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New president will bring South Korea deeper into US embrace

The conservative Yoon Suk-yeol will take a harder line on North Korea and China. This might be harder — and more dangerous — than it sounds.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

South Koreans are sorting out the implications of the recent presidential elections. Victorious conservative candidate Yoon Suk-yeol rose to prominence on an anti-corruption agenda and has various plans to shake up the way government functions. He has also pledged to reduce government intervention in the economy, boost incentives for business, increase the role of nuclear energy, and spur the construction of 2.5 million homes. He wants to compensate the population for its COVID losses. He has embraced Korea’s nascent anti-feminist movement.

But perhaps the greatest impact the new conservative administration will have is in the arena of foreign policy. The quickest way of summarizing the likely approach of the incoming government is “two Nos and one Yes.” Yoon will be saying “no” to both North Korea and China while embracing the United States with a big “yes.”

At a deeper level, Yoon will be steering South Korea away from an effort to balance major powers in the Asia-Pacific region and toward greater alignment with U.S. foreign policy. The Biden administration is looking forward to greater coordination between South Korea and Japan in countering North Korea and containing China.

“South Korea’s diplomatic posture of strategic ambiguity—its reticence in taking sides during great-power rivalries—has become increasingly untenable in an era of intensifying geopolitical rivalry,” write Kuyoun Chung and Andrew Yeo in Foreign Policy. This approach of the Moon Jae-in government was, they add, “a recipe for irrelevance: South Korea’s foreign policy will remain limited and unpersuasive without clear values.”

This seems to be a strange conclusion. After all, the Moon administration had clear values. Those values simply ran counter to those of the United States. Moon and his colleagues valued greater cooperation with North Korea. They valued mitigating superpower competition with and around China. Relevance, according to Chung and Yeo, follows directly from power politics. South Korea will be relevant with its foreign policy largely because it hitches its wagon to the world’s principle hegemonic power. Relevance comes at the expense of independence.

But the Two Nos and One Yes policy will be easier said than done.

China and South Korea have an extraordinarily close economic connection. China is the biggest destination for Korean goods—by a long shot. In 2021, China received a quarter of all Korean exports. The United States came in a distant second at 15 percent. That same imbalance is reflected on Korea’s import side.

This strong trade relationship survived a disagreement over South Korea accepting the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system from the United States. The Moon administration came into office with a plan to defuse the THAAD standoff with China. According to Moon’s “three nos” policy, South Korea promised not to accept more THAAD batteries, pledged not to integrate into a regional missile defense system, and backed away from the trilateral alliance with the United States and Japan.

Although some Korean firms like Lotte abandoned the Chinese market, trade relations resumed after Moon’s initiative. Recently China even began to lift the ban on streaming Korean content imposed during the THAAD standoff. Yoon, however, has already declared his intention to break the “three nos” policy by, among other things, soliciting even more THAAD batteries. He may decide to take a more nuanced approach when he evaluates the impact on the Korean economy of a renewed spat with China.

Moon had also hoped that South Korea could use China’s Belt and Road Initiative to solicit funds to knit together the peninsula with infrastructure projects like the inter-Korean railroad. Other enticements like joint energy projects might also have coaxed North Korea out of its isolation. All along the challenge for Moon was getting the United States in particular to agree to this vision. Despite holding three summits with Kim Jong Un, Moon wasn’t able to make much headway on advancing concrete cooperative projects. Tensions did, however, subside on the Korean peninsula.

North Korea, meanwhile, has already expressed its displeasure with Yoon’s plan to take a harder line, for instance around developing an ability to launch preemptive strikes against Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capabilities. Nor will North Korea appreciate the increase in U.S.-ROK military exercises that Yoon backs. One concrete sign of that displeasure was North Korea’s recent test of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Like previous conservative leaders, Yoon is offering “peace through strength” as a policy toward North Korea. Once in office, he might turn around and, like Lee Myung Bak, come up with a package of economic incentives. But Lee thought like a businessman. Given that Yoon thinks like a prosecutor, he will probably treat North Korea like a criminal that needs to be punished. He’ll only agree to a plea deal if Pyongyang gives up all its nuclear weapons first, and that strategy hasn’t yielded any results so far.

The policy consensus in Washington is that relations with the United States will become much smoother now that both Trump and Moon are out of the picture. Also, the foreign policy elite in Washington has shifted away from supporting engagement with China and toward containing its ambitions, which dovetails with Yoon’s anti-China impulses.

However, Yoon won the presidential election by the narrowest of margins. And the opposition still controls the parliament. Any efforts by Yoon to seek a rapprochement with Japan, which is at the top of the U.S. wish list, will encounter considerable domestic pushback. That resistance might extend as well to closer coordination with the Quad powers (the United States, Japan, Australia, and India).

Moon Jae-in, for all his flaws and failed policy initiatives, represented an important figure who resisted a stark Cold War division of Northeast Asia. He tried to stake out space between the United States and China. He attempted to bring North Korea out of the cold. Now that he’s gone, the region will become once again as polarized as South Korea’s electorate: evenly divided between blue and red.

Yoon’s election coincides with equally polarizing changes in Europe after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. At a time when international cooperation is needed more than ever to address the pandemic, climate change, refugees, and other issues, the disappearance of the middle ground in both Europe and Asia is a dangerous development indeed.

This article has been republished with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.

Campaign poster for South Korea's president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol. (Ki young / Shutterstock.com).
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