Yoon Suk-yeol’s narrow victory in South Korea’s presidential election in March 2022 represents a major shift in the foreign-policy orientation of Seoul. It goes without saying that Yoon’s policy conceptions reflect his personal philosophical beliefs as well as those of his policy advisors. First of all, President Yoon, from the conservative People Power Party, has a strong conviction that liberal democracy based on individual freedom and human rights is of primary importance. In the same vein, he believes that a free-market economy based on individual choice and with minimal state intervention is the right way forward.
In his inaugural address, Yoon emphasized the importance of freedom at least 35 times. This suggests that universal democratic values shared with other countries will be the backbone of his foreign policy. Second, national interests, not partisan or clan interests, should guide policy choices. Rather than resting on ideological convictions, he says that government policies should work on the basis of preserving the national interest and serving the Korean people. This is the foundation for his practical eclecticism when policies are designed.
Third, Yoon believes that South Korea should play an appropriate international role commensurate with its international status. Being preoccupied with local Korean Peninsula concerns would narrow the scope of the country’s policy choices in the global community. Accordingly, the new president aspires to make South Korea a proactively global country that is trusted and respected internationally.
On the basis of renewed perceptions and its own philosophical foundations, the Yoon government has already made a critical re-evaluation of the foreign-policy objectives of the previous Moon Jae-in administration.
Sustainable Peace with North Korea
As with any other South Korean government, policy toward North Korea is a priority and a challenge, as North Korea constitutes both a partner to work with and a major threat to South Korean security. The new Yoon government does not wish to simply overturn the policies of the previous government, in that peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula should be maintained and dialogue is the best available means to achieve it. However, the Yoon administration believes that dialogue with Pyongyang should never result in virtual appeasement. Accommodating North Korean requests at the expense of South Korean security does not serve South Korea’s national interest. Mere reconciliation is not likely to lead to sustainable peace on the peninsula in this view.
Yoon made it clear in an interview with CNN that the subservient diplomacy that sought to curry favor with the North Korean leader had failed. In order to construct a sustainable peace, especially given Pyongyang’s continuing attempts to intimidate Seoul without making concessions on its nuclear arsenal, the new Yoon government sees peace through power as a viable option. Securing the people’s safety from North Korea’s imminent security threats should be the first priority of South Korea’s new foreign and security policy. In other words, an idealistic policy based on wishful thinking should be reoriented toward a realistic policy based on a cold-hearted evaluation of North Korean intentions and capabilities.
US-South Korea Alliance as a Backbone of Foreign Policy
Under the previous Moon administration, the US-South Korea alliance was weakened, destabilized, and immobilized. For the purpose of seeking to please North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the previous government voluntarily scaled down or postponed joint military exercises between the US and South Korea.
Moon’s announcement in late 2021 that the US, China and North Korea had agreed “in principle” on a declaration to formally end the Korean War was referred to many times as a victory that could itself be at the core of the peace process on the Korean Peninsula. This is not the view of the new government. The declaration’s possible after-effects, such as weakening the status of the United Nations Command or the Combined Forces Command, have been largely neglected. The previous government also requested lifting sanctions on North Korea despite there being no substantial moves toward denuclearization. All in all, those moves were like a voluntary renunciation of South Korean security as North Korean threats were increasing.
Instead, the new Yoon government makes it crystal clear that the US-South Korea alliance is the backbone of South Korean foreign and security policy. As long as North Korea continues to develop its nuclear and missile capabilities, the Yoon government is ready and willing to substantially strengthen extended deterrence in collaboration with the US. During the summit meeting between President Joe Biden and President Yoon, they announced publicly that the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG) would be reconvened, that joint military exercises would resume and would be enhanced, and that US strategic assets would be deployed speedily when necessary. These measures will help to guarantee the security of South Korea and the Korean people in times of crisis and uncertainty.
Furthermore, the two leaders agreed that the alliance should be upgraded, widened and deepened in changing international environments. They have redefined the US-ROK alliance as global comprehensive strategic alliance. The alliance will cover not only security co-operation but also economic security, technological advancement, and global partnership in a variety of issue areas.
Confident and Dignified Diplomacy Toward Neighbors
According to an opinion survey conducted in 2021 by the East Asia Institute and Genron NPO, anti-Chinese sentiment had risen to 73 percent. The South Korean public had a negative appraisal of the Moon government’s attitude toward China. When China imposed heavy retaliatory measures against South Korean business activities after the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system on South Korean soil, the previous administration announced its so-called “Three Nos” position toward China, promising not to further deploy THAAD, not to join a missile defense system and not to advance a trilateral military alliance among the US, South Korea and Japan. This amounted to a voluntary surrender of South Korea’s sovereignty on issues related to security and alliances in order to please high-handed China.
