This article first appeared in the online magazine American Purpose.
On March 9, South Koreans head to the voting booths to elect their new president. Although conventional wisdom posits that foreign affairs have little effect on voting preferences, South Koreans have defied this prediction in the past—and now, they may once again. Indeed, the atmosphere in this year’s election recalls that of 2002, when anti-American sentiments swept the South Korean presidential election. This time, it may be anti-Chinese sentiments that make an impact.
According to our survey of over one thousand South Koreans, conducted this past January, a large majority of respondents—78 percent—indicated that Republic of Korea (ROK)-China relations will be an important consideration when deciding which presidential candidate to vote for. Given that younger South Koreans are expected to be the deciding factor in this election, it is particularly significant that the figure rises to 82 percent for respondents in their twenties. Twenty years ago, anti-American sentiments tipped the vote in favor of Roh Moo-hyun, the liberal candidate, who pledged not to kowtow to the United States. This time, how will anti-Chinese sentiment play out in Seoul? Will it work in favor of the conservatives, who tend to be tougher on China and emphasize the U.S.-ROK alliance? And what does this mean for Washington?