South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol. Photo: Asia Times / Andrew Salmon

SEOUL Conservative presidential candidate Yoon Seok-yeol put forth a new initiative on Friday (November 12) to bring the two Koreas and United States together under one roof, while delivering withering criticism of the current South Korean administration’s Japan policy.

Yoon, standing for the opposition People Power Party, was speaking to foreign reporters in Seoul as the campaign for South Korea’s presidency heats up. The former prosecutor-general is running against ex-human rights lawyer, former provincial governor and wealth-distribution firebrand Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea in the race for the presidential Blue House.

That race will climax with an election on March 9. Current President Moon Jae-in is constitutionally restricted to a single term.  

Given the shortness of Yoon’s political career – which essentially kicked off after he resigned as chief of the prosecution service in March – major questions hang over his foreign policy chops.

Still, as one attendee noted, “any former prosecutor-general is very, very smart” and Yoon appeared well-briefed and on-form as he discussed wide-ranging geopolitical and geoeconomic issues.

In a swipe at the policy of the Moon administration – which right-wingers accuse of being overly eager or even deferential toward Pyongyang – he said North-South relations had “degenerated into a relationship between subordinates and superiors.”

He said he would rebalance matters by promoting the construction of a sustainable trilateral diplomatic office with representatives of both Koreas and the US. He suggested the DMZ truce village of Panmunjom or Washington DC as potential locations for the body and its headquarters.

Currently, neither Seoul nor Washington has formal diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. That means that – officially, at least – the key communications channels between the parties are cross-border hotlines at Panmunjom and other points on the DMZ, as well as the North Korean diplomatic mission to the United Nations in New York.

A more permanent trilateral arrangement would allow the parties to meet more often rather than “from time to time, as a one-off event, as we have done so far,” Yoon said.

He suggested keeping talks at the three-party level rather than expanding them to the four-party level – including China – or the prior six-party format – including Japan and Russia.

“Once the three parties agree on effective denuclearization we can have extended talks with four parties or six parties,” he said. “It would be only a matter of getting international endorsement on our progress.”

Perhaps so, but the existing truce village of Panmunjom itself is arguably emblematic of Yoon’s proposal. Moreover, Pyongyang hardly has a positive history toward joint sites. US troops were killed at Panmunjom in 1976, and North Korea blew up a North-South liaison office in 2020.

Cooperation is in the economic sphere is also troubled. High-profile joint Korean commercial projects – an industrial park at Kaesong and a related resort complex at Mount Kumgang, both established inside North Korea with South Korean capital – were closed under prior conservative administrations in Seoul.

Despite his predecessor’s policies, Yoon appeared to favor such projects.

“I will push forward the ‘Inter-Korean Joint Economic Development Plan’ to prepare for the post-denuclearization era,” Yoon said. However, he had a pre-condition: It would require a “bold decision” by Pyongyang on denuclearization.

North Korea is always a core policy issue for South Korean presidential candidates. Here, paramilitary and public security forces march to celebrate the 73rd founding anniversary of North Korea at Kim Il Sung Square. Photo: AFP / KCNA / KNS

Yoon also dangled a carrot, proposing to revive currently frozen humanitarian exchanges, “…so North Korea can come back to the denuclearization negotiating table.”

While admitting that US administrations have never made North Korea a top priority, he also slammed past South Korean governments for their inconsistency. He would be a more responsible curator of inter-Korean relations, he insisted.

“If I become president, I will present a clear roadmap for denuclearizing North Korea,” Yoon said. “We need to convince our allies the US and Japan that the North Korean issue can be resolved.”

That reference to Japan as an ally was highly unusual for a South Korean politician. But Yoon spent a considerable portion of his time discussing improving ties with South Korea’s democratic neighbor while slamming Seoul’s recent antagonistic policies toward Tokyo.

A gentler stance toward Japan…

“I believe the current administration has almost zero diplomacy toward Japan,” he stormed. “Communications with Japan’s foreign ministry are almost non-existent.”

Modern Korean relations with Japan have consistently fallen afoul of disputes over Japan’s colonization of the peninsula and resultant legacies. In the last five years, ties have deteriorated to what are widely considered their nadir since diplomatic relations were normalized in 1965.

Under Moon, Seoul first overturned a prior bilateral agreement and related Japanese compensation package for surviving “comfort women.” Subsequently, Korean courts have seized Japanese corporate assets to compensate colonial-era forced laborers.

Tokyo, already seething over the comfort women issue, insisted that the latter step breached a 1965 agreement and compensation package, and withdrew trade privileges South Korea had enjoyed. Seoul swiftly retaliated in kind.  

Yoon accused Moon of leveraging simmering anti-Japanese sentiment – an ever-present force in South Korea’s body politic – for domestic gain.

“Diplomacy should be well managed to create benefits for both parties but as of now, Japanese relations and diplomacy are used for Korean political purposes,” he said. “The current administration has almost ruined relations with Japan.”  

In fact, over the last year, Moon has publicly reached out to Japanese leaders in an apparent attempt to initiate a reset. However, Tokyo’s position is that Seoul must first resolve the court impasse.

South Korean sentiment toward Japan could not be described as amicable. South Korean protesters tear a huge Japanese flag during a rally near the Japanese embassy in Seoul in 2019. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

Yoon suggested a broad-based policy. “I will seek a comprehensive solution with Japan over past history issues, economic cooperation and security cooperation,” he said.

Security cooperation with Japan could raise eyebrows in South Korea’s other neighbor: China.

Policy toward China is an increasingly ticklish matter for South Korea. On the one hand, the country relies on the United States for security, while relying heavily on China, its leading trade partner, in the economic sphere. At a time when Beijing-Washington relations are tense, Seoul is increasingly pulled in both directions.

Yoon leaned toward Washington in his remarks, citing a famous – or infamous – promise made by Moon to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“The ‘3 Nos’ policy of the Moon administration, I believe, is not a formal agreement, it is not an official promise, it is the current administration’s position,” he said.

Under the so-called “3 Nos,” Moon said South Korea would not join a security alliance with Japan; would not join a US missile-defense program; and would not extend the US deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile units on the peninsula.

A THAAD unit was ostensibly deployed to defend against North Korean missiles before Moon entered office, but China angrily insisted that the unit’s radars can snoop on its own strategic assets. Resultant economic retaliation cost South Korea billions in boycotts of its products and companies in China, as well as via a drying up of Chinese tourists to South Korea.

The emplacement of a US THAAD missile battery led to Beijing launching economic retaliation against Seoul. Photo: AFP / Missile Defense Agency

South Korea’s foreign policy focus has traditionally been largely limited to familiar horizons: North Korea, China, Japan and the US.

At a time when Indo-Pacific security issues are generating greater attention across the region, Yoon seemed to follow in that policy groove, which may give some comfort to Beijing.

He was lukewarm on the possibility of joining the US-led “Quad” alliance and its “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing network. He also suggested that South Korea did not need the kind of nuclear submarine technologies that the US is transferring to Australia under the “AUKUS” framework.

Speaking more broadly, Yoon argued for a rebalancing of Korea’s global relations along two separate axes: a Japan-South Korea-US axis and a China-Japan-South Korea axis.

And he was at pains to assure his audience that he is no dunce when it comes to foreign policy.

“As a prosecutor, I was interested in many different areas, not just indicting criminal cases. I dealt with cases on the economy and international issues,” Yoon said. “I read a lot of books…my knowledge and interest is broader than you think.”

He said that if he wins the presidency, he would extend Seoul’s global affairs outreach into advanced technologies, space development and climate change, while expanding its current overseas development aid programs.