The South Korean presidency was scheduled to change hands later this year, but Park Geun-hye’s official removal from office in March 2017 has accelerated the turnover in leadership, with elections scheduled for May 9 (Joongang Daily, March 15). During her truncated tenure, Park initially sought warmer relations with China: barely two years ago, Park’s diplomatic overtures toward China raised questions over whether Seoul was in fact shifting toward Beijing and perhaps away from Washington (China Brief, September 16, 2015).
However, scandals at home tied the diplomatic hands of Park’s administration, and increased tensions in North-South relations brought out the hardline core of Park’s policies and vision of Northeast Asian relations. In particular, the July 2016 South Korean-U.S. agreement to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system has been met with swift and multifaceted opposition from Beijing.
There are several ways that fallout from the president’s impeachment may affect South Korea’s relations with its neighbors. North Korea continues to make progress on its nuclear weapons development—it tested nuclear devices three times during the Park administration—and flouts international sanctions against missile testing (38North, September 12, 2016). And despite robust institutionalized cooperation that builds on the defense alliance established in 1950, new leadership in the United States has raised questions about the direction of the U.S.-ROK alliance. These two factors track closely with how Seoul and Beijing relate, and the next South Korean president will need a deft diplomatic hand if relations between the two are to be improved.
Domestic Politics and China
A newer issue for political debate within South Korea is how it will form its relations with China. The two normalized relations in 1992—until then, China’s special relationship with North Korea limited its relations with the South. Since normalization, Seoul’s dealings with Beijing might be characterized as pragmatic, working along diplomatic channels to help deal with North Korea, and working to expand trade and investment for economic growth. South Korea has arguably been more successful on the latter front: China is currently the country’s number two trading partner after the United States, surpassing the Japan in the fourth quarter of 2015 (Yonhap News, January 17, 2016). According to the Korea International Trade Association, since 1992 South Korean exports to China increased astoundingly from $2.65 billion to $124.43 billion in 2016—though that’s down from the peak of trade—$145.87 billion, in 2013 (KITA, [accessed April 14]).
To achieve its own regional goals—increasing its trade profile throughout Asia, maintaining stability, and eventually working toward unification—Seoul would need a better relationship with China. Many policy planners in Seoul were trying to form South Korea as a bridge to ease the growing pains as China and the United States renegotiated their roles in East Asia.
But a combination of factors—North Korea’s threats; the Park administration’s hardline response, including greater acquiescence to U.S. defensive measures; and the Park scandal—has weakened bilateral relations. Relations between the two have become considerably more rocky since the 2016 announcement that South Korea has agreed to deploy a contentious U.S. missile defense system. Indeed, THAAD permeates any conversation about the state of Korean peninsular relations with China. Chinese officials and scholars contend that THAAD radar system decreases China’s nuclear deterrence capability because it could signal U.S. missile defense batteries elsewhere. (The United States insists that THAAD’s radar range cannot extend into China.) 
Prior to the July 2016 announcement, Beijing had said the decision to deploy THAAD would be a strategic choice for Seoul to choose its relations with the United States over its relations with China (China Daily, July 15, 2016). China has since made it clear that regardless of who is elected, THAAD will still be seen as being aimed at China, disrupting the regional balance, and provoking North Korea (Global Times, April 17. Now, the two appear to be making that framing a reality by severing several areas of Sino-South Korean exchange, from economic to educational to travel to cultural (SCMP, February 1; January 2). On March 20, South Korea filed a complaint in the World Trade Organization against China on the grounds that China is violating some points of their bilateral trade agreement in retaliation for the THAAD decision.
And new polling data indicate the South Korean public attitude toward China has soured. China had slowly been seeing more favorability among Koreans, based on the pragmatic consideration that their economic future was tied up with their western neighbor. China’s favorability rating among South Koreans, though, has declined rapidly: an Asan Institute poll released March 20 shows the rating (on a scale of 0 to 10) dropped over one whole point since January, from 4.31 to 3.21, putting China’s favorability below Japan’s (3.31) for the first time in years. The decline in public opinion is even more noticeable when looking at the year prior—in January 2016 favorability was well over 5 points on the 10-point scale.
