Of Handicapped Wins

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More than 70 percent of South Koreans favor their country deploying nuclear weapons. They believe that the weapons of mass destruction might be their best defense against Chinese or North Korean aggression, according to a Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey.

The poll came as South Korean voters prepared to elect a new president on March 9. It wasn’t clear if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affected the poll’s outcome. But it is hard to deny that many South Koreans feel as if the world has become more dangerous for countries who neighbor big powers that might express different, even contrary, ideological views to their own.

The two leading candidates are the ruling Democratic Party’s Lee Jae-myung and the Yoon Suk Yeol of the conservative People Power Party, the primary opposition group. Lee, 57, a former mayor and human rights lawyer, aspires to be a “successful Bernie Sanders,” he told the Washington Post. He says the free-market policies of his predecessors have let South Koreans down. He wants dialogue with North Korea.

Yoon, 61, meanwhile, was the country’s top prosecutor and part of the team prosecuting former president Park Geun-hye for corruption. He wants a tough approach to North Korea including deterrence capabilities such as the ability to launch a preemptive attack in case of nuclear hostilities.

Unfortunately, as Al Jazeera wrote, many South Koreans are not particularly enamored with either. Many are voting for whichever candidate they view as the lesser of two evils rather than the politician that they want in office.

The campaign has been dirty. Both candidates have cast their rivals as uncivilized and beyond the pale at a time when voters, pundits and political scientists are debating those qualities amid the horrors in Ukraine. Yoon described Lee as “Hitler” and “Mussolini” while Lee’s allies called Yoon “a beast,” “dictator” and “an empty can,” added the New York Post.

Allegations of officials cheating to help their children enter elite schools, speculating on real estate illegally and other scandals have tarred both politicians, National Public Radio reported. A man recently attacked Democratic Party leader Song Young-gil, for example, striking Song with a hammer, reported Reuters. Song is now in the hospital.

The tensions threaten to affect how South Korea behaves in a world where the foreign order appears to be splintering as Russia seeks to rearrange Europe and many analysts believe China might invade Taiwan with the same rationale.

Lee has also been critical of America’s role in Japan’s annexation of Korea in the early 20th century while Yoon has made anti-China rhetoric a central part of his campaign, Foreign Policy magazine wrote. Traditionally, South Korea has pursued strategic partnerships with the US while pursuing closer economic integration with China. Now, however, it’s hard to tell where economic and strategic interests divide.

Meanwhile, the country is experiencing a surge in the coronavirus, added the New York Times, adding to voters’ disgust with their leaders. South Korea had been an early model for containment.

The winner will face a disgruntled public at home and an uncertain situation abroad. It’s a tough starting point.

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