By Denny Roy*
After a hard-fought election that some media compared to the brutal series “Squid Game,” inexperienced conservative Yoon Suk-yeol has earned the right to a single five-year term as South Korea’s next president starting May 10. Based on Yoon’s previous statements, we can expect him to favor bringing South Korea’s foreign policy into closer alignment with US preferences in four important areas.
Seoul’s relationship with Washington
As with most ideologically liberal Korean politicians, outgoing President Moon Jae-in’s support for the US-Korean alliance was lukewarm. Many observers assessed that his foreign policy aimed for equidistance between Washington and Beijing. In contrast, Yoon is strongly supportive of the alliance, saying it should be the “central axis of Seoul’s foreign policy.”
He also backs the idea of South Korean participation in the Quad, a dialogue group—with core members India, Australia, Japan and the USA—that Beijing frowns upon. Yoon even said he favored the idea of the United States deploying nuclear weapons in South Korea, a policy Washington is not advocating.
Denuclearizing North Korea
A second area of convergence is policy toward North Korea. Washington’s priority is denuclearization, but with few other options available to pressure Pyongyang, the US government relies on economic sanctions. Moon, however, appeared committed to almost unconditional economic engagement with North Korea, even to the point of advocating sanctions relief prior to the North taking any meaningful steps toward giving up its nuclear weapons program.
Yoon disparaged Moon for being “subservient” to North Korea. His vision, similar to Washington’s, is that Pyongyang should first declare the full extent of its nuclear weapons program , after which sanctions could be gradually removed as Pyongyang takes concurrent “verifiable and irreversible steps . . . toward denuclearization.” He also contends that South Korean military readiness has declined and that part of the solution is robust joint military exercises with US forces, even though Pyongyang strongly objects to these exercises.
From a US standpoint, Yoon is over-correcting when he says he favors South Korea developing a policy and capabilities to carry out a pre-emptive strike on North Korean territory in the event Seoul believes a nuclear attack is imminent. An offensive strike capability is also his answer to the potential danger posed by a North Korean hypersonic glide vehicle. But Washington will be uncomfortable with South Korean policies that increase the chances of unnecessarily escalating a crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
Deference to China
Yoon’s slightly tougher approach to China would move South Korea closer to the current US orientation. No Korean president can disregard China, and Yoon has pledged to improve relations with Beijing. Nevertheless, he has been less deferential to China than was Moon.
Yoon says Moon had been “overly accommodating” to China, to the point of compromising South Korea’s sovereignty. In 2016, the South Korean government decided to deploy the US-made THAAD anti-missile defense system despite warnings from Beijing, which claimed the system’s powerful radar compromised China’s security. After months of economic reprisal from China, Moon offered Beijing the “three no’s,” promising there would be no additional THAAD battery deployments, no ROK participation in the US anti-missile defense network, and no trilateral alliance among the ROK, USA and Japan.
Commenting on this episode, Yoon said that before demanding that South Korea remove THAAD, China should withdraw its own powerful radars placed near its borders with neighboring countries. He added that South Korea “should remain open to additional deployments of THAAD,” in effect repudiating the three no’s.
More generally, the frequency with which Yoon has made negative comments about China suggests he is not by inclination China-friendly—and his society is likely to back him, given the recent rise in unfavorable views of China among South Koreans.
Improving relations with Japan
Finally, Washington wishes for a cooperative relationship between South Korea and Japan, both allies and important potential defenders of the US-sponsored regional order. But Korea-Japan relations deteriorated under Moon, including his disavowal of a 2015 agreement between the two governments that purportedly settled the “Comfort Women” issue.
Judges in key Korean court cases also ruled that Korean plaintiffs could sue Japanese corporations for damages over forced labor during Japan’s occupation. However, Tokyo has maintained that all such claims were comprehensively settled upon the establishment of diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea in 1965. Under Moon, the resurgent dispute moved beyond diplomacy and threatened bilateral economic and security cooperation.
Yoon, however, emphasizes the importance of improving relations with Japan. He has said he will build on the joint declaration made by the Japanese prime minister and the South Korean president in 1998, which foresaw a new and stronger bilateral relationship focused on the future rather than hampered by the past. He specifically says he values trilateral security cooperation, which is music to Washington’s ears.
Political newcomer faces hurdles
For Yoon, implementing his agenda will be challenging. South Korea’s business community will soon impress upon him the necessity of good relations with China. And it is not clear how he will overcome the two major friction points in relations with Japan: the two countries’ Dokdo/Takeshima Islands territorial dispute, and their disagreement over financial compensation for Pacific War-era Japan’s mistreatment of Koreans.
Furthermore, Yoon has never held political office. His ability to manage a government is unproven, and his domestic mandate is limited. He defeated his opponent by less than one percentage point in the closest presidential election in South Korea’s history. During the campaign, he alienated many Korean women with his critical comments about feminism. And for at least Yoon’s first two years as president, the opposition Democratic Party will control the country’s legislature.
Nevertheless, the upshot of last week’s election is that the (unstated) preferred candidate of the US and Japanese governments, and the candidate not preferred by the Chinese government, will head the next government in Seoul.
*About the author: Denny Roy is a Senior Fellow in international relations at the East-West Center in Honolulu.
Source: This article was published by East-West Center