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.
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 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.
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 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/.
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HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.