Stepping Up to the Challenge and Embracing Pragmatism: Two Visions of Foreign Policy in the South Korean Presidential Election of 2022


The South Korean presidential election is only days away and, unlike past elections, the outcome is difficult to predict. There is, however, one thing that we can be sure of. Whatever happens on March 9, we are likely to see some changes in South Korea’s foreign policy when the new government takes office in May. Before delving into the foreign policy platforms of the two leading candidates, let us take a look at the election and where each candidate stands.

Looking Back and Forward

If we take a look at the polls over the last four presidential elections, the leading contender at this stage was the eventual winner, with the exception of 2002 when a third-party candidate was an important factor in the race. While Yoon Suk-yeol, the former prosecutor general and the conservative candidate for the People’s Power Party (PPP), appears to be ahead of Lee Jae-myung, a former governor of Gyeonggi province and the progressive candidate for the Together Democratic Party (TDP), it is unclear whether Yoon will prevail on election day. History suggests a ten-year cycle for a party in control of the Blue House. Given that the progressives have only held the presidency for one five-year term, Lee should be the winner on March 9 if the trend holds in this cycle.

However, there are at least two factors working in favor of Yoon in addition to the series of scandals involving Lee and his family. In particular, the polls show that the general public overwhelmingly favors a change in party control of the executive. This trend has held steadily throughout this election season. The failed domestic and foreign policies of the Moon administration along with allegations of illicit business activities and improper misconduct of high-ranking officials in this administration all seem to work against Moon and his party.

Although a declining approval rate for an incumbent president was to be expected, the persistence of this sentiment about regime change is a headwind for Lee, who is running under Moon’s party ticket. When we couple this fact with polling, which shows a persistent high level of unfavorability for both leading candidates, the candidate that represents “change” from the status quo is likely to have the advantage in this election. Yoon, who is running under an opposition ticket, would better fit this requirement than Lee.

All is not lost for Lee as there are additional factors which can influence the outcome of this election. One is the possibility of a coalition ticket involving the leading third-party candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo. Less than three weeks before the election, both leading candidates have signaled an interest in joining hands with Ahn. Although Ahn does not have comparable support in this race, it is significant enough as to influence the outcome; and there is something to gain if negotiations between his party and one of the two major parties result in some compromise.

Another important factor is the role of undecided voters. Polls suggest that the undecided voters make up about 10% of the voting population, and what these voters decide to do in the coming days will impact the outcome of this race. This is why both leading candidates have made last-minute adjustments to their positions on some key policy matters to attract some of these votes. Foreign policy was no exception.

Take, for instance, the recent events surrounding unfair officiating and cultural appropriation in the Beijing Winter Olympics, which stoked anger among the South Korean public. Lee issued a statement just a few days into the Winter Games, calling publicly for the South Korean navy to sink illegal fishing boats from China. Yoon, on the other hand, promised to deploy additional US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems in South Korea if he is elected to office. To what extent are these statements genuine or meaningless, simply to attract more votes? 

Two Visions of Foreign Policy

Some Korea observers have noted that key foreign policy positions of the two leading candidates are not that different from each other or from that of the current administration. But when we take a closer look at the foreign policy platforms of the two, as expressed in their writings and public statements,1 there are some notable differences – pronounced more in certain areas than in others.

North Korea

One subtle yet clear difference can be observed on issues related to North Korea. In an interview with the Korea-US Club, which represents members of the Korean media that have served as US correspondents, Lee states that the Panmunjom Declaration and the Singapore Joint Statement are important agreements for promoting stability on the Korean Peninsula. “Competition between ideologies and systems has little meaning or benefit,” states Lee. He continues that “we must establish a ‘peace economic system on the Korean Peninsula’ by establishing a virtuous cycle in which peace leads to economic development and economic cooperation leads to consolidation of peace and a peaceful economic community in Northeast Asia.” Yoon stakes out a different position. For him, the Panmunjom Declaration was nullified by the destruction of the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong by North Korea in June 2020 – he states, “regardless of any agreements between leaders of two countries, it is of little use if North Korea is not willing to keep it.” For him, “denuclearization of North Korea is of the highest priority, and dialogues between the ROK-DPRK or US-DPRK must be centered around the issue of denuclearization.” In his view, “denuclearization is the prerequisite for peace on the Korean Peninsula” and “reunification cannot be possible without North Korea’s reform and opening.”

