On 9 March 2022, Yoon Suk Yeol, a conservative former top prosecutor, has been elected as the new President of South Korea, defeating his main liberal opponent Lee Jae-myung in one of the country’s most tense presidential elections.
While the race to succeed incumbent President Moon Jae-in was a close one between former Prosecutor General Yoon of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) and former Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), it ended up in Yoon won by a slim margin of 0.8 percentage points.
President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol will have little time to rejoice after a tight victory in South Korea’s election. After his inauguration in May, the political novice must prepare for the realities of office and manage his country’s foreign policy through a tumultuous regional and global context.
The North Korean nuclear and missile threat, the intense fight between the US and China for global hegemony, frigid ties with Japan, and Russia’s assault on Ukraine will all provide difficult problems for the former chief prosecutor, a diplomatic rookie.
Yoon, in compared to President Moon Jae-in, is more hawkish when it comes to foreign policy. Unlike President Moon, Yoon favors tough sanctions on North Korea, which are in accordance with US foreign policy, due the fact that Washington is Seoul’s most important diplomatic friend. Yoon has even advocated for the creation of military technologies capable of launching preemptive attacks against North Korea. Moon Jae-in’s policy toward North Korea had been deemed as a total failure by Yoon.
Yoon’s detractors had targeted him during the campaign for his lack of expertise in party politics, foreign policy, and other state-related concerns. This was one of the talking topics, with Trump and Yoon being compared several times. Yoon had stated at the time that he would delegate subjects requiring knowledge to experienced officials, but analysts have questioned how much of this would be carried out in practice.
Seoul’s influence in the international community has shrunk as a result of the current administration’s foreign policy, which is primarily focused on strengthening ties with North Korea. Most crucially, the US-South Korean relationship has deteriorated as a result of divergent approaches to North Korea policy: Seoul has emphasized cooperation with Pyongyang, whilst Washington has prioritized confronting North Korea over its nuclear threats and human rights violations.
Any South Korean government faces a difficult challenge in dealing with North Korea. However, it should not be taken to reflect all of Seoul’s diplomacy. Once upon a time, dialogue with the North was a precise means to a defined end, North Korea’s total disarmament. However, under President Moon Jae-in, engagement with the North has become a means to an end. Yoon, like his conservative predecessors, is more skeptical of North Korea than the Moon administration, which pushed for inter-Korea cooperation and an end-of-war declaration until Moon’s final months in office. The Yoon government will continue to provide humanitarian aid and pursue diplomatic and dialogue chances. However, given North Korea’s regular stream of missile launches this year, the cold shoulder it has given President Moon of late, and the United States’ focus diverted to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we are likely to witness a protracted period of non-engagement. As Kim’s dictatorship boosts tensions on the peninsula by testing new ICBM technology, Yoon may soon face a challenge.
When it comes to North Korea policy, we can anticipate Yoon to emphasize deterrence as much as prospective interaction, based on his policy platform, remarks during the presidential campaign, and the makeup of his foreign policy advisory committee. Unless there is a major crisis or big breakthrough in inter-Korean relations, we may anticipate the Yoon team to make North Korea a prominent foreign policy problem, but not the only one, and perhaps less important than South Korea’s role in the US-China competition. Furthermore, Yoon’s North Korean policy program includes three principles that Pyongyang is likely to reject: total denuclearization, reciprocity, and human rights. Yoon’s foreign policy abandons Moon’s seemingly exclusive focus on North Korea as the overarching focus of South Korean diplomacy, but ironically replaces it with a seemingly exclusive focus on North Korea within South Korea’s defense and deterrence posture, to the exclusion of broader regional and global defense priorities. During the campaign, Yoon mentioned preemptive attacks, suggesting Seoul should employ these military capabilities if it believes Pyongyang is about to launch an assault. According to analysts, a Yoon government will shift its priority from interaction with North Korea to deterrence.
