Foreign policy in South Korea's presidential election

By Jeffrey Robertson, Associate Professor, Diplomatic Studies – Yonsei University; Visiting Fellow, Asia Institute – University of Melbourne

As a presidential election looms in South Korea, Jeffrey Robertson points to the potential for “strategic surprise” in Seoul’s future foreign policies, and makes the case for Australia to take a long-term view of building the relationship.

On 9 March 2022, South Korea will choose its next president. The ruling progressive party candidate, Lee Jae-myung, and the main opposition conservative candidate, Yun Suk-yeol, propose different approaches to North Korea, China, Japan, and the United States. Some commentators believe the election will have foreign policy significance. But there are several reasons to be guarded about assessments of South Korea’s future foreign policy based on the presidential election period.

First, foreign policy plays only a minor role in the election campaign. Candidates compete for votes at the centre of the ideological spectrum on issues closer to the voter, such as inequality and corruption, taxes, employment, inflation, housing, and education. These issues attract considerably more attention. Foreign policy is not a vote winner.

Second, because foreign policy plays only a minor role, there’s less incentive for a candidate to be specific on their planned initiatives. Unlike Australia, there’s no designated foreign policy spokespeople, no independent costings, and consequently no need to detail initiatives. As a result, candidates paint broad sweeping positions, rather than detail and defend specific initiatives.

Third, changes in presidential administrations are not as significant as they appear. South Korea’s foreign policy has what could be termed “bumpy continuity”, which distinguishes high-profile foreign policy initiatives led by the presidential office from the low-profile initiatives led by the bureaucracy.

High-profile programs are of short duration. They involve frantic activity between the start of the transition period to a new administration, when advisers and senior officials are appointed, and the draw-down period when the same resign and/or seek to distance themselves from the initiatives. This leaves approximately three to four years to complete a diplomatic initiative – not always enough time given the exigencies of global politics. Regardless of ongoing promise, an incoming administration routinely gives less political support and often defunds the previous administration’s initiatives. A good example is the Lee Myung-bak administration’s creation of the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI), which if fully supported in subsequent administrations would by now have positioned Seoul at the forefront of the global push for environmental and sustainable development reform.

Low-profile programs continue much longer but are routinely rebranded with the stamp of each new presidential administration. South Korea’s relations with Central Asia serve as an example. Roh Moo-hyun led the ‘Comprehensive Central Asia Initiative’; Lee Myung-bak the ‘New Asia Initiative’, and Park Geun-hye the ‘Eurasia Initiative’. Each incarnation differed in minor ways, but continued long-term plans to build trade relations with Central Asia. Similar examples include long-term strategies to increase participation in multilateral bodies, promote cultural exports, or build military hardware exports. Under each administration the emphasis may change, but the overall strategy does not.

Yun Suk-yeol
People's Party presidential candidate Yun Suk-yeol (centre) attends party conference in lead up to the March 9 poll, Seoul, South Korea - January 26, 2022. Image credit: The National Assembly of the Republic of Korea.

Bumpy continuity means that amidst the colourful and flamboyant presidential pet projects there remains a degree of continuity. This begs the question, what can foreign policy analysts take away from the election period? There are three areas that provide a degree of insight:

  • What is not said is important. Neither candidate has focused on what could be considered middle power diplomacy – multilateralism, regionalism, rule of law, or ‘good international citizenship’. Issues such as the environment, human rights, and development have been largely absent from debate, party promotional campaigns, and candidate statements. Regional middle powers shouldn’t expect coalition building to be a top priority of the next administration (although this could change, dependent on the advisers and senior officials appointed).
  • Points of agreement between the candidates do exist. Both candidates have noted the need to expand trade diversification, secure supply chains against disruption, and strengthen deterrent capacity. On North Korea, there is also agreement on the need to re-establish cultural and economic exchange – although sequencing remains different.
  • Long-term trends deserve more attention. Despite rhetoric to suggest otherwise, South Korea is in the midst of revaluating its strategic position. It has always had a functional approach to its relationship with the US and change is no longer seen as impossible. Other debates once considered to be on the fringe, such as armed neutrality, preparing for China’s regional dominance, and even securing an independent nuclear capacity, are all now mainstream. Ironically, South Korea holds more potential to be a strategic surprise than North Korea.

