South Korea’s Upcoming Presidential Election and the Future of Diplomacy with North Korea
By Audrey Gregg, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations and Research
March 8, 2022
On March 9, South Korea will hold its eighth democratic election since its transition to democracy in 1987. The next president will follow the incumbent, Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer born to North Korean war refugees and whose presidency has been marked by his attempt, and failure, to improve diplomatic relations with North Korea.
The two forerunners are ex-civil rights attorney Lee Jae-myung and former public prosecutor Yoon Seok-yeol of the Democratic and People Power Party, respectively. Also in the running is Sim Sang-jung of the Justice Party, who is polling much lower. Though this election cycle has largely focused on domestic issues such as housing prices, debt, and discrimination, the next president of South Korea will inherit the consequences of President Moon’s foreign policies and must pursue policies that balance the security of the citizens of South Korea, pressure from the international community, including the U.N., NGOs, and foreign governments, and the current human rights crisis in North Korea.
This election cycle has been dominated by mudslinging, scandals, and personal attacks. Over fifty percent of South Koreans do not care for either major candidate, and many feel that they are forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. Yoon and Lee’s campaign platforms fall, for the most part, within the historical legacies of their respective parties. Policy surrounding North Korea has always been a divisive, partisan issue. Traditionally, the conservative People Power Party and its predecessors have taken a hardline stance, advocating for measures including the deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons and stricter sanctions. In contrast, the Democratic Party favors diplomacy in the form of peace talks, summits, and inter-Korean dialogue.
Yoon has stated that foreign affairs, including diplomacy with North Korea, should be considered separate from human rights issues. In a press conference in January, he suggested that, "The only way to deter this threat is a pre-emptive strike using the Kill Chain,” a contingency plan that calls for identifying and destroying North Korean missile launch pads and facilities if an attack is deemed to be imminent. Lee, on the other hand, prefers to roll back sanctions in hopes of denuclearizing North Korea, continuing peace talks and summits, and declaring an end to the Korean War. His stance is reminiscent of the Sunshine Policy, a policy initiative pursued by former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung to provide economic assistance and encourage civilian exchanges between the two countries.
If it seems that one of these platforms is much more humane than the other, consider the fact the Sunshine Policy ultimately had little effect on inter-Korean relations. Past experience demonstrates that promoting dialogue between the two Koreas usually comes at the cost of disregarding North Korea’s abysmal human rights record, as well as the voices of human rights activists who are silenced by the South Korean government to placate the North. This is a common criticism of Moon Jae-in’s “Anti-Leaflet Law,” which was, according to Robert King, former Special Envoy for North Korea human rights issues at the U.S. Department of State, “in direct response to an acerbic public outburst against defectors from the North now living in the South by Kim Yo-jong.” In 2019, South Korea declined to co-sponsor the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution on North Korea’s human rights situation, the same year it forcefully repatriated two North Korean fishermen without due process. Despite these gestures and President Moon’s best efforts, Pyongyang responded with violence. It blew up the newly constructed liaison office at Kaesong, cut lines of communication with South Korea, and continued its missile tests. There is no evidence to suggest that a “gentler” approach to diplomacy in North Korea has been met in kind. Clearly, a viable long-term solution must include policies that present Pyongyang with clear and meaningful incentives.
Another controversy in the election campaign is the deployment of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), a U.S. defense system designed to detect and intercept ballistic missiles. Yoon fully supports the deployment of additional THAAD units and tactical nuclear weapons in an emergency, emphasizing the security of South Korean citizens and the importance of neutralizing North Korea’s nuclear capabilities over dialogue. In his recent article in Foreign Affairs, he criticized the Moon administration, stating, “Dialogue with the North was once a specific means to a specific end: the complete denuclearization of North Korea. Under President Moon Jae-in, however, dialogue with the North has become an end in itself.” Lee opposes the deployment of additional THAAD batteries, but is willing to accommodate the units that are already in the country. THAAD also affects South Korea’s relationship with China, which retaliated to its initial deployment in 2017 with harsh economic measures.
So where does the upcoming election leave the people of North Korea, escapees who have resettled in South Korea, and the families of those who were abducted by North Korea? The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on North Korea’s economy, and many experts report that conditions within the country may be as dire as they were during the “Arduous March” of the 1990s. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans remain imprisoned without due process, and millions more endure systemic abuse, torture, surveillance, and other restrictions on their fundamental human rights. In the upcoming South Korean presidential election, diplomacy with North Korea is framed in terms of South Korea’s relationships with China and the U.S. Regrettably, there is no room at the bargaining table for the people of North Korea.