As North Korea begins testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), satellite launches, and perhaps further nuclear weapons, tensions with both the US and South Korea will surely rise. The subsequent crisis will put Yoon’s leadership to the to, both in terms of coordinating with the Biden administration and managing peninsular stability. Similarly, if North Korea did not respond to the Moon administration’s unilateral offers of incentives, such as an end-of-war declaration, to pave the way for inter-Korean engagement, it is unlikely that it will respond to packaged or conditioned approaches that require North and South Korea to move in lockstep. As a result, the Yoon administration’s promises of humanitarian and economic aid in stages in tandem with North Korean disarmament are a no-go.
Yoon has promised to strengthen South Korea’s deterrent against the North while working closely with the US. This might include extending the Park Geun-hye government’s THAAD anti-missile defense system, which was implemented under Moon’s presidency. Yoon has also stated his openness to explore the notion of the United States redeploying tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, despite the fact that the Joe Biden administration has shown no interest in doing so. Yoon, on the other hand, has stated that he would prefer to talk to the US for a nuclear-sharing agreement similar to those used by NATO. This appears to be impractical as well, but Yoon may try to press for it. The new South Korean president is also likely to be more outspoken about North Korean human rights violations than the Moon administration was. He may also be more critical of China’s role as a facilitator of both these abuses and Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons development, as many in South Korea believe. In other words, a Yoon administration would likely not be afraid to criticize Pyongyang in ways that the previous administration would not. Yoon has already been chastised by North Korea’s official media. Pyongyang is likely to expect a less conciliatory posture from a Yoon government, as well as more criticism.
Yoon’s comments on North Korean human rights might be the most incendiary, with implications for peninsular stability as well as internal tensions between Yoon and the opposition-majority National Assembly. North Korea’s vehement counteraction to previous South Korean information penetration efforts, as well as the current National Assembly’s support for a law prohibiting the distribution of leaflets by balloon into North Korea, could result in an escalation of inter-Korean tensions that would cripple Yoon’s domestic agenda while also paralyzing his North Korea policy. Furthermore, Yoon’s promises to implement the North Korean Human Rights Act, which was approved in 2016 but languished during the Moon administration, might be a source of continued friction between the National Assembly’s progressive majority and Yoon’s conservative government. Yoon, on the other hand, has stated that he is willing to engage in talks and negotiations with North Korea. The president-elect wants Seoul, Washington, and Pyongyang to establish a trilateral communication channel. Also, if Pyongyang takes demonstrable steps to stop its nuclear program, the president-elect has promised to endorse a peace treaty for the Korean Peninsula and to offer a large economic package to North Korea.
Finally, Yoon, like Moon and other South Korean presidents, wants to enhance inter-Korean ties and bring the two Koreas closer together. He also wants to avoid the tensions and violence of 2010, when the two Koreas had two major military conflicts, and 2017, when tensions between the US and North Korea reached unsustainable levels. As a result, it’s expected that he’ll be harder on North Korea while also looking for methods to enhance inter-Korean ties in close collaboration with the Biden administration.
During the election campaign, Yoon expressed unabashed admiration for the United States, claiming that his new government’s top foreign policy objective will be to reestablish the partnership with Washington. He slammed current President Moon Jae-in’s balanced approach to the US-China relationship, stating he would restore the US-ROK alliance and create a comprehensive strategic partnership by sharing the key ideals of liberal democracy, market economy, and human rights. Yoon must pass these early tests as a rookie to foreign policy if he is to lay a firm basis for South Korea’s foreign policy during his five-year term. The Yoon campaign called for a win-win strategy to the Sino-US strategic competition, promising both a “complete strategic partnership” with the US and a “mutual respect” attitude toward China.
President-elect Yoon and his foreign policy team have taken stances that are obviously in line with those of the United States. Of course, there will be a lot of continuity from Moon’s administration, but we should anticipate the conservative Yoon government to prioritize the US-South Korea alliance above South Korea’s relations with North Korea and China. Yoon’s aim to build a foreign policy that prioritizes alignment with the US, enhances relationships with Japan and Southeast Asia, and envisions South Korea’s rise as a global powerhouse should excite the Biden administration. However, the transfer from President Moon Jae-in to Yoon is expected to cause early frictions with China and North Korea, undermining the bipartisan internal support that South Korea needs to conduct a strong foreign policy.
