South Korea is pivoting geopolitically

If successful, the pivot could become truly historic.

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South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeok salutes the national flag during a cabinet meeting at the Presidential Office in Seoul, South Korea, January 16, 2024. Yonhap via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA.

Approximately two years into Yoon Suk Yeol’s presidency, South Korea has undergone a geopolitical shift of potentially historic significance. The Yoon administration has decisively moved away from the previous progressive government’s emphasis on engaging with North Korea, opting instead for a more confrontational stance toward the Pyongyang regime.

Also, the current government has successfully pursued improved relations with neighbouring Japan. Seoul has chosen to play down historical issues related to wartime and prioritize normalization, fostering a growing trilateral partnership on regional and global policies with Japan and the United States.

Yoon has also taken a less accommodating approach towards China, even leaning towards participating in efforts to contain its rise. These strategic shifts are underpinned by a strengthened security alliance with the United States, evident in steps taken by the US to enhance extended deterrence and South Korea’s willingness to align with US strategic interests.

While the pivot in South Korean foreign and security policy is undoubtedly a consequence of the change in political leadership in 2022, it does, to some extent, reflect a shift in public opinion. Recent polls conducted by the East Asia Institute (EAI) indicate deep support for the South Korea-US alliance, with nearly three-quarters of South Koreans expressing favourable views towards the United States. Simultaneously, these polls reveal a growing unfavourable sentiment towards China. The increasing support for the improvement of relations with Japan is largely perceived as a component of strengthening ties with the US.

Regarding North Korea, Yoon has unequivocally linked any enhancement in relations to the discontinuation of its nuclear development program and clear steps towards denuclearization. In exchange, he has proposed an initiative involving economic assistance.

In November 2022, Yoon, alongside US President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, issued a “Phnom Penh Statement” on trilateral partnership in the Indo-Pacific, committing to “align our collective efforts in pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific.” This marked the first time Seoul embraced such a framework. In December 2022, the Yoon administration revealed an Indo-Pacific strategy that redefined South Korea’s role as a “global pivotal state” with a regional and global approach to its security.

This Indo-Pacific strategy document signified a clear departure from South Korea’s previous security focus on North Korea and resistance to utilizing Korean-based forces for regional security objectives. Among other things, the statement called for cooperation on maritime security in the region, explicitly mentioning the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.

Yoon has persistently worked to enhance relations with Japan, recognizing that improving ties with Tokyo is a prerequisite for solidifying security connections with the United States. During a visit to Tokyo in March, Yoon proposed a unilateral solution to the forced wartime labour issue, stemming from the failure to reach a diplomatic agreement with Japan.

Although this decision led to reciprocal visits and Yoon’s participation in the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, it was met with limited popularity and faces legal challenges. Japan’s reluctance to contribute to a fund for compensating former forced labourers poses a threat to the progress made.

In response to increased North Korean missile testing, the Korean and US militaries intensified training and contingency planning to address potential nuclear threats and deepen counter-missile strategy. This included trilateral missile defence exercises with Japan.

These developments culminated in the Camp David summit on August 18, where Biden, Yoon, and Kishida convened for the first stand-alone trilateral summit among the three leaders. The “Spirit of Camp David” joint statement proclaimed shared stances on geopolitical competition, referencing China, climate change, Russian aggression against Ukraine, and North Korea’s nuclear provocations. #The statement covered various threats, from maritime security to cybersecurity, and extended to cooperation on trilateral economic security matters such as supply chain resilience, technology security, and advanced technology development. Officials from the three countries have been meeting regularly to implement these commitments.

The permanence of these shifts in South Korean foreign and security policy is yet to be proven. However, the longer they endure, the greater the likelihood that they will become truly historic in nature.

 

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