Party Lines, North Korea, and the US-ROK Alliance
North Korea has tended to be a political issue divided along party lines, at least since democratization in the 1980s. Prior to that, the authoritarian governments each based their legitimacy on national security concerns in the contest with North Korea, making any talk of engaging with Pyongyang not only politically unwise, but also grounds for imprisonment. 
Progressive administrations from the 1990s have sought closer engagement with North Korea and greater independence from the U.S. alliance. The first opposition candidate elected to the presidency, Kim Dae-jung, sought great change in peninsular affairs with his Sunshine Policy, which led to the first inter-Korean summit in 2000. Roh Moo-hyun, his successor, continued that legacy by deepening engagement with North Korea while also building support by seeking greater autonomy from the United States (Guardian, December 19, 2002). At the time of his election in 2002—like now—South Korea also faced an “identity conflict” between the left and right, which at that time politicized relations with North Korea and the United States (Washington Post, March 10).
Conservative administrations in South Korea have tended toward a stronger approach toward North Korea and fostered a close relationship with its security guarantor, the United States. Lee Myung-bak, who returned conservatives to the presidential Blue House in 2008, sought to diversify South Korea’s foreign policy portfolio with his “Global Korea” slogan, looking to move Korea past being mired in a contest with North Korea while continuing conditional engagement with the northern neighbor.  Park Geun-hye took a much stronger stance against North Korea, working diligently at home and abroad to promote the idea of imminent reunification (Korea Herald, March 28, 2014).
These days, even for candidates who have continuously supported engagement, North Korea under Kim Jong-un has been less willing to talk than under Kim Jong-il, and the continued nuclear weapons and missile development programs make it difficult to talk about engagement with North Korea. The new U.S. administration, too, has sent largely reaffirming but nonetheless inconsistent signals about its intended Korea policy, which makes Korean policymakers from both sides of the aisle wary, if not nervous. During his Seoul visit in February, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis emphasized the importance of strengthening the U.S.-ROK alliance particularly as it pertains to deterring North Korea. But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Seoul in March met some mixed results in South Korea, where local media claimed he truncated his schedule (the State Department said the evening meetings had never been scheduled) (Guardian, March 17). Regarding North Korea, Tillerson said, “all options are on the table”—which some have interpreted to mean preemptive military action . This sentiment was echoed on April 17 by Vice President Mike Pence during his visit to South Korea: “the era of strategic patience is over” (NPR, April 17). It’s important to recall that in South Korea, the politics of the U.S. alliance and relations with North Korea are considered domestic issues, and this year’s election has seen politicization of both.
Candidates and Regional Relations
Regional relations feed directly into these two issues, and they have become central to the politicking of candidates for next month’s election. Parties in South Korea regularly band around leading personalities for election, frequently changing names to garner support in presidential elections and remake voting blocs. Some conservatives broke off in December to found the Bareun Party (“Righteous Party”), which further weakens conservative organization for action (Korea Herald, January 9). Reeling from the scandal of its now-ousted president, the conservative Saenuri, or “New Frontier”, Party renamed itself the Liberty Party Korea and has nominated Hong Jun-pyo, who is treading a line between rebranding and distancing himself from the Park scandal and protecting those from his former party (Korea Times, April 4). But the scandal has smeared anyone associated with Park Geun-hye, and her party’s standing—which was partly built around her leadership via the efforts of the Pro-Park Coalition (Chinbak Yeondae) in 2008 in the National Assembly—has been shaken, making it difficult to elect a conservative candidate this May. Hong is currently polling at 7 percent. Yoo Seong-min, the candidate from the Bareun Party, is polling at 3 percent (Gallup Korea, April 14).
The leading candidate—and long considered the shoo-in for election this year—is Moon Jae-in of the Minjoo Party, who ran on the progressive ticket and lost against Park in 2008. Moon is former National Assembly member who served as the Minjoo Party leader from 2015 to 2016. He faced some competition in the Minjoo primaries from Ahn Hee-jung, governor of South Chungcheong Province, who drew some of the moderate votes, particularly those who have a harder stance toward Korea’s neighbors. Ahn said that South Korea should situate itself with international sanctions against North Korea to punish Pyongyang for its nuclear weapons program, though he has also indicated willingness to talk with North Korea if Pyongyang pulls back on its nuclear program. Ahn walks a moderate line compared to other left candidates, urging South Korea to develop its own defense capabilities while maintaining the U.S. alliance (Yonhap, January 11)
Moon until recently has spoken out against THAAD deployment, nodding to China’s objection (Straits Times [Singapore], December 15, 2016). But as China seems to be retaliating against deployment with “excessive pressure,” Moon now says that Beijing should understand THAAD is a “South Korean security issue and falls within our sovereignty” (Hankyoreh, March 13). On March 14, he called on China to stop its economic retaliation against South Korea over the THAAD deployment. In his January 2017 book, Moon wrote that South Korea should be able to “say no” to the United States (KyoboBook [Korea]). Many in the South Korean public, frustrated with the hardline policies of Park Geun-hye, welcome new thinking about engagement with North Korea and greater autonomy from its neighbors (VOA, April 6).
While he has received some flak from conservatives who saw these sentiments as alignment with Beijing and Pyongyang, his campaign clarified that a Moon administration would seek a foreign policy based on South Korea’s own national interests (Hankyoreh, March 13). Some analysts have suggested that despite any talk of strong defense posture, Moon will ultimately seek engagement with North Korea, including restarting the Kaesong Industrial Complex. In the presidential debate on April 13, Moon said, “I will create a government most feared by North Korea, most trusted by the United States and most reliable for China.”
Moon may be pulling 40 percent in the polls, but dark horse Ahn Cheol-soo has been gaining on him in the past couple weeks. Ahn has risen to 37 percent approval, two points up from the week prior (Gallup Korea, April 14). Ahn ran as an independent in 2012 and then merged with a party that would become the Minjoo Party, only to leave later amid fallout with Moon Jae-in to form the People’s Party in January 2016. Ahn attracts voters from the moderate and right, particularly those who were upset with the Park scandal but who do not trust Moon (NYT, April 14). While many conservatives have indicated support for Ahn as a viable alternative, to Moon or Hong, South Korean political analysts point out they lack loyalty to Ahn and his party (Korea Times, April 10). Ahn has stated his support of THAAD deployment, and suggests that more diplomatic work with China will be necessary to explain its centrality to counter the North Korean missile threat (Reuters, April 4).
Until a few weeks ago, most analysts had been saying the May election is Moon Jae-in’s to lose, making more attempts toward engaging North Korea possible, at least on Seoul’s end. But Ahn’s recent and rapid rise in the polls suggests many in South Korea do not want to see change in their country’s posture toward its neighbors. This portion of the electorate is concerned with North Korea’s missile and nuclear testing as well as the U.S. ratcheting up pressure in the past couple weeks. Korean politics may be disrupted and the elections may have been sped up this year. The threats felt from North Korea’s nuclear and missile weapons programs continue to challenge the political field domestically and also test South Korea’s relations with China.
Despite some candidates indicating they would want to set relations with China back on track, Chinese sanctions and censure due to THAAD deployment have led to public distrust of Beijing. Given the security and political situation of the moment, an abrupt change in policy toward any of South Korea’s neighbors is unlikely, particularly as any of the candidates will face limited options with pressure from the North, China, the United States, and its domestic constituents.
Darcie Draudt is a Ph.D. student in political science at Johns Hopkins University and non-resident James A. Kelly fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.
- Even now, the National Security Law makes too much sympathy for North Korea punishable, as shown as recently as 2014 when a party was dissolved and a lawmaker convicted of treason for supporting North Korea.
- Scott Snyder, Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, Volume 21 Issue 1, March 2009. https://asiafoundation.org/resources/pdfs/SnyderLMBForeignPolicyKJDA.pdf
- Jaganath Sankaran & Bryan L. Fearey, “Missile defense and strategic stability: Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea,” Contemporary Security Policy, February 6, 2017 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13523260.2017.1280744