Yoon has been opposing the Moon government’s conciliatory approach to North Korea, instead favoring a policy that emphasizes deterrence and peace through strength, reflecting the views of his support base. As a result, Yoon and his advisers have argued for bolstering US extended deterrence against North Korea through joint military exercises, updated military operational plans, and increased deployment of US military assets, including more of the anti-ballistic missile system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). Unlike the liberals in South Korea, Yoon’s foreign and security policy team is not in a rush to implement the transfer of wartime operational control to Seoul. Yoon stated that it is possible if South Korea is equipped with appropriate capabilities, but he did not specify the conditions under which the transfer would take place.
Yoon’s foreign policy team is also said to be interested in South Korea joining an extended Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the “Quad”) with India, the United States, Japan, and Australia, a forum Beijing regards as an attempt to geopolitically encircle China. South Korea will be more willing to engage with the Quad and other democratic international organizations under Yoon’s leadership, even if it means angering Beijing. Even as Seoul wants inclusion in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, South Korea is expected to embrace the US Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Seoul has stayed away from informal alliances so far to avoid looking like it’s jumping on the anti-China bandwagon. The incoming government, however, will be less subservient to China and more vocal on problems of human rights and freedom of speech in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, owing to local anti-China sentiment. Yoon also stated that South Korea should aspire to host the Summit for Democracy, which is seen as another anti-China event. As a result, Seoul will become an enthusiastic backer of the US Indo-Pacific policy for the first time. However, Yoon’s tightening of ties with the US, including a possible future participation in the Quad, has already prompted veiled warnings from China, with Chinese researchers arguing that continuing the Moon administration’s choice avoidance strategy is in South Korea’s national interest. And the fact that four of the first five world leaders to congratulate Yoon upon his election were Quad members, plus the United Kingdom, would undoubtedly have been noted by China.
The Yoon government’s pro-US stance does not guarantee that its goals would always coincide with those of the United States. South Korea will continue to value its economic connections with China under Yoon’s leadership, with the goal of separating geopolitical alignment from economic operations. If US policy toward North Korea grows more accommodating, the Yoon government, like Kim Young-sam’s opposition to Bill Clinton’s engagement policy, might become a critical voice against it. If the US’ attitude starts to be more hawkish toward Pyongyang, the Yoon administration will likely become more cautious, despite its own tendency, because South Korean conservatives are well aware of the potential cost of a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula. The core axis of Seoul’s foreign strategy should be a stronger relationship with Washington. Seoul should pursue a comprehensive strategic alliance with Washington, and bilateral relations between the United States and South Korea should evolve to meet the demands of the twenty-first century. Alliances that balance mainly against specific military threats are a thing of the past, especially since that inflicting damage on opponents through economic reprisal or cyberattacks has become commonplace. As a result, today’s alliances entail intricate networks of collaboration on a wide range of topics, such as privacy, supply chains, and public health. South Korea and the United States should collaborate on the development of cutting-edge semiconductors, batteries, cyber-tools, space travel, nuclear energy, medicines, and green technology through a comprehensive economic and security discourse. To encourage growth and investment, the US and South Korean governments should modernize and harmonize their regulatory systems in these sectors.
President Moon Jae-in inherited a controversy over the deployment of the US missile defense system THAAD in South Korea five years ago. The decision had been reached in collaboration with the United States in 2016, but by the time President Moon took office, South Korea had been slammed by unprecedented Chinese informal sanctions, which had damaged the tourism, media, and other businesses in the country. President Moon’s government vowed the “Three No’s” once THAAD was completely deployed in autumn 2017, alluding to “no further THAAD batteries,” “no South Korean integration into the US regional missile defense system,” and “no trilateral alliance with the US and Japan.” Although contentious at the time, this diplomatic action allowed Seoul to preserve THAAD while also improving ties with Beijing, culminating in a progressive lessening of Chinese economic coercion in the months that followed.