On the issue of the end of war declaration, Lee believes that declaring an end of the war is better than armistice even if it is merely symbolic. Lee states in his interview with the Korea-US Club that “the declaration of an end of war currently being discussed between the ROK and the US is not legally binding, is based on respect for the existing armistice arrangement, and does not weaken the ROK-US alliance as it is merely an agreement between the two Koreas and has nothing to do with the USFK.” Yoon, on the other hand, believes that the Moon administration’s declaration to end the war on the Korean Peninsula does “not help to denuclearize North Korea and will have a negative impact on the status of the UNC and the role of the ROK-US alliance.” He also states that “it is appropriate to consider the end of war declaration… when all conditions for establishing peace have been satisfied.”  

Similar differences can also be observed in separate essays authored by the two in Foreign Affairs. Lee heralds the virtues of pragmatism and emphasizes the need “to take meaningful steps for denuclearization” with implementation of “sanctions relief in response in a phased manner.” He suggests that sanctions can be snapped back, however, if North Korea fails to keep its promises. Moreover, he states that “humanitarian assistance” can be a means by which “to create an environment conducive to negotiation” with North Korea. Yoon, however, chastises the approach taken by the Moon administration to pursue “dialogue with the North [as] an end in itself.” He states that “South Korea should put forward a road map for the denuclearization of the North that clearly sets parameters for negotiations and establishes corresponding measures” with North Korea’s “complete declaration of existing nuclear programs” as a first step in restoring trust. With respect to sanctions, Yoon supports “strict implementation of sanctions until North Korea is fully committed to giving up its nuclear weapons.”

It is clear from these statements and writings that these two men’s approach towards North Korea is very different. Like Moon Jae-in, Lee emphasizes the importance of peace and economic prosperity, seeking denuclearization through engagement. Yoon, on the other hand, emphasizes genuine commitment towards denuclearization as a first step for any dialogue. Lee holds the diplomatic achievements of the Moon administration with respect to North Korea in high regard. Yoon does not. Lee believes that South Korea should initiate engagement with North Korea through incentives, such as humanitarian assistance. Yoon believes that North Korea should take the first step by presenting a complete declaration of its nuclear program.

China and the US

With respect to China, Lee leans on his notion of pragmatic foreign policy, which suggests that South Korea should pursue its national interest by getting along with Beijing. Embedded in this view is the belief as expressed in his Foreign Affairs article that South Korea can only address issues such as “North Korea’s nuclear program, peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, cross-border environmental pollution, and the COVID-19 response” by cooperating with China. This is hardly a novel view about China given that past presidents, including Park Geun-hye, have followed this approach. But Lee falls short of explaining how and why these problems need only be addressed through partnership with Beijing. Perhaps a more convincing rationale for his approach on Sino-ROK relations can be found in his observation that China is South Korea’s largest trading partner. Does economic interest outweigh or even supersede national security concerns for Lee? Finally, he seems to hold the view that despite deepening competition between Washington and Beijing, relations with these countries need not be a trade-off for South Korea when he states in his interview with the Korea-US Club that Seoul can pursue “cooperation with China through the US and cooperation with the US through China.” While this sounds lofty, it is unclear exactly what this kind of interaction may look like when we think about specific scenarios, where cooperation with one necessarily requires facilitation by the other.

Does Lee’s position on China become clearer when we consider his views on South Korea’s relationship with the United States? His position on ROK-US relations, as stated in his Foreign Affairs article, begins with the acknowledgement that the US is “the sole treaty ally” of South Korea. He also confirms that this alliance was forged through the Korean War and “over time has evolved into a comprehensive partnership.” He affirms the ROK-US Joint Statement signed by President Biden and Moon in 2021 which went beyond security priorities to cover diverse topics, such as public health, climate change, and space exploration. Finally, he hopes that the relationship will continue to be upgraded in the future. Taken together, Lee seems committed to the alliance, but he favors traversing the fine line between Washington and Beijing. The position appears reminiscent of Seoul’s past policy of so-called strategic ambiguity.

