South Korea president-elect set to align with Japan, U.S. for free and open Indo-Pacific 

Trilateral alliance.

On March 10, conservative People Power Party’s Yoon Suk-yeol won the South Korean presidential election by a razor-thin margin of 0.7 percent with 48.6 percent of the vote against his rival, Lee Jae-myung, from the Democratic Party, which the incumbent President Moon Jae-in belongs to.

Had Lee Jae-myung won, he would have followed Moon’s progressive foreign policies towards North Korea and China.  In contrast, Yoon, whose inauguration in on May 10, promised a more hardline and hawkish approach and will also pivot to a closer U.S relationship.

Strengthening alliance with the U.S.

Moon maintained “strategic ambiguity” in his foreign policy, getting security coverage from the U.S. while on the other hand, showing deference to China and reaping economic benefits.  Towards North Korea, Moon displayed a willingness to turn a blind eye to all the transgressions and pushed for inter-Korea engagement, despite being rebuffed repeatedly.

Yoon wanted to build a stronger alliance with the U.S.  In a press conference in January, Yoon said he will “resurrect” the alliance with the U.S. and develop it into a “comprehensive strategic alliance” to cover more sectors beyond military and security, such as the economy and emerging technologies.

“Alliances that solely balance against specific military threats are a thing of the past, especially because it has become common practice to inflict damage on adversaries through economic retaliation or technological assaults,” Yoon wrote in an article for Foreign Affairs. “That is why today’s alliances involve complex networks of cooperation on a diverse set of issues, including privacy, supply chains, and public health.”

Yoon also vowed to participate in working groups under the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which consists of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. with a shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific.  He also said he will seek to formally join the group, as well as the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

Shortly after the election result was out, the president-elect spoke with U.S. President Joe Biden.  Together, they affirmed the strength of the U.S.-South Korea alliance.  Biden emphasized the U.S.’s commitment to the defense of South Korea.  The two also committed to maintain close coordination on addressing the threats posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Yoon paid tribute to the U.S. for leading “international cooperation with the alliance in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”, according to a party statement.  Yoon will try to complement the U.S.’s stance in helping Ukraine and sanctioning Russia.

Reducing economic dependence on China

With domestic anti-China sentiment remaining high, Yoon will take a tough stance towards China, even though China is South Korea’s biggest trading partner.  According to a survey by the state-run Korea Institute of National Unification in January, seven out of 10 South Koreans chose China as the biggest security threat to their country among the neighbors, excluding North Korea.  

Against this backdrop, Yoon has signaled he wants to buy an additional THAAD missile system from the U.S., ostensibly to defend against North Korean missile threats but which China claimed would jeopardize its own national security.

Yoon will seek closer ties with the U.S. and Japan to counter China’s growing belligerent influence in the region.  He will also pursue multilateral economic cooperation with emerging markets in Southeast Asia and with India.

Thawing icy relationship with Japan

During the past five years under the Moon administration, bilateral relationship with Japan was at a low point with increased tensions over the issues of “comfort women” and “forced labor” during the colonial period under Japan.  Yoon blamed Moon for freezing Korea-Japan relationship and warned against rousing anti-Japanese sentiment in domestic politics. 

At a press conference on March 10, Yoon promised a “future-oriented relationship” with Japan, by putting historic conflicts to one side and pushing productive dialogues and cooperation forward.

On the campaign trails, Yoon promised to reaffirm the Kim Dae-jung-Obuchi Joint Declaration in 1998, which acknowledged Japan’s official apology for colonization and both countries’ efforts to establish peace after the war. Yoon also pledged to restart “shuttle diplomacy”, whereby South Korean and Japanese leaders visit each other regularly.

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Yoon talked on the phone March 11, after which Kishida told reporters that “sound relations” between Japan and South Korea are “indispensable in achieving the rules-based international order and ensuring peace, stability and prosperity in the region and the world.”

Photo credit: 고려, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.  People Power Party Chairman Lee Jun-seok, and Yoon Seok-youl (left) in Gwangjin District, Seoul on 25 July 2021.

Sunny Um

Sunny Um

Sunny, our South Korea correspondent working out of Seoul, is a journalist with a passion for community journalism and an interest in economics and politics.

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