By Maximilian Ernst, Tongfi Kim and Ramon Pacheco Pardo
South Korean voters have elected Yoon Suk-yeol as their next president. What can be expected from the president-elect in terms of foreign policy once he takes office in two months’ time? This Korea Chair Explains analyses the potential foreign policy of the president-elect towards North Korea, the United States, and China.
What do you expect his policy towards North Korea to be?
By Ramon Pacheco Pardo
Yoon Suk-yeol is to become the fifth conservative president since the restoration of democracy in South Korea, following the five-year term of outgoing liberal president Moon Jae-in. His victory in the March 9th election means that Yoon is set to be inaugurated in two months’ time. With Yoon and Moon sitting on different sides of the political spectrum, the expectation is that the president-elect will introduce a new North Korea policy upon taking office in two months’ time. However, Yoon has no foreign policy experience and his foreign policy team is led by experts with fairly mainstream views. Thus, we should not expect a complete overhaul of Seoul’s North Korea policy under Yoon.
From Yoon’s policy platform, statements during the presidential campaign and the composition of his foreign policy advisory team, we can expect the president-elect to emphasise deterrence as much as potential engagement when it comes to North Korea policy. We can also expect the Yoon team to make North Korea an important foreign policy issue—but certainly not the only one, and arguably less important than South Korea’s positioning in the US-China rivalry unless there is a huge crisis or significant breakthrough in inter-Korean relations. Yoon has pledged to bolster South Korea’s deterrence against the North, in close cooperation with the US. This could potentially include expanding the THAAD anti-missile system agreed by the Park Geun-hye government and deployed during Moon’s term as president. Yoon has also indicated his willingness to consider the possibility of the US redeploying its tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, even though there is no indication that the Joe Biden administration would consider this.
Yoon, however, has also expressed that he would like to discuss a nuclear sharing arrangement with the US similar to those used by NATO. This also seems unrealistic, but Yoon could seek to push for it. We can also expect Yoon to be more vocal about North Korean human rights abuses than the Moon government was. The president-elect could also be more critical of what many in South Korea see as China’s role as an enabler of both these abuses and Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme. In other words, a Yoon government would likely not hesitate to criticise Pyongyang in a way that the previous government was unwilling to. In fact, North Korea’s official media has already been critical of Yoon. Probably Pyongyang not only expects a less accommodating approach from a Yoon government, but also more criticism. Having said that, Yoon has made clear that he is open to dialogue and negotiations with North Korea. The president-elect would like to open a trilateral communication channel between Seoul, Washington and Pyongyang.
Furthermore, Yoon has pledged to offer unconditional aid to ordinary North Koreans. And the president-elect has also vowed to support a peace treaty for the Korean Peninsula and to provide a generous economic package to North Korea if Pyongyang takes visible steps to reverse its nuclear programme. In this sense, Yoon is building from the policy platforms that his conservative predecessors Lee Myung-bak and Park also announced. Ultimately, Yoon shares with Moon and previous South Korean presidents a wish to improve inter-Korean relations and achieve reconciliation. He also wants to avoid the tensions and violence of 2010, when the two Koreas had two big military clashes, or 2017, when the US and North Korea ratcheted up tensions to unsustainable levels. Thus, the expectation is that he will take a tougher line on North Korea but also seek ways to improve inter-Korean relations—in close cooperation with the Biden administration.
What do you expect his policy towards the United States to be?
By Tongfi Kim
When conservative candidate Park Geun-hye won the presidential election against liberal candidate Moon Jae-in in 2012, many Korea experts in the United States reportedly felt relieved. Although the outgoing President Moon Jae-in worked hard to improve Washington’s view of South Korean liberals, a similar sentiment may be dominant in Washington now. President-elect Yoon and his foreign policy team have been expressing foreign policy positions that clearly support those of the United States. There will of course be much continuity from Moon’s presidency too, but we can expect the conservative Yoon government to move in the direction of prioritising the US-South Korea alliance at the expense of South Korea’s ties with North Korea and China.
Reflecting the opinions of his support base, Yoon has been criticizing the conciliatory approach of the Moon government towards North Korea, instead advocating a policy that emphasises deterrence and “peace through strength”. Yoon and his advisors therefore have been arguing for the reinforcement of US extended deterrence against North Korea through joint military exercises, updating of military operational plans, and increased deployment of US military assets, including additional deployment of the anti-ballistic missile system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). Significantly, China sees THAAD as a threat to its own security and imposed informal economic sanctions on South Korea after Seoul in 2016 decided to install the system on its soil. Unlike the South Korean liberals, Yoon’s foreign and security policy team is also in no hurry to implement the transfer of wartime operational control to Seoul.
Another policy issue where US policymakers will be happy with Yoon is South Korea’s policy towards Japan. The US government has been working hard to improve the US-Japan-South Korea trilateral cooperation for decades, but the bilateral ties between Seoul and Tokyo have deteriorated under the outgoing President Moon. President-elect Yoon has emphasized the strategic importance of Tokyo to Seoul and will push for strengthening the trilateral security coordination.