Unlike Lee, Yoon states in his interview with the Korea-US Club that “a policy of strategic ambiguity only works to build mistrust with the US and China.” He also states that the ROK-US alliance is the central axis of South Korea’s diplomacy and national security. For him, the alliance is the answer to South Korea’s national security problems. While Yoon opposes indigenous nuclear weapons development or a nuclear-sharing arrangement with the US, he believes strongly in the need to strengthen extended deterrence. In multiple instances, he has stated his desire to add more batteries of THAAD in South Korea and join the US-led missile defense (MD) system. In his Foreign Affairs article, Yoon also states his full support for the “free, open, and inclusive order in the Indo-Pacific” and participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue as well as ROK-US-Japan trilateral cooperation. He also supports seeking a “comprehensive strategic alliance with Washington” that “should adapt to the needs of the twenty-first century.” This means moving beyond traditional security to include cooperation on “a diverse set of issues, including privacy, supply chains, and public health.” 

While Yoon’s commitment to the ROK-US alliance appears stronger than Lee’s, his stance on China is not as clear. First, Yoon in his interview with the Korea-US Club takes note of South Korea’s dependence on China and states that cooperation with China is possible on issues such as North Korea, climate change, public health, and cultural exchanges. He also states that the bilateral relationship should be based on “mutual respect” in which South Korea does not oppose China’s Belt and Road Initiative and seek cooperation on trade. He believes that China, on the other hand, should accept South Korea’s relationship with its allies. Critics may question Yoon’s logic. What would he do if Beijing does not comport with his vision of “mutual respect?” The question is a reasonable one to consider given Beijing’s recent behavior, which has shown little to no regard for neighboring nations’ sovereignty and interests. The South Korean public appears genuinely skeptical about China’s intentions given their experience with THAAD, kimchi wars, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the COVID outbreak in Wuhan, and the Winter Olympics. In light of Yoon’s position that the ROK-US alliance is the foundation upon which Sino-ROK relations will be built, the answer to this question would be that his choice rests with the US. But he has yet to stake out this position in his public statements or writings.


With regards to Japan, both men sound as if they support a more conciliatory approach, but reading between the lines suggests that a constructive breakthrough would be difficult without a change in Tokyo’s approach to Seoul. In his interview with the Korea-US Club, Lee states that Korea-Japan relations should be based on a “realistic” outlook. But what he means by this appears awfully close to the Moon administration’s current stance on Japan. He supports a two-track approach in which South Korea and Japan keep issues related to territory and history separate from issues on foreign policy. He acknowledges that the starting point for improved relations is the Kim-Obuchi Declaration and the basic premise of Japan’s “deep remorse and heartfelt apology,” adding that he is encouraged by “Prime Minister Kishida’s recent announcement that he would support the Kono Statement.” It is unclear what source Lee is referencing, but some Korean assessments suggest that Kishida does not explicitly oppose the Kono Statement.2 Like Moon, Lee has stated explicitly that he supports dialogue without preconditions through a summit as a first step towards breaking the current impasse.

Yoon also upholds the Kim-Obuchi Declaration, but he believes that the correct approach to addressing the history issue is by trying to negotiate a comprehensive solution for “comfort women,” forced labor, export controls, and GSOMIA. He states in his interview with the Korea-US Club that the key is to restore the lost trust between the two countries. Emphasis appears to be on cooperation in areas of common interests, including the North Korean nuclear issue, international human rights, public health, and climate change. Revitalization of people-to-people and cultural exchanges appear to be an important catalyst for Yoon as well. Finally, he states that improved Korea-Japan relations will lead to improved regional cooperation among Korea, the US, and Japan. It is unclear how he intends to restore mutual trust and break the current impasse without Tokyo agreeing to engage with Seoul should he be elected to office.

Ukraine and Russia     

It is interesting to note that neither candidate had a clear position on Ukraine or Russia as this issue has been gaining momentum on the world stage. Although Russia has traditionally been an important player on North Korea related matters, Moscow has not really played a consequential role on this issue in recent years. But Russia has not been completely out of the picture. It is difficult to ignore recent frequent incursions by the Russian and Chinese navy and air force into Korean maritime and air space. Yet both candidates had suggested in their initial foreign policy platform announcements that they support broadening cooperation with Russia; however, they have changed their position after Russia’s invasion into Ukraine.

