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North Korea, China and the U.S. are closely watching South Korea’s election

A conservative victory for South Korea’s upcoming presidential election could see the country adopt a rigid stance on North Korea and China, potentially igniting fresh tensions in the Asia-Pacific.

Yoon Seok-youl of the conservative People Power Party and Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) are the front-runners for the March 9 vote. A string of opinion polls conducted by Gallup Korea, a research company, show Yoon and Lee running neck and neck, indicating a tight race ahead. In one survey of 1,000 adults on Feb. 25, Lee’s public approval rating stood at 38%, compared with Yoon’s 37%. Another poll in early February showed the two tied at 35%.

Economic issues, particularly housing, are at the forefront of this election. But given North Korea’s ongoing missile activity and anti-China sentiment at home, foreign policy matters are also expected to weigh on public sentiment. With each candidate holding diverging views on relations with North Korea, China and the United States, there’s a lot at stake for South Korea’s geopolitical fate.

Kim Jong Un’s government has been ramping up missile tests as diplomatic talks with the United States and its allies remain at a standstill. This isn’t a novel development, but against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it adds to rising fears of regional unrest. Most recently, on Feb. 27, Pyongyang fired what likely was a medium-range ballistic missile, according to officials in South Korea and Japan.

In line with his conservative predecessors, Yoon demands North Korea first denuclearize before the two Koreas agree on peace pacts and economic assistance. In late November, he told the South Korean newspaper Kookmin Ilbo that he would consider canceling the 2018 Comprehensive Military Agreement, a diplomatic milestone of President Moon Jae-in’s reign, if North Korea doesn’t change its attitude.

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