The View from Seoul: South Korea’s Post-Election Foreign Policy

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

On April 15, the Republic of Korea held elections to its National Assembly, the unicameral legislature of that northeast Asian nation. These elections were unusual in many ways, but chiefly because they took place amid the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic and because they were the first to employ a new electoral system, adopted less than four months before. Despite these factors, voter turnout is estimated to have been 66.2%, an increase of 8.2% from the April 2016 election, and the highest in 28 years. The elections saw the Democratic Party and its coalition partner Together Citizens’ Party – which support President Moon Jae-In – win a cumulative 180 of the National Assembly’s 300 seats. In comparison, the conservative alliance between the United Future Party and the Future Korea Party was reduced to 103 seats from 112.

South Korean election officials sort voting papers for ballot counting in the parliamentary elections at a gymnasium in Seoul on April 15, 2020.
South Korean election officials sort voting papers for ballot counting in the parliamentary elections at a gymnasium in Seoul on April 15, 2020 (Photo: Jung Yeon-je).

The election cemented South Korea’s status as a two-party democracy, as representation from third parties suffered, like the populist Party for People’s Livelihoods, which lost all 20 of its seats in the National Assembly. However, the election also holds implications for several of President Moon Jae-In’s foreign policy initiatives. For example, although Korean Unification did not emerge as a major topic of debate in the election campaign. Nevertheless, the strong support the South Korean electorate has shown for the Democratic Party may nonetheless be seen by North Korean policymakers as an endorsement of Moon’s “shuttle diplomacy” between Pyongyang and Washington. It now seems unlikely that progress might yet be made in 2020 on the normalization of relations between North Korea and the United States or the denuclearization of the North, especially as US President Donald Trump muddles his way through the COVID-19 pandemic and prepares for a heated general election campaign. However, this will only generate further pressure on Moon to define and pursue attainable objectives on inter-Korean relations.

In defining these objectives, Moon should err on the side of caution: despite the US and South Korea canceling their annual joint military exercise in February, North Korea proceeded to conduct four missile tests in March 2020. Furthermore, North Korean policymakers have ignored entreaties from Moon in March 2020, even responding to offers of medical assistance in facing the global pandemic by claiming that North Korea has no cases of COVID-19 whatsoever. A major push from Moon on inter-Korean relations over the next year would be a waste of freshly won political capital, given that Pyongyang’s recent actions suggest a lack of interest in genuine reconciliation.

People watch a screen showing a broadcast of the completion ceremony of the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory attended by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on May 2, 2020. North Korea's Kim Jong Un has made his first public appearance in nearly three weeks, following intense speculation that he was seriously ill or possibly dead. (Photo: Kim Won Jin)
People watch a screen showing a broadcast of the
completion ceremony of the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer
Factory attended by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on
May 2, 2020. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has made his first
public appearance in nearly three weeks, following intense
speculation that he was seriously ill or possibly dead.
(Photo: Kim Won Jin)

Moon might see “more bang for the buck” were he to draw upon this political capital in negotiations with the US over the Special Measures Agreement, a cost-sharing agreement for the continued presences of US Forces Korea (USFK). Trump had sought a 400% increase in South Korea’s expenditures under that agreement, whereas South Korea had sought a 10% increase. Through careful negotiations and the mobilization of public support in South Korea, Moon could yet hold out for a single percentage point increase in the annual payments. On the one hand, a deep contraction is forecasted for the South Korean economy in 2020, much like the rest of the global economy, which could be supplied as a rationale for ending all talk of revising the Special Measures Agreement. On the other hand, South Korea experienced numerous airspace violations in 2019 from Russian and Chinese military aircraft, despite the presence of USFK. On this latter point, South Korea could argue effectively that any increased expenditure from the South Korean side should be matched by an increased US commitment, such as an air policing mission to deter future Russian and Chinese intrusions. 

In any case, Moon will be keenly aware that he has only two more years remaining in his presidential term. South Korean presidents cannot seek re-election, being constitutionally limited to a single five-year term. Although his domestic record will inform his legacy, such as his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the hosting of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, Moon will seek some foreign policy achievements to cement that legacy. Those achievements might well be found beyond South Korea’s immediate neighbourhood. Moon himself pointed in November 2019 to outreach beyond the “four powers surrounding the Korean Peninsula” (referring to China, Russia, Japan, and the US) as a distinguishing characteristic of his presidency. In short, the main push from Seoul over the next two years will likely be on the New Southern Policy (NSP). The NSP is a foreign policy initiative introduced by Moon in 2019 that emphasizes increased economic and cultural linkages with member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Extending the NSP to Latin American countries, such as Peru and Chile, could, if anything, cultivate greater “soft power” for South Korea in emerging markets – the few countries expected to continue to experience any economic growth amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

This entry was posted in English, North Korea, Paul Pryce, Peacekeeping, Politics in General, Security Policy, South Korea.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *