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Ukraine Triggers Korea Election Security Debate
North’s missile provocations take on a whole new cast
By: Shim Jae Hoon
Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and China’s menacing posture on Taiwan is prompting national security jitters in South Korea as voters go to the polls on March 9 to elect a successor to President Moon Jae-in, whose term ends in May.
The spectacle of nuclear Leviathan Russia mercilessly pounding a small, hapless next-door neighbor has stunned South Koreans into reexamining their own precarious security environment in the face of North Korea’s recent missile provocations. North Korea fired a short-range missile on February 27, adding to pressure on the US as it deals with the Ukrainian crisis. The north had ceased missile provocations during the Beijing winter Olympics.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula have risen sharply following a flurry of missile launches by the Kim Jong Un regime in January. It has sent ripples of fresh alarm to Tokyo and Washington, prompting the Biden administration to renew calls for unconditional missile and denuclearization talks. Of the seven missiles test-fired towards the Sea of Japan at the beginning of the year, one was an intermediate-range ballistic missile, a strategic weapon specifically banned under UN Security Council resolutions. A US motion at the United Nations Security Council for stronger sanctions over the North met Russian and Chinese opposition, in a clear indication of how the Ukraine crisis and US-China rivalry are affecting tension in Korea.
In the heat of South Korea’s election campaign, the Ukrainian situation has prompted a renewed debate on President Moon’s peace policy seeking an end-of-war agreement from the North. Yoon Suk-yeol, candidate of the conservative opposition People Power Party, has called it a naïve proposal, even dangerous policy, “a peace document pursued by Moon which has little meaning unless it was backed by a strong military preparedness.”
Yoon is proposing a strong new defense policy based on closer coordination with the US under their military alliance, which has been weakened under Moon’s left-leaning leadership in the past five years and under former US President Donald Trump’s administration. Seoul has reduced the scale and frequency of joint annual military exercises in the hope of bringing the North to accept a peace treaty.
A former prosecutor general, Yoon is a right-wing conservative focused on changing what he regards as appeasement policy. He is campaigning on a strengthened missile system that not only shoots down incoming missiles, but which could retaliate instantly against enemy missile bases under what he calls a “kill chain system.” If he wins the election, he said he will call on the Biden administration to increase the US terminal high altitude missile system (called THAAD) some of which are already deployed here. “Our deterrence policy should be based on a stronger US-Korea alliance,” Yoon said.
His rival Lee Jae-myung, candidate of the ruling Democratic Party, strongly opposes Yoon’s defense program, arguing that a policy of missile retaliation could ignite a new war with the North which not only has a huge arsenal of missiles but also a nuclear arsenal which it has already tested six times. “The policy of shooting down enemy missiles could lead to war,” he said, calling Yoon a warmonger. “We need a policy that gains peace without such perilous confrontation,” he said. Lee’s campaign is focused largely on continuing Moon’s priority on a peace treaty, although he too seeks a closer alliance with the US.
Lee and Yoon clash not only on defense issues but also on how to deal with China’s overbearing posture on security and trade issues. Under Beijing’s strong and repeated objections to Seoul’s accepting THAAD missile deployment, President Moon offered what many critics term an “abject surrender.” Under what is known as a “Three Nos Policy,” Moon has “assured” China that Seoul won’t deploy any more THAADs, that it won’t join the US missile system, nor will it participate in an anti-China military alliance with the US and Japan. That amounts to South Korea taking itself out of the East Asian security loop as shaped by Japan and the US.
Yoon is capitalizing on nationwide outrage over this policy, which critics deride as “subservient posture.” His government will abandon it as soon as he comes to power. Nor would he allow China to dictate Seoul’s policy for trade and other economic interests. With China claiming a third of Korea’s trade, that would mean a serious blow on Korea’s economic interests. Many outlets belonging to Lotte Group in China have had to close down in recent years and withdraw from the China market under officially inspired campaigns. Korea’s investment has also declined in recent years under a politically influenced atmosphere.
Three decades after diplomatic relations were established, the Sino-Korean ties are flailing under Beijing’s political pressure, so much so that not even Lee can find it easy to defend China’s position. At a recent televised policy debate, he inadvertently shocked the audience by saying he would order Korean coast guards to open fire at Chinese fishing vessels intruding Korean territorial waters.
A provincial governor next to Seoul before his nomination, foreign policy has never been known to be Lee’s political strength. At another televised debate recently, he caused a nationwide outpouring of condemnations by suggesting that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky’s political inexperience or immaturity had tempted Vladimir Putin to pounce on Ukraine. His gaffe has caused critics to label him a Korean Putin. On top of such hiccups in the policy debates, Lee is fighting to save his campaign in the face of a huge corruption scandal that has exploded in his face, endangering his election chances.
With the Ukrainian war casting a sobering shadow over Seoul’s security angst, the chance of voters demanding a firmer defense posture has grown. With virtually all editorial comments calling for a review of existing policies, South Korean voters expect to see a huge change in their defense posture. To the great discomfort of the US allies, the current debate is also raising demands for Washington to strengthen its nuclear coverage of South Korea.
“We need to begin accumulating our own nuclear capability even as we keep denuclearization as our ultimate goal and we rely on US nuclear coverage,” former foreign minister Song Min Soon said cautiously at a recent think tank seminar in Seoul. That’s a signal that the next government will continue to be preoccupied with serious security issues.