South Korea has much to celebrate. It is among the world’s top ten economies, home to numerous innovative companies at the forefront of new technologies, and its pop culture has become a global phenomenon. South Korea can, and will, play a leading role on the international stage on important issues such as COVID-19, climate change, and global supply chain resilience. The country remains a linchpin in the U.S.-led alliance system that protects liberal democracy and fosters global economic growth. Close to home, however, South Korea faces major challenges—not just with North Korea but also in its relations with China and Japan. A rigid ideology and empty sloganeering won’t help deal with those challenges. What the country needs is pragmatism and a focus on problem solving.

As governor of Gyeonggi Province, which is home to more than a quarter of South Koreans and shares a border with North Korea, I learned that lesson again and again. A hub of manufacturers in Gyeonggi produce semiconductors and high-end displays for televisions and smartphones. Whenever there is conflict with North Korea, it is Gyeonggi that feels the reverberations first. Its western coast is a short distance away from China and the province is home to Camp Humphreys, the largest U.S. power projection base in the Pacific. Residents of Gyeonggi know perhaps better than anyone just how interlinked South Korea’s future is to its relationship with neighboring countries and the United States.

A Practical Approach to North Korea’s Nuclear Issue

The thorniest problem facing the Republic of Korea is North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. The Kim Jong Un regime’s recent ballistic missile launches are deeply concerning. Through the ROK-U.S. alliance, Seoul will continue to make Kim understand that South Korea is absolutely resolute and capable of dealing firmly with any military strikes or provocations. However, any solution for North Korea’s denuclearization must be peaceful. Saber rattling achieves little: glibly advocating for a preemptive strike against Pyongyang, for example, evokes Cold War posturing that is no longer relevant and serves only to stoke fear and division. A second Korean War, which would likely be a nuclear war, is unacceptable. It is important to win a war; it is even more important to win without a war. This can be achieved with a mixture of deterrence, diplomacy, and dialogue. The Biden administration’s “calibrated and practical” approach to North Korea has emphasized this approach.

Any solution for North Korea’s denuclearization must be peaceful.

The failure of the February 2019 Hanoi summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump showed that the “Big Deal” approach the Trump administration pursued—whereby Pyongyang would give up all its nuclear weapons and programs at an early stage of denuclearization—is unlikely to succeed. It would be better to begin by pushing for North Korea to take meaningful steps for denuclearization in return for partial rewards. This does not mean that sanctions should be eased immediately; rather, if North Korea takes significant measures to denuclearize, the United Nations and the international community should implement sanctions relief in response in a phased manner. Of course, if North Korea fails to keep its promise of denuclearization, sanctions should be immediately restored. To create an environment conducive to the negotiation, the global community, including South Korea, should buttress its humanitarian assistance for North Korea by providing COVID-19 vaccinations and medical supplies and helping to reunite families who were separated during the partition of the two Koreas.

The North Korea issue is complicated by the growing rivalry between the United States and China. Some critics argue that South Korea maintained “strategic ambiguity” between the world’s two superpowers, giving the false impression that South Korea has been tilting away from the United States. This claim is simply wrong. There is nothing ambiguous about South Korea’s stance. The United States is the sole treaty ally of the Republic of Korea. The alliance was forged in the fire of the Korean War and over time has evolved into a comprehensive partnership. The joint statement that South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Joe Biden issued in May 2021 went far beyond security priorities and covered diverse issues such as the response to COVID-19, climate change, and even space exploration. The two countries already enjoy a relationship of remarkable breadth and depth, which will continue to be upgraded in the coming years.

Pragmatic Diplomacy Toward Neighboring Countries

South Korea must also maintain a partnership with China, which is the country’s largest trading partner, accounting for a quarter of South Korea’s trade volume. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of Koreans and Chinese visited each other’s countries for business and tourism. Pragmatism dictates that in order to address critical issues such as North Korea’s nuclear program, peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, cross-border environmental pollution, and the COVID-19 response, Seoul needs to get along with Beijing.

This is not to say South Korea should be accommodating to China, and South Koreans have good reason to be concerned by Beijing’s increasingly assertive behavior. But overt antagonism serves neither South Korea’s national interests nor its alliance with Washington. Without Beijing’s cooperation in persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, North Korea will depend more on China, making it more difficult to find a resolution to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

It is past time that South Korea pulled its weight in achieving carbon neutrality.

Another challenge the next president of South Korea will need to grapple with is relations with Japan, a fellow democracy in Northeast Asia and a major trading partner. It is regrettable that Tokyo’s unwillingness to let go of its imperial past continues to hamper trilateral cooperation between Japan, South Korea, and the United States. Since the Republic of Korea and Japan normalized relations in 1965, the two countries have been able to build a healthy bilateral relationship by debating the legacy of Japan's colonization of Korea and its conscription of Koreans during World War II on a separate track from economic cooperation and cultural exchange. The high point in the bilateral relationship was the 1998 joint declaration between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi: Japan unprecedentedly expressed remorse and offered a heartfelt apology for its colonial rule. This opened a new chapter in the bilateral relationship by widening avenues for cultural and people-to-people exchanges.

In 2018, however, after South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that Japanese corporations must pay reparations for their use of Korean forced labor during World War II, Tokyo imposed retaliatory export controls on three key chemicals—photoresists, hydrogen fluoride, and fluorinated polyimide—critical for making South Korea’s semiconductors and high-end displays used for televisions and smartphones. This was a shocking act of economic coercion to settle a historical grudge, and it led to the current nadir in relations between Seoul and Tokyo. The South Korean government and South Korean corporations quickly identified alternate sources of high-tech materials from within the ROK and other countries; this nimble action prevented the trade war from damaging the global supply chain of semiconductors. While promoting economic, social, and diplomatic cooperation, the two countries should look back to the spirit of the Kim-Obuchi declaration, which committed to endeavoring in good faith to overcome the legacy of tragic historical wrongdoings.

South Korea’s Regional and Global Aspirations

South Korea is committed to expanding its ties to nations across Asia, as is best evidenced in the New Southern Policy, which fortified links with India and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which is, notably, South Korea’s second-largest trading partner. South Korea should continue to expand on helping to create a free and open Indo-Pacific: promoting free trade as well as human exchange will help buttress the region’s public health, green growth, digital innovation, and supply chain resilience.

On climate change, it is past time that a major manufacturing economy such as South Korea pulled its weight in achieving carbon neutrality. To promote renewable energy, South Korea should invest significantly in renewable energy infrastructure, building the foundation for future industries. One such investment could be the construction of an “energy superhighway”—a smart grid that would allow the transfer and sale of electricity generated through solar and wind power. The South Korean government should also establish a new Ministry of Climate Change and Energy dedicated to climate change, green growth, and the transformation of energy and industrial sectors.

For all these issues, a national consensus is paramount. The political leader of a country must lead by having the country come together through an open and democratic debate, believing in citizens’ collective wisdom, which always comes to the best decision with enough information, time, and deliberation. A pragmatic mindset, and a clear understanding of the challenges our country faces, is what South Korea needs most right now.

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  • LEE JAE-MYUNG served as Governor of Gyeonggi Province from 2018 to 2021 and as Mayor of Seongnam City from 2010 to 2018. Before entering public service, he was a human rights lawyer and civic activist for 20 years. He is running for President of the Republic of Korea as the nominee of the Democratic Party of Korea.
  • More By Lee Jae-Myung