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Security emerges as key issue in presidential election as Ukraine crisis unfolds

Candidates face headwinds after putting feet in mouth over security

A woman participating in a protest in Montreal, Canada, holds a hand sign saying “No war,” denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Sunday (local time). (Yonhap)
A woman participating in a protest in Montreal, Canada, holds a hand sign saying “No war,” denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Sunday (local time). (Yonhap)
South Korean presidential candidates’ stances on national security and foreign policy are emerging as key issues in the upcoming election as East-West tensions escalate over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Each candidate has insisted that their security views are the best for the country, while some of their attacks on rivals have backfired.

The two frontrunners, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea’s Lee Jae-myung and the main opposition People Power Party’s Yoon Suk-yeol, showed stark differences in their security stances. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Lee insisted on “setting up a peace regime that eliminates war itself,” while Yoon suggested the opposite solution, “deterrence of provocation by force.”

In a recent televised debate, Lee said it is wrong to force and win a war. “What is the point of winning after breaking everything? The important thing is to win without fighting, and more importantly, the peace that makes it so you don‘t have to fight.”

Yoon refuted Lee’s claims, saying peace is maintained only when a certain deterrent force exists. “If we could deter the North Korean aggression in 1950 with our strength and military power, we would not have suffered a tragedy like the Korean War,” Yoon said.

While stressing their views on security and criticizing the other side, they even crossed the line.

Lee blamed Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, describing him as “a six-month novice politician.” Lee said the president “provoked Russia” by making public that his nation would join NATO. His remarks are in line with other ruling party figures, including former Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae and Justice Minister Park Beom-kye.

Hours before the debate, Choo wrote a similar message on her Facebook account. She described Zelenskyy as an amateur president with no diplomatic experience, and who provoked Russia with immature leadership. A day before, Park retweeted a news article blaming Ukraine’s president.

These remarks were aimed at highlighting Yoon‘s inexperience, but Lee’s comments spread through social network platforms, such as Twitter and Reddit, drawing criticism at home and abroad. On Sunday, the Ukrainian Ambassador to South Korea Dmytro Ponomarenko shared an article addressing Lee’s remarks on his personal Twitter account.

As criticism grew that Lee’s remarks were an international disgrace, Lee apologized, saying, “If I made the Ukraine people misunderstand me contrary to my intentions, I was lacking in my ability to express myself.”

During the debate, Yoon’s words also raised controversy.

The Justice Party candidate Sim Sang-jung criticized Yoon’s proposed Korea-US-Japan military alliance. Sim asked Yoon whether he would let Japan intervene in case of an emergency, as it was possible in such an alliance. Yoon replied, “The presence of the Korea-US-Japan alliance allows Japan to enter (South Korea) in case of an emergency, but it does not necessarily presuppose it.”

Although Yoon put the preconditions of “in case of emergency,” his answer was understood as opening up the possibility of Japanese troops -- although the nation has only self-defense forces in reality -- entering the Korean Peninsula, causing controversy.

Experts say the Ukrainian crisis has an impact on the presidential election, but it is unlikely that it will favor only one side.

“Yoon has a strong view of security to prepare for war at all times, but it is also questionable whether he will be able to read complex international political calculations well in the event of war. Lee insists on peace, but there is no solution to how to maintain security in the event of a war,” said Park Sang-chul, a professor at Kyonggi University’s Graduate School of Politics and Policy.

“Both of them can be criticized for their own security views. In the end, it depends on who defends against an attack well.”

By Shin Ji-hye (shinjh@heraldcorp.com)
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