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What Is South Korea’s President-Elect Facing?

South Korea's outgoing president, Moon Jae-in, failed to rein in soaring housing prices, which may have cost his party the presidency. If President-elect Yoon Seok-youl takes the wrong approach to that and other key issues, the country may be unable to avoid Japanese-style “lost decades.”

SEOUL – Last month, South Korean voters elected Yoon Seok-youl as their next president. It was a hotly contested race, which Yoon won by a razor-thin margin of just 0.7%. What will the conservative People Power Party candidate’s victory mean for South Korea and East Asia?

For starters, Yoon’s government seems poised to shift away from its predecessor’s policy of “strategic ambiguity” in the Sino-American rivalry and restore South Korea’s security and economic ties with both the United States and Japan. Whereas outgoing President Moon Jae-in’s first official phone call following his 2017 electoral victory was with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Yoon’s first call as president-elect was with US President Joe Biden.

Given that China is its biggest trading partner – larger than the US and Japan combined – South Korea is already a member of the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The outgoing government has recently declared that it will apply to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, led by Japan and Australia, before the end of its term in mid-May. In fact, South Korea did not consider joining the CPTPP until after China applied. The actual negotiation for joining will be handled by the new government, which is also expected to join the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, the Biden administration’s proposed vehicle for economic cooperation in the region.