Five months before voters head to the polls, South Korea’s ruling and main opposition parties have selected their candidates for a presidential election that is expected to have a dramatic impact on Seoul’s ties with Tokyo, as well as the country’s stances on North Korea, China and its alliance partner, the United States.

On Friday, the conservative opposition People Power Party chose former top prosecutor Yoon Seok-youl, 60, as its presidential candidate, while the ruling Democratic Party selected Lee Jae-myung, 56, the former governor of the country’s most populous province of Gyeonggi, late last month.

Under South Korean President Moon Jae-in, ties between Tokyo and Seoul plummeted to their lowest point in years over history and trade disputes, with neither Moon nor Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga willing to budge on the issues.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who took office last month, played a key role as foreign minister when the two neighbors completed a deal that included compensation for “comfort women” and was intended to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the issue. “Comfort women” is a euphemism for those who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II. Moon effectively nixed that deal, saying that it had failed to properly reflect the women’s wishes.

But Kishida has also stuck to the hard line of his predecessors, only briefly mentioning South Korea in his first parliamentary address, calling Seoul “an important neighbor” but reiterating that he would “strongly urge South Korea to make appropriate responses so that ties can return to a healthy state.”

Observers say that it’s increasingly unlikely that any major political breakthroughs will happen in the near future. But could there be hope with either of the two candidates in the March 2022 South Korean presidential election?

In announcing his presidential bid in June, Yoon vowed to seek a comprehensive solution to the soured ties, saying that he envisioned a government that would seek a “grand bargain” with Tokyo “that puts all the related issues such as comfort women, forced labor, security cooperation and trade on the table.”

Yoon has also reportedly spoken about the importance of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), a bilateral intelligence-sharing pact. The deal, seen as a key tool as North Korea continues to make advances to its nuclear and missile programs, was nearly scrapped in 2019 under Moon’s government, which maintains that it can go through with the exit at any time.

The former top prosecutor, a political novice, has pinned much of the blame on damaged relations on Moon’s approach to foreign policy, a position that stands in stark contrast to that of his rival Lee, who has pledged to retain much of the current administration’s policy toward Japan.

In a foreign policy statement released in August, Lee echoed Moon, vowing to adopt a “‘two-track strategy” of responding firmly when it comes to matters related to history, territorial sovereignty and the safety of South Koreans, while actively pursuing economic, social and diplomatic exchanges and cooperation.

Lee Jae-myung | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Lee Jae-myung | POOL / VIA REUTERS

But Lee also said that, if elected, he would take “bold steps” that would redefine relations “to match Korea’s heightened status and national prestige” and build pragmatic, “future-oriented” relations with Japan.

In a speech after officially becoming the Democratic Party’s candidate last month that some observers said highlighted a hard-line stance on Japan, Lee also expressed his intention to “outpace Japan, catch up with advanced nations and create a South Korea that can lead the world.”

In the hardscrabble world of South Korean politics, candidates have been known to stress their hard-line positions on Seoul’s relationship with Tokyo — while also criticizing opponents’ soft stances — as a means of attracting votes.

Considering this environment, Yoon’s relatively nuanced position on Japan has stood out.

On the issue of nuclear-armed North Korea, the two candidates have stressed vastly different approaches.

Lee has said that he would leave much of Moon’s policy in place, with Seoul playing the role of mediator between its ally, Washington, and Pyongyang. He has also suggested an easing of crushing sanctions on the North through a “snapback” mechanism in conjunction with simultaneous reciprocal actions on a step-by-step basis.

Yoon, meanwhile, has prioritized the importance of the alliance with Washington and the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” while also advocating for regular joint military exercises. He has also promised to ask the United States to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons or agree to a nuclear-sharing deal in the event of an emergency on the peninsula — options that the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden would be unlikely to support.

But in a break with traditional South Korean conservative views, Yoon has also said he is open to diplomacy with the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

As for China, and the growing Sino-U.S. rivalry, Yoon has signaled that he would take a tougher stance toward Beijing — something highlighted by his row with the Asian giant’s envoy to South Korea in July over his backing of the U.S. deployment of its THAAD missile defense system to South Korea. Beijing has lambasted the deployment, which it says could be used to peek into Chinese territory, in a row that triggered an economic backlash against Seoul. Despite this, Yoon has said he would continue dialogue with Beijing on the basis of mutual respect and common interests as president.

Yoon has also said that he would look to join working groups of “the Quad” — which consists of four major Indo-Pacific democracies: the U.S, Japan, Australia and India — and consider participating in a so-called Quad-plus based on the results of those meetings.

Lee, on the other hand, has said that when it comes to the U.S. and China, “there is no reason for us to limit our own room to maneuver by picking one side,” adding that South Korea has “the status and ability” to cooperate with Washington and Beijing in a variety of fields at the same time.

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