In the South Korean election, the future of foreign policy was up for debate

Among Seoul’s foreign policies challenges are an intensifying rivalry between its top ally, the United States, and its top trading partners, China and Russia.

South Korea has been divided into two parts since 1945, but how they’ve dealt with their neighbors has varied greatly.

A clue was seen during a recent debate before the March 9 vote to decide who will become South Korea’s next president. The conservative candidate said that he would meet U.S. president Joe Biden first if elected to office. The liberal hopeful, whose poll numbers are neck-and-neck with the conservative, wouldn’t give a firm answer. A minor contender said he would welcome North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un before any other country. And no one mentioned the fact that Xi Jinping, China’s President, has been made a priority.

The answers reveal serious divisions within South Korea as it seeks to navigate a complex geopolitical situation. What path South Korea takes matters for several reasons. First, South Korea is playing an increasingly important regional role. Second, the U.S., China, and Europe view South Korea as a key player in Asia. Third, South Korea is one of the world’s most dynamic economies. Fourth, South Korea has been a leader in technology innovation

Among Seoul’s foreign policies challenges are an intensifying rivalry between its top ally, the United States, and its top trading partners, China; a fast advancing North Korean nuclear program; as well as badly strained ties with Japan.

Some observers worry that the candidates competing for the presidency don’t have a clear, long-lasting vision for how to move ahead.

Whoever becomes president, he or she will face an extremely difficult foreign affairs and security situation. If we don’t understand the importance of the current situation, then we’ve failed to learn from history. Geographically sandwiched between big powers, the Korean peninsula has long been vulnerable to outside influence. During the late 19th and first half of the 20th century, when Japan took on both China and Russia for regional supremacy, Korea was often a battlefield. After Japan imposed a 35-year colonization, which still plays a role in South Korean politics. After World War II, the peninsula was divided between a U.S.-backed, capitalist south and a Soviet-backed, socialist north. The Koreas then went through a devastating war that involved the United States and China.

Since then, South Korea has become one of Asia’s richest countries and a global cultural powerhouse, too. The current U.S.-China trade war poses a strategic security dilemma for South Korea’s outgoing liberal president Moon Jae-in, who has struggled to strike a balance between the United States and China. Both countries have pressured South Korea to take their side. For example, in 2017, China retaliated economically towards South Korea after it allowed the United States to install an anti-missile system in South Korea that Beijing claims could spy on Chinese territory. Another perpetual problem for South Korea is rival North Korea. With tensions between the United States and China growing, North Korea may become a less pressing issue for both countries. That could help the north retain its weapons of mass destructions, including recently tested sophisticated nuke-capable missiles that could defeat south Korean defense systems, some experts say. With tensions between North Korea and the U.S. rising again after the Trump administration imposed new sanctions against Pyongyang for its nuclear weapons program, there are concerns about strengthening a security partnership among three powerful democracies — the U.S., South Korea and Japan — amid renewed historical disputes between the two Asian neighbors.

South Korea has found it difficult to determine how to act towards the United States and China. North Korea’s nuclear advancements have crossed a red line. It has recently shown some game-changing weapons.

The two leading candidates for president of South Korea have been debating how to address these issues.

Yoon Suk Yeon, the conservative contender, promises to make a stronger U. S. alliance the heart of her foreign policy. He wants to strengthen bilateral military cooperation with Washington and Japan, launch pre­emptive strikes against North Korea if it shows any signs of attack, and take a more assertively stance on China.

His main rival, conservative Lee Myung-bak, favors pragmatic diplomacy between the United States and China, saying picking a side could be the most dangerous idea for South Korea. He said his North Korean policy would be similar to President Moon Jae-in’s appeasement approach. He said he would push for exemptions to U.N. sanctions so that South Korea could resume dormant inter-Korean projects. He takes a harder stance on Japan than Yoo.

During his first TV debate last month Yoon said he would first meet Biden, then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, then Chinese President Xi Jinping, and finally North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

He said he’d analyze the situation before deciding whether to make such a decision. A liberal candidate who placed fourth in recent surveys said she would meet with North Korea’s leader first.

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