the election. This was in Seoul, South Korea.

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South Korea could win a conservative victory in its upcoming presidential elections, which would lead to a more rigid position on North Korea or China. This could potentially spark new tensions throughout the Asia-Pacific.

Yoon Seok, a conservative People Power Party member, and Lee Jaemyung (ruling Democratic Party) are leading candidates for March 9th. Gallup Korea conducted a series of polls that showed Yoon and Lee leading the race. On February 25, 1,000 people surveyed and Lee received 38% approval, while Yoon got 37%. In a second poll, 35% of respondents rated Yoon’s approval as equal. 

This election is dominated by economic issues and housing. But given North Korea’s ongoing missile activityAt home there is anti-China sentiment. Foreign policy questions are expected to also weigh on sentiment. There is a lot riding on South Korea’s geopolitical destiny, with each candidate having divergent views about relations with North Korea and China.

North Korea

Kim Jong Un’s government is increasing missile testing as part of diplomatic negotiations with the United States. United States and its alliesStill at a standstill It is a common development but it comes against the backdrop. Russia’s invasion of UkraineIt raises fears about regional unrest. According to Japanese and South Korean officials, Pyongyang launched what appeared to be a medium-range missile.

Yoon, following the conservative tradition of his predecessors in conservatism, demands that North Korea denuclearize first before they can agree to economic and peace pacts. He told South Korean newspaper Kookmin Ilbo in November that he was considering cancelling the 2018 Comprehensive Military Agreement. This is a milestone diplomatic achievement of President Moon Jae In’s reign.

South Korean presidential candidate Lee Jaemyung, of the Democratic Party, looks on, before the televised presidential discussion at KBS studio in Seoul on March 2, 2022.

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Lee, DP’s Lee, supports Moon’s diplomatic engagement and economic collaboration with North Korea to initiate denuclearization. Lee also supportes the removal of sanctions, provided that North Korea does not violate them. Lee would also be open to declaring an end the Korean war, as Yoon did not. This is to help Pyongyang return to the negotiation table.

Analysts say that Lee will not copy Moon’s policies, even though they share similar views. CNBC spoke to Jenny Town, senior fellow at the independent Stimson Center. She said that Moon had been heavily involved in building inter-Korean relations and Moon is likely to continue to do so. Town also serves as the Director of 38 North, the Center’s North Korea research arm.

Yoon insists on the resumption of joint military exercises between North Korea and the United States, further complicating things. According to Fei Xue of the Economist Intelligence Unit Asia analyst, these have been diminished since 2018. Kim Jong Un will be furious if there is a revival. Yoon is “harmless enough to force North Korea into abandoning diplomacy entirely, as was the case during Lee’s tenure and Park,” KhangX. Vu was a Boston College doctoral student, and East Asian politics specialist.

China and the U.S.

In the last few weeks, South Korean media has seen a wave of anti-China protests. controversies surrounding the Winter Olympics in Beijing. This, combined with concerns over Beijing’s aggression toward the South China Sea and Indo-Pacific neighbors has made the Asian giant a key talking point during this election. Given Washington and Beijing’s history of rivalry, South Korea’s position regarding China is closely tied to the relationship it has with the United States. Seoul finds itself often in the position of prioritizing one or the other of these superpowers. 

Town stated that Lee is likely to maintain a strategic ambiguity relationship with China and seek to balance economic and security relations. Lee is aware, just like Moon, that he requires Chinese support for both the North Korea and economic issues. Xue agreed that Lee Jae-myung was more worried about China’s economic impact on South Korea and would therefore take a neutral stance. Xue said that this will be increasingly challenging due to the increasing tensions between China and the US.

Yoon Seok-Youl speaks after winning the People Power Party’s last race to elect its president candidate for South Korea’s 2020 election, which took place in Seoul on Nov. 5, 2021.

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Yoon, on the other hand, wants to strengthen security cooperation with U.S. Between 2016 and 2017, South Korea was in a long-running standoff with Beijing. The U.S. installation of its anti-missile systems resulted, for the most part, in a year-long dispute between Seoul and Beijing. South Korea’s tourism industry, as well as their cosmetics and entertainment sectors were severely affected by Chinese backlash. Xue stated that Yoon would also like to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, as well as the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing program. This is “despite China possibly opposing such moves.” Town stated that Yoon’s openness to side with the U.S. would be challenged “if and when China begins to pressure Seoul.”


The current Moon Jaein administration has made Tokyo’s relations worse due to trade disputes and unresolved questions about Japan’s colonial control over Korea between 1910 and 1945. These include the Japanese purchase of South Korean women to run military brothels. Kang Chang-il (South Korea’s Ambassador to Japan) stated in January that bilateral relations were at their worst level since 1965.

This is likely to change under a conservative administration. Yoon claimed that Seoul’s relationship to Washington and Tokyo was deteriorating due to “submissive diplomaticy that is pro China and pro North Korea” and that he wanted change that dynamic. Many experts said that Yoon would likely set aside past disputes with Japan to settle bilateral trade issues and to forge closer cooperation in security.

Lee is open to discussions and agrees with South Korea’s need to strengthen bilateral relations. However, Lee insists Japan must make an effort to resolve historical conflicts.

A rise in tensions regionally due to China’s assertiveness and US attempts at controlling China or North Korea’s nuclear test-and-long-range missile tests will reduce the options for the South Korean next president.

Khang X. Vu

Doctoral student in East Asian Politics and East Asian Studies

Geopolitics in Asia

Although each candidate has fundamentally different opinions on inter-Korean relationships and U.S. China rivalry, many analysts say that the dynamic of Asia-Pacific security politics and politics doesn’t permit for large shifts in foreign policies. 

Vu stated in his note that there was a possibility of a rise in tensions in the region due to China’s assertiveness and US attempts to contain it. North Korea’s nuclear test, long-range missiles, and other US actions will reduce the options for policy choices the South Korean next president has,” Vu said. It is becoming more likely that there will be a decline in the regional dynamics, unfortunately.

Town, from the Stimson Center, stated: “Even when trying to cultivate stronger relations with other mid powers, as South Korea currently tries to do in order to create some buffer against rising US-China competition, this is still a long-term process.” She said that South Korea would continue to be in a strategic quandary as it attempts to navigate the US-China rivalry while simultaneously strengthening its defenses against North Korea’s significant weapon capability improvements.