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South Korea’s foreign policy on the ballot

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All eyes are on South Korean voters as they head to the polls for pivotal parliamentary elections that could upend President Yoon Suk-yeol’s domestic and foreign policy agendas just two years into his term.

The 10 April 2024 vote for all 300 seats in the National Assembly — South Korea’s unicameral legislature — has taken on outsized significance as a referendum on Yoon and his conservative administration. Currently, Yoon’s People Power Party (PPP) and its temporary satellite party command just 114 seats, trailing the progressive Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and its satellite party, which control 156 seats.

Opinion polls indicate a highly competitive race. These elections traditionally serve as a barometer of public satisfaction of the president’s performance halfway through their single five-year term. For example, in the 2020 election, former president Moon Jae-in held a 59 per cent approval rating and his DPK secured 60 per cent of the National Assembly seats.

For many voters, pocketbook issues like the sputtering economy and cost-of-living strains are expected to be decisive. A survey by the national broadcaster KBS found 73 per cent of voters see housing costs and inflation as crucial factors in their voting decisions. Other issues include controversies around candidates, a plan for more medical school spots and the controversial appointment of a new ambassador to Australia.

The DPK has pilloried Yoon over his economic policies, record-low birth rates and scandals surrounding first lady Kim Keon-hee. Yoon’s PPP has countered by arguing that the DPK’s legislative control has failed the public, highlighting legal woes surrounding the oppositions’ leadership in a so-called ‘Opposition Judgment Theory’. They have also called for a generational shift away from the ‘corrupt 586 generation’.

Yoon has blitzed the nation, holding 23 town halls in cities across South Korea to outline local initiatives like new infrastructure, housing and education reforms. This gambit has helped temporarily lift his approval rating back into the 40s. But this approval boost could deflate following the unveiling of stopgap economic relief measures, which critics dismissed as populist and unrealistic. These controversial measures include outlays to curb food inflation by subsidising imports.

While domestic debates have dominated the campaign, the geopolitical stakes are high. This is especially true for South Korea’s reinvigorated security and economic cooperation with the United States and Japan, which expanded under Yoon. His tenure has seen Seoul formalise trilateral initiatives across fields like defence, supply chains, humanitarian aid and cutting-edge technology. These efforts culminated in the August 2023 landmark Camp David summit, which realigned the three allies against threats posed by nuclear-armed North Korea and China’s territorial assertiveness.

But Yoon’s policies, like compensating World War II forced labour victims with public funds and passively accepting Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant’s release of treated radioactive wastewater, have ignited domestic backlash. This has allowed the DPK to portray Yoon’s administration as being overly ‘pro-Japan’ — a traditionally potent political attack against conservatives.

Analysts have warned that future political transitions could undermine Yoon’s diplomatic endeavours aimed at pooling resources and aligning policies with allies to counter provocations from Pyongyang and Beijing’s economic coercion and regional aggression. The DPK’s leader and previous presidential nominee, Lee Jae-myung, has criticised the Yoon government for aggravating tensions with China and backing Ukraine in its war with Russia. He asserted that such actions harm South Korea by impacting trade and ties between Russia and North Korea. Neutrality directly clashes with South Korea’s current approach of positioning itself as a ‘global pivotal state’.

A convincing win for Yoon’s PPP could demonstrate that US–South Korea–Japan cooperation has substantial domestic political staying power, reassuring partners while signalling setbacks for North Korea and China’s efforts to splinter Seoul’s support. Yet a decisive rebuke could undermine domestic backing for Yoon’s signature diplomatic campaigns, forcing Washington to invest more heavily in diplomacy to reinforce alliance priorities across South Korea’s fractious partisan landscape.

The overwhelming popularity of the US–South Korean alliance suggests that a victory for the progressive opposition in the 2027 general and presidential elections may not precipitate a decline in bilateral relations. But doubts about the continuity of trilateral cooperation with Japan, for which public sentiment in South Korea remains reserved, are likely to intensify.

Should the progressive opposition gain a legislative supermajority, Washington and Tokyo may need to adjust by embracing politically insulated cooperation models with Seoul to weather potential future changes in government. This could mean doubling down on working-level coordination, regularising cross-party legislative dialogues. Additionally, it could involve expanded private-sector engagement, particularly in strategically vital industries deemed crucial for securing resilient supply chains and cutting-edge innovation.

Using bilateral and trilateral legislative dialogues between the South Korean National Assembly, US Congress and the Japanese National Diet — which are relatively insulated from changes in administration — may help lock in cooperation gains. Such institutionalised cooperation could help sustain and deepen the trilateral partnership through potential leadership changes.

Jinwan Park is a Washington-based researcher and an incoming Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University, China.

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The post South Korea’s foreign policy on the ballot first appeared on East Asia Forum.

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