In a debate on February 25, Lee commented that “politicians start wars and the youth die in them. Same thing is happening in Ukraine.” Then he drew a parallel between President Zelensky and Yoon to suggest that the war began because of inexperienced leadership—“a six-month-old novice politician became president and professed to join NATO, which is unwilling to accept his offer, which in turn provoked Russia to invade.” He went on to criticize Yoon’s support for a preemptive strike in the event of detecting an imminent North Korea attack by stating that a “preemptive strike implies the beginning of war,” and suggested that Yoon should “rescind his statement on this matter given the Ukraine situation.” For Lee, “wars are prevented through negotiation and dialogue not by thinking that it is easy to fight one.” It is interesting that Lee sees Ukraine and its leadership not Russia and President Putin as the cause of this situation when the rest of the world thinks otherwise. Perhaps he was too focused on the politics of discrediting Yoon rather than formulating a thoughtful position on the situation in Ukraine.

Yoon’s position is that “peace requires deterrence and wars can only be prevented by a display of willingness to strike first and securing the ability to do so.” He criticized Lee for “supporting the end of war declaration, which can lead to similar results as in Ukraine,” while chastising Lee for having a “fragile attitude that could threaten peace.” Yoon did not back down from Lee’s criticism by issuing a more formal statement after the debate both through social media and televised statement where he criticized Lee for “dismiss[ing] wars of other countries as someone else’s business and crying for peace only in words.” He states that “wars can only be prevented through strong self-defense capability and strong solidarity of allies.” Granted, Yoon also took the liberty to use the opportunity to criticize labor unions and some women’s organizations for opposing Korea-US joint exercises and calling for the withdrawal of the USFK. To be fair, Yoon’s position on Ukraine and Russia is less informed by a strategic vision for Eurasia rather than his abstract understanding of deterrence and national security. Nonetheless, his formula is more relevant to the issue at hand, and it speaks volumes to how he would position himself on similar matters.

The Important Stuff

While the regional issues have always been central to South Korea’s foreign policy agenda, the recent ROK-US Joint Statement devotes a significant amount of space to other global issues. Neither man devotes much space or effort to explain his position on these matters. In Foreign Affairs, Lee reaffirms his commitment to the Moon administration’s New Southern Policy by supporting stronger links with India and Southeast Asia. In this way, he also supports continued expansion of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” as a way of promoting trade, human exchanges, public health, green growth, digital innovation, and supply chain resilience. On climate change, Lee supports carbon neutrality and greater promotion and investment in renewable energy through the establishment of a new Ministry of Climate Change and Energy.

Yoon, in his writing, supports greater South Korean contributions in overseas development assistance, democracy promotion, the UN Group of Governmental Experts, and Open-Ended Working Group to bridge the digital divide between developed and developing countries in cyberspace. He also supports open and secure cyberspace as well as increased oversight on cross-border data flows.

While these statements are forward-looking, they lack the same rigor and energy that both candidates give to more traditional regional issues. Perhaps this speaks more generally to the challenge and concerns that South Korea is facing today than where some advocates would like South Korea to focus on as it looks to the future. It also suggests that there is room for more innovative thinking if one of these candidates is elected to office in March.


Whatever happens on March 9, the South Korean presidential election will present an opportunity for change on several fronts. The leading candidates present different visions about where they would like to take South Korea on the international stage during their time in office, but there are some areas of similarities as well. In areas, like China and Japan, we foresee possible changes in South Korea’s approach to its foreign policy. In other areas, like Korea-US relations, we foresee little to no change. North Korea looks to be a continuing concern. And there may be some room for creative approaches to new frontier issues, such as climate change, space, public health, and technology. While the choice about who will lead South Korea in the next five years rests with the South Korean people, how South Korea navigates the international stage will depend in part on how the world would like to work with Seoul. It is time for the world to begin envisioning this new future with South Korea.  

1. All of the statements here are drawn from below sources where indicated in text as well as public statements during five rounds of presidential debates as of February 27, 2022. Lee Jae-myung. “A Practical Vision for South Korea.” Foreign Affairs. February 23, 2022; Yoon Suk-youl. “South Korea Needs to Step Up.” Foreign Affairs. February 8, 2022; “Joo-yo daetonyong hoobo-eh-gye deut-neun-da,” Hanmi Journal (“주요 대통령 후보에게 듣는다.” 한미저널) January 2022. 9:44-68. Yoon Seok-youl Candidate’s National Security and Foreign Policy Platform (윤셕열 후보 외교안보 공약); Lee Jae-myung Candidate’s National Security and Foreign Policy Platform (이재명 후보 외교안보 공약).

2. Jo Yanghyeon. 2011. “The Inauguration of the Kishida Cabinet and Recent Developments in Japanese Politics.” IFANS Focus.

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