South Korea’s new president Yoon Suk-yeol has no doubts: his country’s future depends on a stronger alliance with the United States.
Yoon, sworn in today (10 May), has declared that South Korea must become a “global pivotal state”, an ambition that will shape the foreign policy of his five-year term. He believes the outgoing president, Moon Jae-in, spent too much time focusing on the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, and was too deferential towards Xi Jinping, the Chinese president. Yoon intends to take a new approach to both those relationships.
During a recent trip I took to Seoul, several people close to the new president told me that the Yoon government believes South Korea needs to work more closely with the US and other partners, such as Japan and Australia, while taking a tougher line on China and North Korea when necessary. To the new leader, values and interests are equally important when it comes to foreign policy, and South Korean values are those of the US: democracy, human rights, the rule of law and a market economy. Thus, it is only natural for him to tilt towards Washington.
Yoon and Joe Biden are due to hold their first summit on 21 May in Seoul, a mere 11 days after the new president takes office. This public union is unprecedentedly swift, reflecting the importance that Yoon attaches to their alliance.
Strengthening ties with the US will ensure that the world’s largest economy remains open to exports from South Korea’s major conglomerates. It will also secure access to American military technology and enhance Seoul’s diplomatic clout, ensuring invitations to G7 meetings as an observer, facilitating dialogue with Nato, and promising closer co-ordination with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) comprised of Australia, India, Japan and the US.
The Quad is crucial to Yoon’s vision of South Korea’s future. He has vowed to join working groups in areas such as supply chain resilience or vaccine development and distribution. These are seen as interim steps towards seeking formal membership of the grouping, which Yoon views as a natural fit for South Korea as part of the club of democracies seeking to contain China.
Yoon will almost certainly take a tougher stance against China than Moon. This does not mean he will risk a serious rupture in diplomatic or economic ties. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner – accounting for 25 per cent of the country’s trade – and Beijing’s centrality to the region’s geopolitics means the new leader will be wary of antagonising it. But Yoon has indicated that he is willing to echo international criticism of China in areas such as the detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the crackdown on Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms, and artificial island-building in the South China Sea.
Yoon’s administration will also consider joining several initiatives implicitly designed to constrain China’s actions overseas. In addition to the Quad, these could include Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which aims to counter Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, as well as wider intelligence sharing networks.
Moon certainly hardened his stance towards Beijing during his last two years in power, but he was reluctant to speak out about China’s actions for fear of economic retaliation. Yoon, by contrast, has emphasised that he sees economic links between Seoul and Beijing as interdependent. In other words, if China lashes out against South Korea, then it will also suffer, especially in terms of access to crucial high-tech components such as semiconductors and electric batteries.
Yoon will also depart from his predecessor’s pro-engagement stance towards North Korea. While he has indicated that he is willing to talk to Kim, he has also made it clear that this will not be a priority for his administration. Instead, he will emphasise the importance of deterrence and increase criticism on issues such as North Korea’s human rights abuses.
There are limits to how far the new president will go. Yoon is constrained by geography, existing ties with China, and his country’s long-held aspiration to improve relations with North Korea. But he believes the time has come to “choose sides” between Washington on the one hand and Beijing and Pyongyang on the other, and he is clear about which way South Korea should go. That process will begin from the moment Biden touches down in Seoul, as Yoon chooses closer alignment with the US over the desire to placate China and North Korea.
[See also: The forgotten nuclear threat of North Korea]