Great power competition in Asia comes with the need for China and the US to secure alliances and partnership in the region. In the first half of the 2022, four of the major players – Japan, South Korea, Australia and Philippines – changed the government or held elections. In each of these countries how to relate with China was one of the biggest issues in foreign policy.
This year’s presidential election in the Republic of Korea (ROK) is an opportunity to take stock of the state of democracy in South Korea. At face value, the country is a model of democratic resilience and political engagement. Invited to last year’s G7 summit in Cornwall, UK, along with India and Australia as participants in a new D-10 alliance of democracies, the ROK has been held up as a model of middle power success and foreign policy activism.
The South Korean public opinion has become increasingly wary of China and the supposed “Olympic spirit” of the Beijing Winter Games has not in any way softened the criticism. Two specific episodes tossed a lit match on Korea’s bourgeoning anti-Chinese sentiments. During the opening ceremony, the depiction of a woman in hanbok (Korea's traditional clothing) as representing one of China’s 56 ethnic minorities was viewed in South Korea as the Chinese latest attempt at claiming provenance for Korean culture staples.
While the dynamics of South Korean party politics seem to be manifestations of a functioning democracy, they are now being contested severely. During the 1988 election, democratic rivals -- Kim Young Sam, Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Pil -- split the vote and facilitated the election of General Roh Tae-woo to civilian office. In the 1990s and 2000s, successive conservative and progressive governments set in place the fundamental differences that have led to mutual hostility today.
On March 5, with South Korea’s elections less than a week away, North Korea fired a single ballistic missile towards the East Sea, marking the ninth missile test already this year.
Today, South Koreans vote for a new president. The two front-runners, progressive ruling Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung and Yoon Suk-yeol of the main conservative opposition People Power Party, are neither vetted nor experienced politicians. Yet, the race is tight. As the focus has largely been on domestic political issues, the spotlight is on younger voters, seen as the “kingmakers” in this election. Their diverging views on gender issues and attitudes towards China have brought more complexity to an already very polarized electorate.
The last presidential campaign in South Korea has put feminist policies and gender discourse into the spotlight. The salience of gender issues is not a novelty of the 2022 presidential vote as it was already visible in the parliamentary and local elections of 2020 and 2021. Yet, the outcome has been disappointing. None of the main candidates have engaged in sincere efforts to tone down the gender war that in the meantime has erupted in the country after years of simmering resentment over feminism.
South Korea is fast approaching a demographic cliff. After years of declining births and low levels of immigration, the population has begun to age rapidly and decline. To address this challenge Seoul is turning to technology, but these shifts will have social and economic implications for South Korea while also reshaping the U.S.-Korea alliance.
On 21 September 2021, the South Korean boy band BTS attended the 76th UN General Assembly (UNGA) accompanying President Moon Jae-in, who appointed the group as “special presidential envoy for future generations and culture”. In their address, BTS conveyed an overall optimistic message, promoting the COVID-19 vaccine and lauding young people for their resiliency. That event reflected the popularity of K-contents worldwide, from music to cinema.
Of all the issues that the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had to face during his first ten years in office, managing relations with South Korea was certainly one of the most relevant. Nonetheless, for several years his leadership seemed to downplay the centrality of inter-Korean relations as it put far more efforts into the domestic consolidation of power and the advancement of the country’s nuclear and missile programs to secure the country from possible attacks by external forces and to gain a stronger position in future negotiations with the United States.
In 2020, South Korea (hereafter Korea) managed to contain economic damage from the COVID-19 crisis to a 1% decline in GDP; second only to China. Nevertheless, the fallout from the coronavirus outbreak has exacerbated social inequalities and vulnerabilities connected to the country’s demographic deficit. In November 2019, Korea’s population declined naturally for the first time since the beginning of statistical reporting in 1981.
The epidemic caused by Covid-19 began to spread out to the world in March 2020. As of February 2021, more than 100 million people around the world have been infected, with the death count exceeding 2.4 million, causing an international public health crisis that continues today. Vaccines are currently being distributed and Covid-19 treatments are in the final stages of development, but we still cannot predict when the pandemic will be over.