South Korea’s Value Diplomacy: In Search of a Global Pivotal Role

Bold vision: South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol delivers remarks at the White House during his state visit to the US in April 2023. Image: The White House / Wikimedia Commons

In May 2022, Yoon Suk-yeol, former prosecutor-general and a political novice, was sworn in as the 20th president of South Korea. A year into his five-year single-term presidency, what do we make of his foreign and security policy and its prospects?

During a cabinet meeting held the day before the first anniversary of his inauguration, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol reflected that ‘there had been no other area that had undergone as significant changes as foreign affairs and national security’. Indeed, a major shift was anticipated to take place in Seoul’s foreign policy after his election victory. In his inaugural speech, Yoon proclaimed that South Korea would ‘take on a greater role befitting our stature as a global leader’, and under this notion, Seoul’s new grand strategy has been dubbed as the making of a ‘global pivotal state, one that advances freedom, peace, and prosperity through liberal democratic values and substantial cooperation’.

The Making of a ‘Value Diplomacy’

South Korea’s foreign policy under former President Moon Jae-in was characterised as ‘strategic ambiguity’, seeking to balance between the US and China in the midst of intensifying great power rivalry. In contrast, Yoon has been vocal in replacing it with a ‘strategic clarity’ that seeks security and stability on the Korean Peninsula through a stronger South Korea–US alliance and closer trilateral cooperation with Washington and Tokyo. He has also repeatedly emphasised liberal values such as freedom and democracy, claiming the need for Seoul to pursue a ‘value diplomacy’ that seeks enhanced ties with like-minded countries. Such a notion befits the idea of a rules-based international order as echoed in South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which calls for a ‘regional order based on norms and rules’. While centred on the Indo-Pacific region, this strategy extends beyond the two oceans and maps out South Korea’s ties with Africa, Europe and even Latin America.

Promoting Ties with Like-minded Partners

Although a newcomer to the foreign affairs scene, Yoon has actively engaged with the international community since taking office. Over the past year, he has made seven overseas trips to 10 different countries and held 41 summit meetings with world leaders, and has taken part in several multilateral meetings, including the UN General Assembly, G20, NATO, ASEAN and the Summit for Democracy. During the G7 Summit in Japan in May, Yoon held bilateral meetings with all the leaders of AUKUS and the Quad, as well as with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, where he reaffirmed South Korea’s continued support for Ukraine.

At the centre of Yoon’s value-based foreign policy lies the South Korea–US alliance. Soon after Yoon’s inauguration, US President Joe Biden visited South Korea as the first stop on his first trip to Asia since taking office. Eleven months later, Yoon was welcomed in Washington as the second foreign leader to be invited for a state visit by the Biden administration. Marking the 70th anniversary of the alliance, the two leaders announced the Washington Declaration, taking the relationship into a new realm of comprehensive partnership that encompasses security, economic and technological cooperation and setting a global agenda beyond the Korean Peninsula.

With the looming possibility of a seventh nuclear test by North Korea, the deadlock in inter-Korean relations has in turn prompted a greater need for South Korea–US–Japan trilateral cooperation

Another major development can be seen in Seoul’s relationship with Tokyo. Over the past few years, South Korea–Japan relations had sunk to their lowest point since the normalisation of relations in 1965, with decades-old historical disputes beginning to infiltrate into the economic and security realms. The global travel bans owing to the Covid-19 pandemic further dampened the relationship as people-to-people exchanges were severed and growing nationalism in both countries led to the rise of anti-Japanese and anti-Korean sentiments in Seoul and Tokyo respectively.

Against such a backdrop, Yoon staked his political capital on resetting the two countries’ bilateral relations. In March, he visited Tokyo, which marked the first visit by a South Korean president since 2011. In return, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited Seoul in early May, continuing the ‘shuttle diplomacy’ across the Korea Strait. Both countries subsequently restored their trade and security partnership, laying the groundwork for more extensive trilateral cooperation with the US. While Yoon’s bold decision has borne some fruit, there remain many areas of difficulty in the bilateral relationship. His announcement of a resolution to compensate victims of wartime Japan which had been in deadlock for years saw severe public outcry, and continuing signs of historical revisionism in Japan present potential challenges that will require more delicate handling to avoid a possible backlash from within.

