South Korean Presidential Candidates on China: So Very Different, Yet So Very Similar

Cameron Cook

Image credit: Republic of Korea

When South Koreans take to the polling booths on 7 March this year, many will be left scratching their heads trying to calculate which candidate promises the ideal South Korea-China foreign policy approach. The hottest two frontrunners in the election, Lee Jae-Myung, of the ruling centrist Democratic Party, and Yoon Suk-Yeol of the conservative People Power Party, seem to be offering almost identical South Korea-China diplomatic policies with completely differing approaches. With current opinion polls showing the two candidates almost neck-and-neck, the outcome of the 2022 South Korean presidential election could easily be decided by the foreign policy proposals of the candidates.


South Korean foreign relations with China has been a key policy issue in the minds of both the voters and candidates. Recent polling has found that more than seven out of ten South Korean citizens view China as the biggest foreign threat to national security and interests, excluding North Korea. As such a prominent issue coming into the presidential election, one would expect the candidates of the two major parties to offer fresh, radical policy proposals. However, while the candidates’ approaches on China seem to differ, their ideal end goal is nearly the same; better dialogue and enhanced diplomatic relations.


The conservative candidate, Yoon, has outlined his willingness to expand and improve upon South Korea-China relations, however, his method of appealing to voters can only be described as nationalistic populism. Speaking at an event in late December 2021, Yoon proclaimed that South Korean citizens, especially the younger generation, have developed a strong dislike of China and that Chinese youth feel the same towards South Korea. While opinion polls suggest that the former statement has some merit, it seems to run contrary to Yoon's earlier suggestion of an enhanced, improved upon South Korea-China relationship. In spite of this somewhat confrontational approach, Yoon still seems ambitious in his effort to improve ties between South Korea and China. In fact, just days after the controversial statement was made, Yoon's foreign policy aide reinforced the necessity for greater cooperation on economic, cultural, and global issues.


Yoon's approach is clearly an attempt to stir up nationalistic anti-China rhetoric on the South Korean national stage, while portraying himself as a cooperative partner to China on the international stage. It is likely that Yoon, should he become president, will not attempt to undermine China's economic influence over South Korea. It is more than likely that the Chinese government realises this and, as such, did not offer any rebuttal to Yoon's comments.


So, just why did Yoon make such antagonistic comments? Were such comments a slip of the tongue or a stroke of genius? Surely such a plan of attack is ridiculous, and his constant backflipping is harmful to his foreign policy agenda. However, in the current South Korean social climate of anti-Chinese sentiment, Yoon's nationalistic verbal assault may just sway enough votes to get him over the line.


The Democratic Party candidate's suggested pathway for the South Korea-China relationship has been subdued, focussing on a simple diplomatic approach. Lee's suggested approach can only be described as pragmatic diplomacy, aiming for "diplomatic efforts to prevent unnecessary conflict". This liberal approach to foreign policy seems to be specifically designed to convey to both centre-left and the centre-right voters that South Korea can and should remain in a balance between the United States and China. To Lee, it is unfathomable for South Korea to choose between its greatest ally in the US and their largest economic partner in China.


The approach put forward by Lee is a much safer option diplomatically, with his suggestions in regards to the future of South Korean-Chinese relations remaining constant, friendly, and open. While it is not likely that the centrist diplomatic pathway put forward by Lee will win him many votes, it is unlikely to lose him many either.


Overall, the suggested South Korea-China diplomatic approaches made by both candidates are basically a case of the same result, using a different method. Neither Lee nor Yoon offer any concrete policy or plan regarding how their administration will interact with China. As it stands, both candidates' fickle comments calling for further positive South Korea-China engagement is meaningless without a palpable plan of action. However, the question remains which approach to the same outcome will resonate best with the voters; Yoon's nationalistic populism or Lee's centrist neutrality. That question will likely remain unanswered until March, when the votes start rolling in.


Cameron Cook is studying a Bachelor of Media and a Bachelor of International Relations at the University of Adelaide.