Prospects for an Indo-Pacific South Korea Under the New President

Main Image Credit South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol on the campaign trail in February 2022. Courtesy of Republic of Korea National Assembly / Wikimedia Commons / Korea Open Government License Type I

The election of conservative Yoon Suk-yeol in South Korea raises the possibility of the country pursuing a more active foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific.

On 9 March, South Korea elected its new president, former prosecutor general Yoon Suk-yeol of the opposition People Power Party. With Yoon’s victory, conservatives will return to power after five years of the liberal Moon Jae-in administration.

This election was the closest in the history of South Korean presidential elections, with only 0.7 percentage points separating Yoon and liberal ruling party candidate Lee Jae-myung. That half the population voted against Yoon, as well as the stark divisions along generational, ideological and gender lines, mean Yoon will likely be occupied with domestic consolidation.

On foreign policy however, Yoon’s presidency offers opportunities for South Korea to become a more active player in the Indo-Pacific, with increasing prospects for cooperation with the UK in the region.

Strategic Predictability over Ambiguity

Just hours after the election results, Yoon spoke with US President Joe Biden where they affirmed their commitment to the alliance and pledged to work together on global challenges and address North Korea’s threats. Two days later, Yoon spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida where they agreed to improve bilateral relations which have been at the lowest point since normalisation of relations in 1965.

Commitment to boosting alliance relations with the US and mending ties with Japan had been mentioned early in Yoon’s campaign. Yoon has stated that he would seek a ‘comprehensive strategic alliance’ with the US, going beyond addressing military threats to cooperating on various issues such as privacy, supply chains and public health. This message was reiterated during the Yoon–Biden call where President Biden highlighted climate change, the pandemic and supply chains as areas to deepen cooperation.

On relations with Japan, Yoon stated that he would pursue a comprehensive solution to the historical, economic and security tensions with Tokyo and pursue a return to positive relations enjoyed under South Korean president Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi in the late 1990s, based on shared values and interests. Positive developments in this regard would not only benefit the two countries but would open doors to US–South Korea–Japan trilateral relations.

Compared to liberal governments which tend to focus on the immediate region, conservative governments have generally sought a broader, more international role for South Korea

In effect, these steps clarify where South Korea stands in US–China tensions. Yoon has criticised President Moon Jae-in’s policy of strategic ambiguity, which seeks to maintain balanced relations between the US and China.

Specifically, Yoon stated Moon was ‘overly accommodating’ to placate China, undermining South Korea’s sovereignty when agreeing to the ‘three-no-s’ policy with China (no additional deployment of the THAAD missile defence system, no participation in the US missile defence network and no trilateral alliance with the US and Japan). In fact, Yoon pledged additional THAAD deployment after North Korea’s launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile in late January. While it remains to be seen how explicitly Yoon can turn his tough rhetoric towards China into action, some adjustments are expected given the high level of anti-China sentiments among the South Korean public.

A Global Role for a Global Korea

Compared to liberal governments which tend to focus on the region surrounding the Korean Peninsula or the East Asian region, conservative governments have generally sought a broader, more international role for South Korea. The Moon Jae-in administration is an exception – it highlighted global governance and multilateralism as central to the administration’s foreign policy. This was exemplified in South Korea’s invitation to and participation in the G7 Summit in the UK last year.

Indeed, based on the groundwork of his predecessor, Yoon will devote considerable resources to global agendas, doubling down on mini/multilateralism and expanding foreign relations. In practical terms, this will mean participating in the Quad Plus grouping in some capacity. As a candidate, Yoon mentioned that he would consider a gradual membership into the Quad, and participate in the working groups on vaccine, critical technologies and climate change.

Another priority will be to boost economic security. Yoon has characterised the current international environment as an ‘era of economic security’ and emphasised the importance of building resilient supply chains with global partners. As a candidate, Yoon already mentioned that he would actively participate in the new US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. This will also build on the efforts begun by the Moon administration to ensure supply chains, by, for example, establishing a Presidential Economic Security Supply Chain Management Committee.

In terms of South Korea’s relations with the UK, bilateral relations have been growing in recent years. Trade volume has increased 11% since 2020, and the two have signed an agreement to strengthen supply chain resilience, which is the first UK agreement of its kind with an Asia-Pacific partner. In addition, they have strengthened their partnership through the G7 and the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26).

Emphasis on values will lead Yoon to be more vocal than his predecessor when it comes to issues such as human rights violations in North Korea and China

To build on these developments, new avenues to broaden and institutionalise cooperation are needed. In a meeting between Yoon (when he was a candidate) with Simon Smith and Colin Crooks – the UK ambassadors to South Korea and North Korea, respectively – he noted the importance of cooperating with the UK in addressing North Korea’s threats, especially in sharing intelligence assets. He pointed specifically to the UK’s membership in AUKUS and Five Eyes. Another example is the establishment of a bilateral Security Consultative Committee (2+2) meeting, also mentioned during the same meeting by National Assembly member Cho Tae-yong. At present, South Korea holds SCC meetings with only the US and Australia.

Values as a Keyword

Yoon has framed South Korea’s role as a Global Pivotal State, advancing freedom, peace and prosperity through liberal-democratic values and substantial cooperation. Emphasis on values will lead Yoon to be more vocal than his predecessor when it comes to issues such as human rights violations in North Korea and China. President Moon has been criticised for pushing human rights issues aside in favour of denuclearisation negotiations and, since 2019, has not co-sponsored key UN resolutions on North Korea’s human rights violations. When seeking the presidency, Yoon said that once inaugurated, he would designate an ambassador for North Korean human rights, a position that has been vacant since 2017. While Yoon has refrained from pointing fingers at China, when questioned about Uighurs in China, he commented that as a liberal-democratic country, South Korea should take part in international cooperation to respect human rights regardless of where the violation takes place.

More broadly, South Korea under Yoon’s leadership can expect to see greater contributions in the form of official development assistance (ODA). South Korea’s ODA contribution of 0.14% of gross national income in 2020 lags behind both the intermediate 0.25% domestic commitment and the final 0.7% OECD target. Recalling South Korea’s rags-to-riches story, Yoon stated the need to expand ODA programmes with emerging countries seeking to foster democracy.

To conclude, when Yoon enters the Blue House in May, he will be bringing a foreign policy agenda that builds on the legacy of his predecessor with some areas of divergence. Specifically, South Korea under Yoon will become a more proactive Indo-Pacific player. Strategic ambiguity will be dropped in favour of visibly siding with the US and other like-minded partners. Yoon will look beyond the immediate North Korea problem to set a global role for Seoul commensurate with South Korea’s status as an advanced democracy, focusing on values and global cooperation. As the UK enters the implementation stage of its Indo-Pacific tilt, there should be greater consideration of how the two could capitalise on areas of mutual interest.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Saeme Kim

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