For those outside South Korea, there is a natural tendency to see what they want to see – particularly when relying solely upon English language online and social media sources influenced by their own selection algorithms, or in-country ‘gatekeeper’ contacts sharing similar outlooks.

For many, this comes down South Korea’s position vis-à-vis China. Buoyed by Yun Suk-yeol’s formulaic Foreign Affairs article, there are many who hope South Korea will give up its silence on the South China Sea, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang, and line up squarely behind the United States, joining the Quad or a future Quad-plus, and playing a larger role in containing China. They point to anti-China sentiment during the election period (and Winter Olympics) as confirming this claim. This misses the mark on South Korea. Latent nationalism, verging on xenophobia, always bubbles below the surface. When it breaks the surface, it’s just as likely to be targeted at America or Japan, as it is to be targeted at China.

Further, with single five-year terms and a highly active and protest-ready electorate, each administration’s attempts to swing foreign policy too far in one direction inevitably results in a pendulum swing to the other direction. Any businessperson who has negotiated with a South Korean partner knows the adage that negotiations actually begin when the contract is signed. South Korea’s elections are the same. The election is the beginning of an ongoing negotiation between the administration and the public. Any policies that impact the economy (or even people’s pride or trust), such as pushing the country further in line with US interests vis-a -vis China, will attract popular resentment and protest, and galvanise the opposition – and would inevitably be corrected within five years. The transition between Roh Moo-hyun’s open questioning of South Korea’s commitment to the US and Lee Myung-bak’s unswerving commitment — followed by mass protests against perceived pandering — serves as an example.

So, what does South Korea’s presidential election mean for Australia? Not much.

Australian commentators have a tendency to see Seoul through Washington’s strategic lens. As revealed during the December 2021 state visit of Moon Jae-in, there are many Australian commentators who expect to see South Korea’s next presidential administration following Australia’s path to a more confrontational stance vis-à-vis China. They’ll likely be disappointed in the long-term. Regardless of who comes into office, there’s just less wriggle room to manoeuvre. As others have noted, Australia’s stance reflects its own short strategic history. With more than a thousand years’ experience of dealing with a rising and declining China on its border, Seoul’s destined to follow a different path.

More importantly, the election also means nothing for the bilateral relationship – Australia remains largely irrelevant in both progressive and conservative policy circles. Until Canberra starts investing in Australian studies in Korea, promoting exchanges between educational institutes, building parliamentary relations, and strengthening people-to-people links, Australia will remain irrelevant.

Given the transparent revolving door between South Korean presidential administrations and faculty at specific top-tier universities, it’s almost unfathomable that Australia has not done more to promote educational links. Thinking long-term, Australia needs to build cohorts of South Korean university students who have invested their time and effort in studying Australia. As they develop into businesspeople, public servants, or politicians, they’ll see Australia as a reliable, useful, and relevant partner. When a politician who has studied or worked in Australia runs for president in South Korea, then the election will be significant.

On both sides of politics in South Korea, Australia’s currently seen as little more than a mine, farm, beach, or a place to learn English – its relevance increasing only momentarily because of tighter resource markets and Australia’s increasing appetite for military hardware. Regardless of who wins the election, Australia has a lot to do if it wants to build the bilateral relationship.

Jeffrey Robertson is an Associate Professor of Diplomatic Studies at Yonsei University and a Visiting Fellow at the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne. His research and commentary on Australia-Korea bilateral relations can be found at

Banner image: Presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea speaks Ito supporters, Jeonju, South Korea - February 19, 2022. Credit: Yeongsik Im, Shutterstock.