We should anticipate the THAAD debate to move to a second round now that Yoon Suk-yeol is president-elected. Yoon has attacked the Moon administration’s Three Nos, which he believes have weakened South Korea’s sovereign right to protect itself against a nuclear threat from North Korea. Yoon thinks that national security comes first, and that South Korea should never be forced to choose between China, its largest commercial partner, and the United States, its ally and security guarantee. In response to North Korea’s expanding nuclear and missile capabilities, Yoon is considering adding more THAAD interceptors.
Because of the THAAD conflict and China’s pressure, South Koreans have had historically unfavourable opinions of China. As a result, Yoon will have the Korean people’s backing in taking a more principled stance against China, even if it means risking further Chinese economic coercion. But, as Yoon is well aware, China remains South Korea’s most vital commercial partner. He said that a regular high-level strategic discussion with China will usher in a new age of mutual respect and collaboration. If Yoon is to carry out his other foreign policy ambitions, a high-level strategic conversation with Beijing will be required. Yoon has stated his desire to join the Quad, which Beijing regards as a anti-China coalition. Yoon’s ambitions to join or collaborate with the intelligence-sharing group Five Eyes will be interpreted as a direct challenge to China. Whereas the Moon government has avoided embracing the US’ Indo-Pacific Strategy or Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy for fear of offending China, we can anticipate Yoon to publicly embrace these policies and collaborate with like-minded Indo-Pacific countries. All of this might make ties with China more difficult.
However, there are certain areas where Yoon will wish to work with China. Security on the Korean Peninsula, including North Korea’s disarmament, is one example. Yoon also sees China as a collaborator on problems such as climate change and public health, and he advocates resuming cultural engagement in the post-COVID-19 era. The previously mentioned mutual respect and collaboration with China clearly envisage substantial economic connections, presuming Beijing does not threaten to use commercial ties as a bargaining chip in security-political conflicts.
South Korea should take the initiative in the broader region, just as it should take the initiative in domestic concerns. South Korea should actively support a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific order rather than passively adjusting and responding to the changing international environment. Seoul should be willing to participate in working groups of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, explore joining multilateral regional cooperation efforts in stages, and participate in trilateral security coordination with the US and Japan.
Yoon also has to deal with the arduous task of repairing South Korea-Japan ties. Yoon’s government may have a better chance than his predecessor in this area. First, during the campaign, Yoon frequently expressed his desire to strengthen relations with Japan, distinguishing himself from Moon, who focused on anti-Japanese sentiment, which provides Tokyo with a chance and stronger reason to reach out to the incoming president. Second, Yoon’s foreign policy ideas, notably on North Korea but also on the Indo-Pacific, are more aligned with those of Tokyo, allowing for more functional collaboration. Third, Yoon may be more likely to minimize historical difficulties related to previous conflicts in order to improve bilateral and trilateral relations between the United States, Japan, and South Korea. As a result, Yoon is less inclined to use South Korea-Japan connections for domestic political benefit, which frequently leads to protracted periods of bilateral hostility. The two countries, both U.S. allies have been at odds for decades over territorial and historical concerns, such as the Japanese military’s exploitation of Korean women in brothels during WWII and Japanese firms forcing Koreans to work for them during Japan’s rule of the Korean Peninsula (1910-1945).
South Korea should prioritize resuming shuttle summit diplomacy and restoring confidence between the two nations. Seoul should also form a high-level negotiation team to hold thorough talks with Tokyo on both cooperative and conflict-related matters. To re-establish trust and confidence, the two nations should broaden the breadth of cross-border people-to-people encounters, particularly among South Korean and Japanese youth.
Due to his close win among the a highly polarized electorate and the opposing party’s control of the National Assembly, Yoon will face significant pushback in achieving his ideas.
North Korea is expected to fire more illegal missiles and may escalate tensions further by resuming nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile testing. North Korea would blame any future provocations on Yoon’s strict policies, yet despite Moon’s devotion to Pyongyang, the government continues to threaten, insult, and fire missiles.
Yoon will have to strike a balance between his planned shift toward deeper relations with the US and Japan and his China rhetoric to avoid potential Chinese government retaliation for rapid policy changes. However, the poor public perception of China in South Korea will very certainly transform any Yoon strategic reforms into a political benefit.
Written by: Balázs Pál
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