Ruling, opposition party presidential hopefuls adopt hawkish foreign policy positions

Posted on : 2021-08-10 17:46 KST Modified on : 2021-08-10 17:46 KST
Critics argue their hawkish stance could harm the national interest by severely narrowing the government’s range of diplomatic options
A still from the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics at the Japan National Stadium in Tokyo on Sunday.
A still from the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics at the Japan National Stadium in Tokyo on Sunday.

Major contenders for next year’s South Korean presidential election are raising concerns with rashly emotional remarks about sensitive foreign affairs and national security issues, including participation in the Summer Olympics in Tokyo and joint military exercises with the US.

Critics argued that while these remarks may work to draw the public’s attention, they could harm the national interest by severely narrowing the government’s range of diplomatic options.

On May 27, former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon posted a Facebook message demanding the “immediate removal” of a map on the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games website that faintly showed the Dokdo islets.

While that much was an expected remark for a presidential contender for the ruling Democratic Party, he did not stop there. In a more extreme response, he insisted that the situation required a “firm response using all available means, including an Olympic boycott.”

The boycott calls from Lee — someone who took part himself in negotiations with Japan as Prime Minister — were seen as reflecting his awareness of the strong public support that his fellow contender, Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung, had drawn with his clear stance on Japan.

“On the Democratic Party side, [the contenders] seems to be quite conscious of the votes of the pro-Moon [Jae-in] support base [which shows strong anti-Japan leanings],” said Ra Jong-yil, a Gachon University chair professor who held important foreign affairs and national security posts under the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations.

“[The contenders’] interest seems to be more in the pro-Moon vote than in foreign affairs and national security issues per se,” he said.

His remarks were borne out by the flurry of “Olympic boycott” calls from leading Democratic Party contenders, including former Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun in addition to Lee Nak-yon and Lee Jae-myung.

In his co-authored book “South Korea’s Unlucky Presidents,” former Korean National Diplomatic Academy Chancellor Cho Byung-jae wrote, “Inconsistent diplomacy and election pledges made without consideration of our capabilities or the other side’s perspective are creating rifts and chaos domestically while weakening national trust and wasting resources internationally.”

“The circumstances of the international community are such that we sometimes cannot do what we want even when we are in the right,” he said.

Indeed, South Korea-Japan relations were plunged into turbulence in August 2012 when then-President Lee Myung-bak visited Dokdo while demanding a response from Japan on the issue of women drafted into wartime sexual slavery by the Japanese military.

His successor Park Geun-hye also adopted a hard line in her policies toward Japan, refusing to take part in a South Korea-Japan early in her term. Eventually, she succumbed and reached the “comfort women” agreement of Dec. 28, 2015.

As a candidate, Moon Jae-in called for abandoning and renegotiating that agreement. But since taking office, he has backpedaled, insisting that he has “no plans to demand a renegotiation.”

The opposition party candidates, for their part, have resorted to baiting their rivals without showing any regard for even the most basic facts of sensitive diplomatic issues.

In a July 15 interview with the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper, former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl made remarks tying the South Korean deployment of a THAAD anti-missile system — a sore spot between Seoul and Beijing — to the issue of withdrawing long-range missiles positioned near the Chinese border.

Former Board of Audit and Inspection Chairperson Choe Jae-hyeong similarly adopted a hard line in his response to a statement from Workers’ Party of Korea Deputy Director Kim Yo-jong demanding the suspension of South Korea-US joint military exercises.

In his remarks, Choe said that Kim “seems as though she’s giving orders to the commander in chief of the Republic of Korea’s military,” adding that the Moon administration should “not give any cause for suspicions that it is attempting to exploit North Korea for the election.”

The remarks come across as deeply complacent from contenders who are hoping to take over the duties of the presidency, which involve keeping inter-Korean relations on a stable footing.

The Lee Myung-bak administration got off to an ostentatious start in 2008, repudiating the preceding Roh administration’s hard-won achievements in inter-Korean relations with its announcement of the “Vision 3000” plan for denuclearization and openness shortly after taking office. It ended up being embarrassed in May 2011 when details of its attempts at behind-the-scenes communications with the North were made publicly by the other side.

Former South Korean Ambassador to Russia Wi Sung-lac said there is a need for a more cautious approach.

“Even presidential contenders should not only consider domestic factors when they’re dealing with diplomatic issues,” he said.

“They also need to take into account the balance among countries and how things come across to third parties.”

By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter

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