Audrey Gregg is a graduate of New York University and has spent the last two years advocating for North Korean defectors residing in Seoul, South Korea. She has worked both in translation and resettlement efforts.
 Charlie Campbell, “South Korean President Moon Jae-in Makes One Last Attempt to Heal His Homeland,” Time, June 23, 2021. https://time.com/6075235/moon-jae-in-south-korea-election/.
 Editor’s Note: Ahn Cheol-soo, another third-party candidate, exited the race on March 3 and announced that he would join forces with Yoon.
 “Campaigning for next President Kicks off in South Korea,” Al Jazeera, February 15, 2022. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/2/15/campaigning-for-next-president-kicks-off-in-south-korea.
 “Both Main Candidates for the South Korean Presidency Are Reviled,” The Economist, January 20, 2022. https://www.economist.com/asia/2022/01/20/both-main-candidates-for-the-south-korean-presidency-are-reviled.
 “A Rundown of Leading Candidates' Positions on Defense, Foreign Relations and the Economy,” The Korea Herald, February 16, 2022. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20220216000621.
 Nam Hyun-woo, “Will North Korea Sway South Korea's Presidential Election?” The Korea Times, January 13, 2022. https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2022/01/356_322153.html.
 Choi Hyeon-ho, “Lee Jae-myung announces North Korea policy: conditional sanctions relief and step-by-step reciprocity” [in Korean], Gyeonggi Ilbo, August 22, 2021. http://www.kyeonggi.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=2377465.
 Norman D. Levin and Yong-Sup Han, “THE SUNSHINE POLICY: PRINCIPLES AND MAIN ACTIVITIES,” in Sunshine in Korea: The South Korean Debate over Policies Toward North Korea, 1st ed. (RAND Corporation, 2002), 24–26. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7249/mr1555capp.9.
 Ronald Popeski, “Sunshine Policy Failed to Change North Korea: Report,” Reuters, November 18, 2010. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-korea-north-sunshine-idUSTRE6AH12520101118.
 William Gallo, “Don't Ignore North Korea Human Rights, UN Says,” VOA, September 8, 2020. https://www.voanews.com/a/east-asia-pacific_dont-ignore-north-korea-human-rights-un-says/6195598.html; Jieun Baek, “A Policy of Public Diplomacy with North Korea,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Harvard Kennedy School, August 2021. https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/policy-public-diplomacy-north-korea.
 Robert King, “North Korea Human Rights and South Korea’s Upcoming Presidential Election,” Korea Economic Institute of America, January 19, 2022. https://keia.org/the-peninsula/north-korea-human-rights-and-south-koreas-upcoming-presidential-election/.
 Ahn Sung-mi, “Seoul Declines to Back UN Resolution on NK Rights,” The Korea Herald, March 24, 2021. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20210324000830; Eugene Whong, “South Korea Deports Two North Koreans Accused of Murder, Angering Rights Groups,” Radio Free Asia, October 11, 2020. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/korea/nk-fishermen-deportation-11072019172700.html.
 Victor Cha, “The Last Chance to Stop North Korea?” Foreign Affairs, February 2, 2022. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/north-korea/2021-09-22/last-chance-stop-north-korea.
 “Yoon Pledges Additional THAAD Deployment after N.K. Launch,” Yonhap News, January 30, 2022. https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20220130003100315; “Yoon Says He Will Request Redeployment of U.S. Tactical Nukes in Case of Emergency,” Yonhap News, September 22, 2021. https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20210922005300320.
 Yoon Suk-yeol, “South Korea Needs to Step Up,” Foreign Affairs, February 8, 2022. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/south-korea/2022-02-08/south-korea-needs-step.
 Ko Jun-tae, “Lee Jae-Myung against Beijing Olympics Boycott, Opposes THAAD Missiles,” The Korea Herald, December 30, 2021. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20211230000590.
 Joung Eun-lee, “Is the North Korean Economy Under Kim Jong Un in Danger? ‘Arduous March’ in the Age of COVID-19?” 38 North, July 15, 2021. https://www.38north.org/2021/07/is-the-north-korean-economy-under-kim-jong-un-in-danger-arduous-march-in-the-age-of-covid-19/.
How important is North Korean human rights in South Korea’s upcoming presidential election?
