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South Korea’s Foreign Policy Doves are Not Hawks, and that is a Good Thing

South Korea’s Presidential Election
ROK President Moon. Image Credit:

South Korea is in a presidential election season. The vote is going as we speak. Current President Moon Jae-In is from the leftist Democratic Party. His hoped-for leftist successor, Lee Jae-Myung, will likely lose to conservative People Power Party candidate Yoon Seok-Yeol, although the race is clearly up for grabs. If conservatives do take power, this would swing South Korea toward a more hawkish foreign policy.

As Moon’s center-left presidency winds down, a novel argument has arisen that South Korean left is less dovish than we think. Perhaps they are even hawks of a sort, because they support robust defense capabilities and national autonomy. Moon has indeed overseen a rise in South Korea’s defense spending and spoken of ‘peace through strength.’

This debate is directly relevant to the election. It would undercut a core argument which winning candidate Yoon has been making for months – that the South Korean left, particularly in current president Moon, is too dovish and weak on North Korea. Intellectually though, it would also invert a lot of traditional categories in South Korean foreign policy and, ironically, reduce the value of dovish approaches to Southern foreign policy.

Traditional Left-Right Foreign Policy Polarization in South Korea

Partisan polarization in South Korea is intense. That divide does not follow the populist-cosmopolitan or urban-rural fractures so commonly discussed in the West. Instead, much of its flows from foreign policy attitudes, particularly regarding North Korea, Japan, and the United States.

Traditionally the right here is described as hawkish, which means a tough line toward North Korea especially. Conservative South Korean presidents have stressed the US alliance over negotiation with the North, have pushed back on Chinese bullying and sought working relations for former colonialist Japan.

The left sharply disagrees. The isolation and sanction of North Korea have made Pyongyang more belligerent and paranoid; North Korea should be robustly engaged instead. China is a large neighbor with whom a working relationship is necessary. The US plays too great a role in South Korean foreign policy, particularly in constraining South Korea’s interaction with North Korea. And Japan is not repentant enough for its past behavior and should be kept at arm’s length.

These well-known lines are blurred if we read the South Korean left as newly hawkish.

Every South Korean President Believes in ‘Peace through Strength’

The ostensible hawkish turn of the South Korean left is overdetermined. The logic for high Southern defense spending is apartisan, pressuring all its presidents:

National Security: South Korea abuts an orwellian tyranny with a long record of terrorism and asymmetric aggression against it. Seoul needs a big military, obviously, regardless of who is president.

Domestic politics: Given the pressing national security needs of neighboring the world’s most terrifying country, any Southern president who did not take defense seriously would face crushing criticism, especially in the conservative press.

Alliance politics: South Korea needs to impress the US that it is taking its own defense seriously because the US might leave if it perceives South Korea to be cheap-riding (a real problem in Europe). Former President Donald Trump threatened to withdraw and will likely try if he is re-elected in 2024. US Forces Korea has shrunk substantially over the years and may shrink again because of the Chinese and North Korean missile threats. The US alliance backstops South Korea’s access to the global economy prevents capital flight and holds up the currency’s value.

Defense Substitution: South Korea’s population is now declining, and its birth rate is far below the replacement rate. Demographic collapse means that defense spending and technology will increasingly substitute for conscription.

For all these good reasons, South Korea spends big on defense.

South Korea Could Spend Even More on Defense

Moon Jae-In has indeed permitted defense spending hikes during his presidency. But so did his predecessors. South Korea has been on a twenty-year defense build-up, known as the Defense Reform Plan 2020. Moon simply let the pre-tracked spending hikes proceed, and there is pretty wide, right-left agreement about the sorts of capabilities and changes South Korea needs: technology in the place of manpower (because of the low birthrate), missiles and missile defense (because of North Korea’s move toward weapons of mass destruction), better air and naval platforms (so that South Korea is not just stuck on land as its regional interests expand), better treatment of conscripts, and greater independence to act without the Americans at every turn. These ideas are not new.

More importantly, the defense budget is still modest (around 2.7% of GDP) because of the US alliance. The Americans provide a great deal of C4ISR and logistical support, plus an implicit nuclear guarantee, which would be extremely expensive for South Korea to do itself. Without the US alliance, if South Korea stood alone, it would likely have to double or triple its defense spending, plus consider the conscription of women and the development of nuclear weapons.

South Korean Doves are Doves because of their Policy Beliefs

The above discussion is ultimately only adjacent to the question of Southern ‘liberal hawkishness’ though. Any South Korean president would be compelled to pursue peace through strength. Capabilities and spending are overdetermined.

The real hawk-dove issue in South Korea is foreign policy beliefs, and here the South Korean left has most definitely not changed. The polarization between right and left, hawk and dove, remains quite wide. Many left-dove foreign policy positions are controversial with Seoul’s Western partners, but they have genuine resonance with the public and should not be undercut by trying to rebrand the Southern left as newfound hawks. Here are a few examples:

The South Korean left:

– refuses to admit the moral superiority of the US or Japan over North Korea out of nationalist sympathy for the latter and neocolonial anxiety over the former two.

– downplays North Korea’s extreme human rights abuses in the name of diplomacy.

– spent years refusing to admit that North Korea sank the Cheonan.

– reflexively seeks negotiation with North Korea regardless of whether the North is acting provocatively or conciliatorily.

– seeks a balancing role for South Korea between the US and China, even though South Korea is a formal treaty ally of the US.

– refuses to admit that UN Security Council-approved sanctions against North Korea also bind South Korea, even though they legally do because South Korea is a member of the UN.

There is nothing ‘hawkish’ about these positions.

Moon gambled his entire presidency on a breakthrough with North Korea, and it failed spectacularly. The inter-Korean stalemate today is unchanged from five years ago. Had it worked, I doubt we would be hearing about Moon’s coalition as suddenly hawkish.

The South Korean left’s foreign policy ideas are dovish and have popular legitimacy in South Korea, even if much of the American ‘blob’ dislike them because it is hawkish on Korean security. Those ideas deserve a proper airing for what they are.

Robert Kelly is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University in South Korea and a 1945 Contributing Editor. Follow his work on his website or at Twitter.

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Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well.