Persisting Geopolitical Challenges

In contrast to the development of relationships with allies and partners, inter-Korean relations have not seen any improvement. Yoon announced the ‘Audacious Initiative’ as a renewed attempt at denuclearisation talks with Pyongyang, only to witness a record number of North Korean missile tests in 2022. With the looming possibility of a seventh nuclear test by North Korea, the deadlock in inter-Korean relations has in turn prompted a greater need for South Korea–US–Japan trilateral cooperation. With Yoon emphasising a rules-based order and liberal values such as democracy and human rights, it is likely that the current inter-Korean stalemate will continue for the foreseeable future.

Managing Seoul’s relationship with Beijing also remains a difficult task for Yoon. Despite his criticism of the Moon administration’s strategic ambiguity, Yoon has refrained from antagonising the country’s largest trading partner. When former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Seoul in August 2022 after her controversial visit to Taiwan, Yoon avoided meeting her and only extended his welcome over the phone. South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy also defines China as ‘a key partner for achieving prosperity and peace’, rather than a strategic competitor as viewed by the US.

With the strengthening of the South Korea–US alliance at a time of great power rivalry, managing its relationship with China will be key to whether South Korea can become a ‘pivotal state’

While Yoon has tried to walk a fine line, South Korean diplomacy towards China has been relatively absent in the past year as Seoul’s strengthening relationship with Washington and Tokyo has overshadowed its relationship with Beijing. Although 2022 marked the 30th anniversary of the normalisation of South Korea–China relations, the opportunity to further expand their relationship was missed. Bilateral relations dipped in June after controversial remarks made by the Chinese ambassador to Seoul, who openly stated that South Korea was to blame for worsening ties and that the relationship risked further deterioration. In the past, Seoul has faced severe Chinese economic coercion in retaliation for the deployment of US strategic assets in South Korea. With the strengthening of the South Korea–US alliance at a time of great power rivalry, managing its relationship with China will be key to whether South Korea can become a ‘pivotal state’. Having laid the groundwork for cooperation with like-minded countries, Seoul needs to set a course for cooperation with Beijing while holding firm on its principles.

Hurdling Domestic Constraints

While South Korea has been pursuing its mission to become a global pivotal state, Yoon faces difficulties at home, with constantly low approval ratings and a lack of communication with the opposition, which still maintains a majority in the National Assembly. Given that he only won the 2022 election by a fine margin of 0.73%, the traditional polarity in South Korean domestic politics poses a challenge for the Yoon administration. This has been particularly the case in his first year, with Yoon’s approval ratings plummeting as low as 24% during his first 100 days.

Only recently have his approval ratings begun to recover as his foreign policy efforts have produced some visible outcomes. The next key turning point to be watched is the legislative election scheduled for April 2024. This is an important hurdle for Yoon to cross, and provides a window of opportunity for the ruling party to form a majority in the National Assembly. The outcome will determine the course of Yoon’s remaining presidency, as he also faces the risk of becoming a lame duck should the opposition retain its majority.

To make South Korea a global pivotal state, Yoon will need to find a domestic consensus for such a cause. Despite the country’s gradual rise as a middle power, it has lacked a grand strategy, and thus its foreign policy has been incoherent across leadership transitions – as has also been witnessed at the start of the Yoon administration. This lack of continuity stems from the country’s polarised political camps, which have contrasting foreign and security policy goals. Their diverging attitudes on China, Japan and North Korea pose a challenge when it comes to finding common ground for a national grand strategy, and this dissonance is the source of the foreign policy discontinuity that is a constant feature of South Korean political transitions.

Over the past year, the Yoon administration has set a course to strengthen partnerships with like-minded countries based on shared norms and values that emphasise a rules-based international order. In the process, Yoon has also demonstrated boldness in pushing forward with what he believes is necessary, as seen through his rapprochement with Japan despite negative public sentiments. Given Yoon’s emphasis on freedom and democracy, it is likely that South Korea’s value diplomacy will continue for his remaining time in office. What remains to be seen is how Seoul’s value diplomacy will endure geopolitical challenges including North Korea’s continued brinkmanship and deepening great power rivalry.

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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Ha Chae Kyoun

Indo-Pacific Visiting Fellow

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