By Jungeun Lee, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations and Research
March 1, 2022
The 2022 presidential election in South Korea is scheduled to take place on March 9. According to a “poll of polls” by MBC and a research team at Seoul National University, there is a close race between the main opposition presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative People Power Party (PPP) and Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party, with each candidate drawing around 40% support with little over a week left. President Moon Jae-in has consistently been subject to criticism over his administration’s failure to meaningfully address North Korea's human rights violations, driven by the goal of developing inter-Korean relations and easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Roberta Cohen, Co-Chair Emeritus of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), pointed out that “What South Korea’s action does is to convey to North Korea that human rights have low priority with South Korea and can be bartered away for other objectives.” What can we expect, then, from the next administration to enter the Blue House? When it comes to North Korea’s human rights issues and inter-Korean relations, Lee and Yoon are poles apart.
Lee has vowed to pursue “pragmatic coexistence between the two Koreas by establishing a peace economy system on the Korean Peninsula,” largely inheriting the Moon Jae-in government’s peace process initiative. This may be good news for Moon’s supporters, but the broader South Korean public is unlikely to support this policy, given that there has been no meaningful, lasting progress for the past five years. Despite his ambitious plan for the end-of-war declaration, Moon’s approval ratings have steadily decreased and dropped to 29 percent during his presidency. In a January 2022 poll, North Korea policy was the fifth most cited reason (6%) among respondents who disapproved of the Moon administration. Critics have also noted that the number of North Korean missile tests has increased six-fold compared to the Park Geun-hye administration.
On North Korean denuclearization, Lee supports the pursuit of an “action for action, simultaneous” and “small deal” approach, which is favored by North Korea, China, and Russia. In addition, he proposes easing economic sanctions against North Korea with a “snapback clause,” which would immediately enforce sanctions again if North Korea fails to abide by its promises. In November 2021, Lee stated that former U.S. President Donald Trump’s effort to engage with Kim Jong-un was “too rosy, trying to strike a ‘big deal’ to resolve all issues all at once.” Disappointingly, Lee has not mentioned North Korean human rights issues despite his career as a human rights lawyer. Yoon criticized Lee’s idea of the “snapback clause,” pointing out that such a policy would begin by easing sanctions and restore them if peace efforts backfire. Yoon also questioned how South Korea will restore sanctions if China and Russia disagree. He claimed that Lee’s foreign and security policies are based on “pro-North, pro-China, and anti-U.S.” ideas.
Yoon, in contrast, has proposed a starkly different policy: planning for deploying U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea during emergencies and conducting regular joint military drills “to raise confidence in the U.S. nuclear umbrella.” Some experts have criticized this approach as “unrealistic,” as the United States would not pursue “nuclear sharing” with South Korea. Nonetheless, Yoon’s starting point to denuclearization is enhancing deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. He supports large-scale joint field exercises between the U.S. and South Korea and emphasizes the necessity of deploying U.S. strategic assets. Yoon’s plan first seeks “substantial” denuclearization steps from North Korea, which will then be reciprocated with economic support and other incentives.
In the first televised debate among the four leading presidential candidates held on February 3, Yoon revealed that his diplomatic policies will be centered on restoring ties with the U.S. and Japan, which he argues have deteriorated under the Moon administration, primarily due to its rejection of the Japan-South Korean 2015 bilateral agreement concerning the “comfort women” issue. He has called for resuming so-called “shuttle diplomacy” with Japan, with the two countries’ leaders making reciprocal visits to each country, a practice that has been halted since 2011. While Yoon said that humanitarian issues in North Korea should not be neglected, he has not offered a detailed, forward-looking plan for the North Korean people and North Korean refugees. Lee has criticized Yoon for suggesting a preemptive strike against North Korea, stating that the remark will heighten tensions between South and North Korea. Lee also strongly opposed Yoon’s remarks about the possibility of canceling a symbolic inter-Korean military agreement, warning that the idea itself poses a serious threat to national security. Leif-Eric Easley, Associate Professor of International Studies at Ewha Womans University, commented that “The PPP candidate will likely emphasize strengthening the U.S. alliance, be less muted about the Kim regime’s human rights abuses, and be more vocal about China’s role in North Korean sanctions violations.”
Voters who are interested in North Korea policy have two main choices: Lee Jae-myung, whose policy is not much different from that of the Moon administration, or Yoon Seok-yeol, whose slogan is clear but lacks specifics. During the presidential campaign, policy issues have so far been overshadowed by bizarre scandals and petty controversies, ranging from serious corruption allegations surrounding a housing development project to a self-professed acupuncturist who claimed to heal nerve damage. Arirang-Meari, a North Korean propaganda website, mocked the South Korean presidential candidates by naming Lee “perfectly rotten alcohol” and Yoon “unripe alcohol.” There are still many undecided voters who believe that both leading candidates are hypocritical or incompetent, saying that “it is a sad reality that we have to choose the lesser evil.”
