Conservative candidate Yoon Suk-yeol from the main opposition People Power Party has just defeated the liberal candidate Lee Jae-myung from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea to become the 13th president of South Korea. Yoon will assume the presidency on 10 May when incumbent Moon Jae-in steps down from power after a non-renewable five-year term.
The presidential election was the closest since South Korea had its first democratic election in 1987, with a margin of 0.8 per cent or 265,000 votes. Experts generally agree that this election was a referendum on Moon’s economic policies and his push for engagement with North Korea. Constituents voted for Yoon not because of his popularity, but because they were upset with Moon’s failure to curb rising income inequality and high youth unemployment, as well as North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile programs.
North Korea has a say in diplomacy, too, so it would be unreasonable to attribute decline in inter-Korean ties to Yoon’s foreign policy alone.
As the dust settles, attention now turns to whether Yoon will take a hard line on North Korea as his conservative predecessors did. In an article for US journal Foreign Affairs, Yoon made clear that only after North Korea decides to denuclearise will South Korea discuss economic cooperation and offer economic support. In other words, while remaining open to engagement with North Korea, he will not make any concessions first.
The general sentiment is that Yoon’s tough stance in direct contrast to Lee’s dovish approach means inter-Korean relations will suffer in the next few years. However, to fairly evaluate this claim, it is important to ask the counterfactual – whether a Lee victory would have been able to lift inter-Korean relations from the ongoing deadlock, considering his emphasis on diplomacy rather than military power in dealing with North Korea. North Korea has a say in diplomacy, too, and it would be unreasonable to attribute decline in inter-Korean ties to Yoon’s foreign policy alone.
Without any doubt, Lee as president would have continued Moon’s policy of engagement. Still, judging from Moon’s record in the past four years, engagement would not be a guarantee of improving ties with the North if the reward is not considered lucrative enough. North Korea has largely discarded high-level diplomacy with the Moon administration in the aftermath of the 2019 Hanoi summit because it did not get what it wanted. Despite Moon’s various calls for engagement, the North blew up the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong in 2020, refused another summit with Moon, upped its missile tests, and threatened to end the self-imposed moratorium. Moon admitted that South Korea and the United States had agreed on the wording of the declaration to end the Korean War, but inter-Korean ties stalled because North Korea still refused to return to talks.
It is possible that North Korea’s lack of interest in dialogue is due to Moon having little time left in office. However, from a broader perspective, if Moon could not bring North Korea back in from the cold during the past three years, his failure shows that the problem was not a shortage of time but of will from North Korea. It seems unlikely Lee would have been able to change inter-Korean relations for the better, especially given North Korea looks set to continue to lock down its border due to the pandemic and a low vaccination rate. Even had Lee secured a five-year term in which to engage, there is no reason to suspect North Korea would suddenly have become interested in the same diplomatic initiatives just because they were offered by a new liberal president.
Pyongyang well understands the United States controls the pace of North-South economic cooperation via sanctions, not South Korea. North Korea’s main nuclear facility at Yongbyon is in full swing, and it remains committed to getting the United States to drop the “hostile policy” before it returns to dialogue.
Yoon’s hardline approach to North Korea will not be a primary source of setbacks in North-South ties. The North will seek to legitimise its provocations by citing Yoon’s close defence cooperation with the United States or his proposal to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea – but that’s little different from complaints during Moon’s tenure about the “double standard” of regarding Seoul’s missile developments as defensive while Pyongyang’s missile developments are not.
Certainly, there are risks associated with Yoon’s hardline policy. For example, his strict adherence to the North making the first move eliminates any incentives North Korea has left not to break its long-range missile and nuclear weapons test moratorium (if it has not already broken the moratorium). Or his call for additional deployments of Terminal High Altitude Area Defence batteries when they are not needed could damage South Korea’s relations with China when Seoul needs its help to restart inter-Korean dialogue and maintain regional stability.
With a new president, there is always hope that things will change for the better. But as US-China rivalry intensifies and North Korea increases it provocations, a reasonable hope is that tensions do not spiral out of control. Yoon will not improve inter-Korean relations the way Moon tried to do, but he has the power to not make it worse.