Similarly, Yoon’s foreign policy team is reportedly interested in South Korea’s membership in an expanded Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the so-called Quad) between India, the United States, Japan, and Australia, a forum which Beijing sees as an attempt at geopolitically encircling China. Under Yoon’s presidency, South Korea will be more receptive to collaborate with the Quad and other democratic international groups even at the risk of angering Beijing. Yoon also announced that South Korea should seek to host the Summit for Democracy, another forum that is considered to be against China. Thus, Seoul will for the first time become an eager supporter of the US Indo-Pacific strategy.
The pro-US inclination of the Yoon government, of course, does not mean that its interests will always align with those of the United States. South Korea under Yoon will continue to value the country’s economic ties with China, hoping to separate its geopolitical alignment from economic activities. If US policy becomes more conciliatory towards North Korea, the Yoon government can also become a critical voice against it, like that of Kim Young-sam against Bill Clinton’s engagement policy. If the United States becomes hawkish towards Pyongyang, the Yoon government, despite its own inclination, is likely to become more cautious because South Korean conservatives are also keenly aware of the expected cost of a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
Finally, South Korean domestic politics will affect the Yoon government’s policy towards the United States too. Liberals still have the majority in the National Assembly, at least until 2024. The public opinion will constrain what the pro-US president can do. When conservative President Lee Myung-bak agreed to restart imports of US beef amid concerns about mad cow disease in 2008, for instance, large protests and sharp decline in approval rating forced Lee to apologize for his decision, which many considered to be a concession to the United States. Thus, despite the changes in the overall emphasis, both external and domestic constraints will likely keep Yoon from making a radical departure from previous South Korean policy towards the United States.
What do you expect his policy towards China to be?
By Maximilian Ernst
Five years ago, then newly elected President Moon Jae-in inherited a dispute over the deployment of the US missile defence system THAAD in South Korea. The decision had been jointly made with the US in 2016, but the deployment of most interceptors and radars took place in the first months of Moon’s presidency between spring and late summer 2017. By the time President Moon assumed office, South Korea was besieged with unprecedented Chinese informal sanctions, hitting the Korean tourism, media, and other industries. Once THAAD had been fully deployed in fall 2017, President Moon’s administration pledged the so-called “Three No’s” referring to “no additional THAAD batteries”, “no South Korean integration into the US regional missile defence system” and “no trilateral alliance with the US and Japan”.
Although controversial at the time, this diplomatic move enabled Seoul to keep THAAD and simultaneously improve relations with Beijing, resulting in a gradual lifting of Chinese economic coercion over the following months. With President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol in the Blue House, we can expect the THAAD dispute to go into a second round. Yoon has criticized the Moon administration’s Three No’s, which, in his view, undermined South Korea’s sovereign right to defend itself against the North Korean nuclear threat. National security comes first, Yoon believes, and South Korea should never be bullied to choose between China, its most important trading partner, and the US, its ally and security guarantor. Yoon even contemplates additional THAAD interceptors in response to North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities. Asia-Pacific regional governments will observe with great attention how Beijing reacts should Seoul indeed deploy additional interceptors.
The THAAD dispute and China’s coercion resulted in historically negative views of China among South Koreans. Hence, Yoon will have the support of the Korean people in assuming a more principled approach towards China, even if this risks additional Chinese economic coercion. But China continues to be South Korea’s most important trading partner, and Yoon is aware of that. He declared to initiate a “new era of mutual respect and cooperation with China” based on a regular “high-level strategic dialogue”. A high-level strategic dialogue with Beijing will indeed be necessary if Yoon follows up on his further foreign policy plans. Yoon expressed intent to join the Quad, which Beijing views as “anti-China-coalition” with the objective to contain its economic and military rise. Yoon’s plans to join or cooperate with the intelligence sharing group Five Eyes will equally be understood as antagonizing China. Whereas the Moon administration has refrained from endorsing the US “Indo-Pacific Strategy” or Japan’s strategy for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” over concerns that it may anger China, we can expect Yoon to openly support these strategies and to cooperate with like-minded partners in the Indo-Pacific. All this could complicate relations with China. But there are areas in which Yoon will want to cooperate with China.
One example is security on the Korean Peninsula, including on North Korea’s denuclearization. Yoon also views China as partner on issues like climate change, public health, and he supports a resumption of cultural exchange in the post-COVID-19 period. Above-mentioned “mutual respect and cooperation with China” certainly also envisions strong economic relations, provided Beijing does not again threaten to leverage commercial ties over security-political disputes. The war in Ukraine is a moving target but will likely also impact the Seoul-Beijing relationship. The outgoing Korean government already announced that it will support US and European sanctions against Russia, alongside Japan, Australia, and further like-minded partners. It is likely that Yoon will continue Moon’s policy on this account. Beijing abstained from voting on a UN Security Council Resolution condemning Russia, but it opposes sanctions. This means China will most likely not participate in sanctions against Russia, and Chinese enterprises with commercial relations to Russia could also be targeted. In that case, Korean enterprises invested in China could be forced to reduce operations or leave the Chinese market altogether to avoid the effects of secondary sanctions targeted at companies that still do business with Russia.