Mind your words! – The Korea Times

Lee Jae-myung should stop being subservient to China

While on the stump on Friday in Dangjin, South Chungcheong Province, Lee Jae-myung, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), shared his thoughts on China with voters. In a seeming attempt to criticize President Yoon Suk Yeol for strengthening the traditional alliance with the United States, Lee said, “The Chinese are not buying Korean products because they don’t like Korea. Why does [the Yoon administration] harass China?”

Then, giving a hand gesture expressing his gratitude, Lee continued, “Just say ‘xiexie’ to China and just say ‘xiexie’ to Taiwan.” More problematically, Lee went on to simplify China ties and the issue of China and Taiwan into an economic matter for South Korea. He told the public, “No matter what unfolds in the Taiwan Strait, and no matter what takes place in China-Taiwan relations, it does not concern us. We should care just about our livelihoods, and that would be enough.”

With the upcoming April 10 general elections expected to be a judgment day for either the ruling People Power Party (PPP) or the DPK, both parties are bound to pander to voters and pounce on each other’s mistakes. It is another matter however for the parties to intrude into the territory of “security populism.” The DPK has traditionally stood for working closer with China and North Korea, so he may have been expressing a pragmatic perspective. But by invariably targeting Yoon’s tilt toward the U.S. and its Indo-Pacific strategy that opposes a change in the status quo in Taiwan, Lee was tapping into the party’s core supporters who oppose much of Yoon’s policies.

Votes are important in an election but voters are not simpletons. East Asia is a region laden with complex uncertainties that leading politicians should not mislead the public about. The Taiwan Strait issue is not unrelated to South Korea, with implications for the U.S. forces stationed in South Korea. A large bulk of Korean exports pass through the Taiwan Strait. The Financial Times reported that U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida are expected to upgrade their security pact when they meet in April at the White House to address looming threats and other variables.

PPP interim leader Han Dong-hoon immediately blasted Lee’s comment as being “subservient” to China.

Lee has met such criticism before. Last June, he attended a dinner reception at the residence of Chinese Ambassador to Korea Xing Haiming, where Xing expanded for 15 minutes on bilateral issues between the two countries to which Lee did not offer any rebuttal. The opposition leader is a former presidential contender who is running on the DPK ticket for the April 10 general elections in Incheon’s Gyeyang B electorate. He needs to be more detailed and nuanced in how he explains his diplomatic views.

While its alliance with the United States is based on shared values, South Korea is a country that should not stand at the front of the new Cold War. It needs to pursue balanced diplomacy with allies and neighboring countries in this multi-polarizing world. Korea can and should play a pivotal role in revitalizing exchanges with China, Russia and North Korea.

Lee may take a pointer from former Foreign Minister Park Jin. Park, who is running on the PPP’s ticket for Seodaemun in Seoul, in a recent YouTube meeting stressed that China has an inclination to subjugate its neighboring nations, and South Korea should thus remain vigilant and firmly resist any attempts at intervening in Korea’s identity, matters of survival or sovereignty.

The opposition leader needs to bear in mind that a bipartisan stance is important for achieving Korea’s diplomatic goals. Lee should know that his words will have a trickle-down effect on the constituents inclined to view the matter in a similar one-dimensional way. That would be a disservice to the constituency. Amid the heightening geopolitical and geo-economic uncertainties and declining democracy, candidates running in the general elections should chart a more-informed and detailed path toward the future.

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