South and North Korea marching in under a united flag at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics opening ceremony and Crash Landing on You, a popular South Korean television series about an implausible love story between a South Korean heiress and North Korean army captain, were not enough to convince South Korean citizens that the North is willing to give up its nuclear weapons or dismantle its prison camps. It is impossible to reach a compromise and achieve denuclearization as long as Kim Jong-un refuses to discuss his regime’s bleak human rights record, which is arguably a simpler problem to address than his nuclear weapons. Amnesty International condemned South Korea’s presidential candidates for failing to be attentive to human rights in North Korea: “Rather, the South Korean government has not spoken out about North Korea’s human rights issues. The attitude of the South Korean government in engaging with North Korea contradicts the recent international trend of putting the agenda for human rights as a top priority.” Even though North Korean human rights may not be a key topic in the South Korean election, the two candidates have different views over the issue of human rights violations in North Korea. The outcome of the 2022 election could change the lives of North Koreans as well as that of escapees who have resettled in South Korea.
Jungeun Lee is a freshman at Hanyang University, pursuing a major in chemistry. After witnessing North Korea's hardships and as a young Korean interested in science, she believes that science education will play a critical role in the country's reconstruction and development.
 Available at http://poll-mbc.co.kr/.
 Baik Sungwon, “Seoul’s North Korea Human Rights Policy Faces Heavy Criticism” [in Korean], VOA News, March 16, 2021. https://www.voakorea.com/a/korea_korea-social-issues_north-korea-human-rights-9/6056992.html.
 Ji Da-gyum. “Delving into Presidential Hopefuls' N. Korea Policy: What's in the Box?,” The Korea Herald, November 29, 2021. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20211129000555.
 Lee Chi-Dong. “Moon's Approval Rating Hits Record Low of 29 Pct: Gallup,” Yonhap News, April 30, 2021. https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20210430005200315.
 “Daily Opinion No. 478 (Week 1, January 2022) – Approval for Presidential Candidates, Factors Determining Choice of Candidate, Favorability Ratings, and Policy Priorities for the Next Administration” [in Korean], Gallup Korea, January 7, 2022. https://www.gallup.co.kr/gallupdb/reportContent.asp?seqNo=1264.
 Kim Myeong-seong, “North Korea Engaged in 30 Provocations Since Moon Entered Office, 6 Times More Often than Under the Park Geun-hye Administration” [in Korean], The Chosun Ilbo, January 8, 2022.
 Ko Jun-tae, “Lee Jae-Myung's Policies Rooted in 'pro-North, pro-China, Anti-US' Ideology: Yoon,” The Korea Herald, February 11, 2022. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20220211000768.
 Mitch Shin, “How Would a Yoon Suk-Yeol Administration Approach North Korea?,” The Diplomat, December 22, 2021. https://thediplomat.com/2021/11/how-would-a-yoon-seok-youl-administration-approach-north-korea/.
 Ji, “Delving into Presidential Hopefuls' N. Korea Policy.”
 Shin Ji-hye, Ji Da-gyum Ji, and Ko Jun-tae, “A Rundown of Leading Candidates' Positions on Defense, Foreign Relations and the Economy,” The Korea Herald, February 16, 2022. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20220216000621.
 Byun Duk-keun. “Moon Says 'Comfort Women' Issue Cannot Be Resolved Diplomatically,” Yonhap News, August 14, 2018. https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20180814006351315.
 “South Korea Candidate's Aide Aims for Restart of Shuttle Diplomacy with Japan,” The Japan Times, February 9, 2022. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/02/09/national/south-korea-japan-shuttle-diplomacy/.
 Shin, “How Would a Yoon Suk-Yeol Administration Approach North Korea?”
 Kim Myeong-seong, “North Korea Criticizes Lee, Yoon, and Ahn” [in Korean], The Chosun Ilbo, November 22, 2021.
 Jo He-rim, “[Election 2022] Fatigue Grows in the Presidential Election Riddled with Scandals,” The Korea Herald, December 23, 2021. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20211223000722.
 Kim Young-gwon, “Amnesty International Calls for South Korea’s Presidential to Openly Pledge Support for Improving North Korea’s Human Rights Situation” [in Korean], VOA Korea, February 8, 2022. https://www.voakorea.com/a/6433202.html.
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.