MS Risk Blog

From Moon to Yoon: changes in South Korea’s Foreign Policy

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As is often the case when there is alternation between progressive and conservative presidents in the South Korean government, the election of conservative candidate Yoon Suk-Yeol will most likely imply substantive changes in the country’s foreign policy. Beyond the domestic challenges, the new Korean administration will find itself in a troubled neighborhood: a North Korea that has intensified its launch of missiles, and a growing tension between its military and strategic ally (Washington) and its largest trading partner (Beijing). The president-elect, who has no experience in either foreign policy or defense, and whose agenda in these areas is based on the concept of “national interest,” is expected to introduce changes on all these issues.  Yoon, a newcomer to South Korean politics after spending the last 27 years of his professional career as a prosecutor, wants to turn his country’s foreign policy around in response to the work of dialogue and outreach carried out by his predecessor, progressive Moon Jae-in, towards his neighbors. A strategy that in his opinion has failed because it has not given the country any revenue. Yoon Suk Yeol is thus expected to apply a hard line on North Korea and balance South Korea’s relations with both the US and China. All of these tasks will have to be done while managing internal problems, including corruption and the pandemic.

Yoon Suk-yeol considers North Korea a serious threat to the security of his country and in his campaign advocated additional deployments of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile defense system provided by Washington, which already caused in 2016 and 2017 strong political-commercial retaliation by China. The president-elect has also suggested highly controversial measures such as the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons, rejected by the Pentagon itself, and the possibility of considering a preemptive strike to counter North Korea’s threats. It will be necessary to pay attention to how these positions evolve once he takes office, given the foreseeable development that the North Korean arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and hypersonic missiles will continue to have, which are close to surpassing the South Korean defense systems. Likewise, the next tenant of the Blue House promised to continue with the joint military exercises with the United States, which were suspended from 2018 to 2021 as part of the peace policy of the previous administration with North Korea.

Paradoxically, Yoon has also supported measures of contact with North Korea that go beyond the traditional isolationism of the North Korean regime of the South Korean conservative forces. For example, he has proposed the sending of humanitarian aid without political conditions, the intensification of cultural and educational exchanges, the creation of a trilateral diplomatic office in Panmunjom with representatives of the two Koreas and the United States, and even the holding of a summit with Kim Jong-un. In any case, it will most likely harden the narrative about the North Korean regime, both in relation to the violation of its international commitments and human rights, and will reduce the volume of inter-Korean cooperation. Furthermore, any diplomatic initiative that could be taken up would, at least initially, be more discreet than the summit diplomacy promoted by Moon.

In sum, Kim Sung-han, Yoon’s foreign policy adviser and former deputy foreign minister, summed up Yoon’s strategy toward North Korea in three points in a webinar organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies: (1) reinforcing deterrence against aggressive North Korean actions, including the development of its nuclear and missile programs; (2) tighter enforcement of sanctions, which could target China and strain relations with Beijing; and (3) deepening trilateral cooperation with the US and Japan to pressure Kim Jong-un to return to negotiations on his weapons of mass destruction programs, willing to make significant concessions on them. In this way, it is not only intended to increase South Korea’s security against North Korea, but it is also expected to strengthen ties with the US and Japan, which has important implications for South Korean relations with China.

For South Korea, the rivalry between the US and China places the country in a difficult situation. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations with China in 1992, South Korea has opted for a commercial policy of rapprochement and collaboration with China. Beijing is Seoul’s largest trading partner, receiving approximately a quarter of its total exports of goods and services and being the origin of 22% of Korean imports, creating a clear situation of commercial dependence on the Asian giant. This dependence is aggravated by China’s role as a supplier of essential raw materials for its industrial fabric and South Korean investments in China, whose value is estimated at between 3,000 and 5,000 million dollars between 2010 and 2019.

In this context, China tried to condition the decision of the South Korean government on the installation of the THAAD anti-missile system in 2016 and 2017, applying economic coercion that had a very negative impact on South Korean interests. These examples of coercive diplomacy, coupled with the controversy over the Chinese origin of certain aspects of Korean culture, have had a very pronounced impact on Korean public opinion. Recent opinion surveys show that the vast majority of South Korean citizens perceive China as the country that poses the greatest threat to Korea’s security (71.8%). On the contrary, the perception of Washington in Korean society has remained at the same levels as in recent years, with 93% of Koreans supporting the need to maintain the alliance with the US.

In relation to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this alliance is resulting in the imposition, under US leadership, of several rounds of sanctions by South Korea against Russian interests. Predictably, this alignment between Seoul and Washington against Russia will be even greater under Yoon’s presidency. In addition, the Biden Administration has emphasized its ability to be on the European front in the Ukraine war while keeping a close eye on developments in Asia-Pacific, something that was called into question in the early days of the European war and which continues to worry its allies in Asia. The South Korea-US alliance is part of the US security strategy in the region, with troops deployed in the Asian country and a fluid bilateral relationship of information and close contact. President-elect Yoon is expected to be more receptive than Moon to joining the new security platforms being developed by the US in the Indo-Pacific region and strengthening cooperation with Japan.

While handling these two main Foreign Policy priorities, Yoon will have to handle internal problems at the same time. Yoon, an anti-corruption prosecutor for 25 years, obtained prison sentences for corruption for former conservative presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. He has promised to make institutional changes to prevent – not just punish – corruption. Finally, Yoon will have to find a balance between economic recovery after two years of the pandemic and COVID-19 restrictions, a slowdown in exports, rising inflationary pressures (4,1% only in March, highest figure since 2011) and surging property prices.