When Chinese netizens said repeatedly that Korean traditional costumes and kimchi are the offspring of Chinese culture, the previous administration remained silent. This challenged the dignity and pride of a nation. As against this practice, the new Yoon government is determined to rely on confident and dignified diplomacy by which national prestige and pride are properly respected. Also, the Yoon administration would amend the imbalance in Northeast Asia diplomacy, where the previous administration took overly critical stances toward Japan combined with an overly condescending attitude toward China. This gave the unnecessary impression that South Korea was tilting toward China at the expense of Japan and trilateral co-operation among the US, South Korea and Japan. Instead, the new Yoon government will try to take a balanced approach toward its Northeast Asian neighbors that stands firm on national pride and confidence. It will make the utmost effort to improve South Korea-Japan relations, but condescending compromises would be avoided. The Yoon government will also avoid the damaging practice of utilizing Japan-related issues for domestic political gain.
Strategic Clarity in the Indo-Pacific
The Indo-Pacific region has emerged as a key area for global diplomacy. All regional powers are enhancing their diplomatic endeavors in the region. However, the previous Moon government, in the name of advocating strategic ambiguity, hesitated to join diplomatic initiatives raised by the US and Japan. They thought ambiguity was the best policy to serve the interests of South Korea in the midst of US-China competition. Considering that the US-China rivalry was taking place not only in the military and security domain but also in the economic and technological domains, South Korea could hardly put its head in the sand. Having its security anchored to the US while locating its economic future in China’s hands looked balanced in the beginning, but the complex competition between the US and China made the ambiguity option untenable. Hesitancy may have left South Korea isolated and cornered among democratic countries. The new government recognizes that the Indo-Pacific region is an area of ample possibilities, not just immense dangers and risks. Building trusted supply chains, enhancing co-operation with like-minded countries and expanding technological co-advancement turned out to be the better trends. Based on a conception of strategic clarity, the new Yoon government is ready to jump on a variety of diplomatic initiatives, including Washington’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). This initiative is linked to diversifying supply chains and multiplying diplomatic efforts. A security advisor to the president described this as putting security in step with the US while globally diversifying economic options. In this way, South Korea is willing to play a proactive role in a wider geographic perimeter beyond the Korean Peninsula.
Globally Respected and Proactive
One of the critical weaknesses of the previous government’s foreign policy was the preoccupation with North Korea and becoming mired in the Korean Peninsula issue. Even though South Korea has acquired an elevated status as a globally competitive economy with globally influential cultural icons, and a globally respected program as a donor country, the previous administration neglected to expand South Korean diplomacy to a wider regional and global scope. In contrast, the new Yoon administration is interested in proactively enhancing South Korea’s global role. It is willing to take advantage of the advanced technologies that South Korea has accumulated in such areas as semiconductors, high-end batteries, bio-medical technology and more. Its purpose is to help move human civilization to a higher level. As a nation that rose from economic devastation after the Korean War and a harsh authoritarian past, the Yoon government wants South Korea to share its knowledge and experience with underdeveloped and developing countries for enhanced social welfare and to empower better governance.
The Yoon administration is also committed to working with other advanced countries and international organizations to tackle global challenges such as climate change, environmental protection, pandemic control, humanitarian and disaster relief. Furthermore, the Yoon government will play a meaningful role in promoting values such as freedom and human rights on the global stage. It is in this context that President Yoon showed strong interest in hosting a democracy summit this year. Rather than remaining as an isolated and hesitant country, for South Korea to play a pivotal role in the global community is the foreign-policy vision of the Yoon government.
These new foreign policy initiatives should not be misunderstood, however, as simply undoing the policies of the previous government.
First, the new foreign-policy line is not an anti-North Korea policy. Pyongyang remains a partner for dialogue, especially when it comes to denuclearization. Complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula remains a lasting goal for the new administration. How to bring about a sustainable and predictable peace is a major concern of the new administration. Denuclearization is a linchpin for genuine peace on the Korean Peninsula while peace in the shadow of a nuclear arsenal is a fake peace. In this connection, the new government will pursue complete denuclearization of North Korea. When Pyongyang takes substantial measures toward denuclearization, the Yoon government will take bold measures to elevate the quality of life of the North Korean people. Humanitarian assistance, however, will be offered regardless of progress on denuclearization.
Second, this new foreign-policy line is not meant to be anti-China. There is no significant change in South Korea’s foreign policy in that China remains a critical economic, socio-cultural, and co-operative partner. The new Yoon government will not take the option of decoupling from China economically. Normal economic transactions will be promoted and pushed in a manner that serves mutually shared and reciprocally beneficial interests. When pursuing co-operation with China, emphasis will be put on mutual respect and understanding. Exchanges of humanitarian and social-scientific ideas should be expanded. Also, strategic dialogue regarding the future of North Korea and the Korean Peninsula should be deepened. On the multilateral diplomatic front, the new Yoon government will also try not to isolate China.
Third, the new foreign-policy line should not be interpreted as anti-Russia. The new government will take the firm position that a rules-based international order should be preserved and that changing the status quo through physical force should never be allowed. However, this does not mean that the new administration will take an uncompromising anti-Russia position. The new government will continue to work with Russia in securing stable energy and natural resources if the situation turns positive. Russia will remain a critical stakeholder when we deal with North Korea. Cultural exchanges between the two countries will be furthered in the future as well.
South Korea under the Yoon administration will take a realistic, balanced, proactive and dignified foreign-policy line in order to promote liberty, peace and prosperity in the global community.