South Korea's presidential front runners still in neck-and-neck race

People's Party candidate Yoon Suk-yeol (left) and Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung during a presidential debate in Seoul on Feb 25, 2022. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

SEOUL - Just days before South Korea's presidential election, the two front runners remain locked in a neck-and-neck race as the differences in their foreign policy become more apparent.

Candidate Lee Jae-myung of the liberal ruling Democratic Party champions pragmatism in resolving issues with other countries, while his rival Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative People Power Party, the main opposition, prefers to align more closely with the US - South Korea's main security ally.

Towards North Korea, Mr Yoon has said pre-emptive strikes are necessary to take down the regime's hypersonic missiles in the event of conflict.

The more North-friendly Mr Lee, however, argued in a Foreign Affairs essay on Wednesday (Feb 23) that this will "serve only to stoke fear and division".

It is better to pursue a peaceful resolution to North Korea's nuclear threat, he added.

The two candidates also differ on China.

Mr Yoon, 61, has criticised the current Moon Jae-in administration's "strategic ambiguity" policy that "created an impression that South Korea has been tilting towards China and away from its long-time ally, the United States", he said in a separate Foreign Affairs essay.

Mr Lee, 57, insisted that "there is nothing ambiguous about South Korea's stance".

But while the US is South Korea's "sole treaty ally", he added that "Seoul needs to get along with Beijing" to resolve Pyongyang's nuclear issue.

The two main parties have also clashed over the deployment of an additional US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) anti-missile system, which Mr Yoon said is necessary to curb North Korea's missile threat.

But Mr Lee called it a "reckless" idea that could provoke China, citing Beijing's economic retaliation after the first Thaad deployment in 2017.

Both men had different takes on what the Ukraine crisis could mean for South Korea's national security.

Just as Ukraine is caught between the US and Russia, which has invaded its neighbour, South Korea has to tread carefully between the US and China when dealing with nuclear-armed North Korea.

To avoid falling into Ukraine's plight, Mr Yoon stressed the importance of strengthening South Korea's security alliance with the US. This will "build peace through strength", he said during a televised debate on Friday.

Mr Lee, however, emphasised the need for a leader with good skills in diplomacy.

He attributed the Ukraine crisis to "diplomatic failure", noting that Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky had only six months of political experience before becoming president and he "provoked Russia" by saying that his country would join the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, a move Russia opposes.

The former governor of Gyeonggi province took a swipe at his rival Mr Yoon, saying the former prosecutor-general was "too aggressive and rough in his diplomatic remarks".

Experts said Friday's debate, though vibrant, would not be the main deciding factor when voters go to the polls on March 9.

Dr Bong Young-shik of Yonsei University's Institute for North Korean Studies said the Ukraine crisis may sway voters towards Mr Yoon, as people tend to support a stronger alliance with the US during times of conflict.

But this remained to be seen as the race so far is "truly neck and neck", he added.

A Gallup Korea survey released on Friday showed Mr Lee leading with 38 per cent of the vote, just a bit higher than Mr Yoon's 37 per cent. A separate poll by People Networks Research (PNR) showed Mr Yoon in the lead with 43.8 per cent, as opposed to Mr Lee's 41 per cent.

A tie-breaker could come in the form of a union between Mr Yoon and the third most popular candidate - Mr Ahn Cheol-soo of the People Party. He garnered 12 per cent of the vote in the Gallup poll and 7 per cent in the PNR survey.

Mr Ahn has ruled out a merger although Mr Yoon said on Friday that "we are working on it".

"Yoon having a unified candidacy with Ahn could be a game changer, but the possibility is dwindling, almost gone," said Dr Bong.

"The second wild card is what kind of message will be made by (former impeached president) Park Geun-hye. A substantial number of conservative voters do not support Yoon because they blame him for sending Park to jail, so what she says will be extremely important."

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