The Pyongyang knot in the Seoul elections
North Korean policy greatest divide between two candidates in the presidential elections on March 9th. The Democrat Lee, in continuity with Moon, intends to act as an intermediary between Biden and Kim to restart diplomatic efforts. The conservative Yoon, on the other hand, would revoke the inter-Korean de-escalation agreements.
Seoul (AsiaNews) - In two weeks the voters of South Korea will go to the polls to elect a new president. There will be 14 names on the ballot, but only two have a real chance of winning: the conservative Yoon Seok-youl and the progressive Lee Jae-myung. The new occupant of the Blue House, the president's official residence, will have to get his hands on many issues inherited from Moon Jae-in's five-year term. Among these, the one that raises the most attention is probably the relationship with North Korea.
Moon's progressive administration has taken important steps in North-South dialogue, culminating in three face-to-face meetings with Kim Jong-un and the Singapore summit, where Kim met with then-President Donald Trump. However, as of 2019, hopes have rapidly cooled on the issue of sanctions and denuclearisation, while Covid has stalled diplomacy. Since the beginning of the year, Pyongyang has also resumed missile exercises and is now threatening to restart atomic and long-range missile tests.
The issue is therefore particularly sensitive. In a press conference held in November shortly after his appointment as the party's official candidate, Lee said that Moon's conciliatory approach to the North had been more effective than those based on confrontation and sanctions. After the South Korean government had been gradually marginalised in the negotiations, the progressive candidate aims to put Seoul back at the centre of international diplomacy on the North Korean dossier: Lee intends to act as an intermediary between Joe Biden and Kim to restart diplomatic efforts.
His negotiating strategy envisages a gradual and simultaneous approach between advancing denuclearisation and removing international sanctions, so as to rebuild the trust between the parties that the failure of 2019 had undermined. On the other hand, with regard to economic cooperation, Lee's strategy aims to strengthen the relationship between peace and development between the two Koreas to support his diplomatic efforts.
Although the progressive candidate's position is described as soft, Lee also advocated a more assertive approach than that shown by Moon should Pyongyang's provocative actions prove detrimental to negotiations.
Yoon, on the other hand, took a decidedly more muscular stance than the North, in line with the conservative tradition. First, the right-wing candidate said that concessions on international sanctions can only be made after Pyongyang denuclearises. In addition, the conservative candidate stressed the need for Seoul to negotiate from a position of strength: according to Yoon, therefore, the military alliance with Washington should be strengthened and the inter-Korean de-escalation agreements should be revoked.
He also advocated the need for the South Korean military to equip itself with missile capabilities to conduct pre-emptive strikes in the event of immediate danger to South Korea. On the subject of economic assistance, Yoon also said he would only offer support when the North accepted international inspections of facilities related to its nuclear programme.
Clashes between the two candidates have been frequent. Yoon accused Lee of being "pro-North" and rejected the progressive attempt to propose a declaration of ending the war with the North, pointing out that Pyongyang's behaviour suggests otherwise. Lee, on the other hand, branded Yoon's positions as "unrealistic, irresponsible and dangerous", fearing the risk of renewing the conflict. As the election campaign gets into full swing, North Korea is also back in the South Korean public debate, but this time the candidates have to reckon with a public opinion that is less and less sympathetic to the North.