Country Report: South Korea (April 2024)


The unfolding events in South Korea between March and April 2024 demonstrate a dynamic environment influenced by complex diplomatic strategies and regional tensions. The South Korean general elections of April 10, 2024, marked a significant political shift as the opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) secured a majority of seats, challenging the ruling People Power Party (PPP), highlighting a potential impact on the current government’s foreign policy.

As South Korea undergoes significant restructuring in its approach to inter-Korean relations, highlighted by the transformation of the Korean Peninsula Peace Negotiation Headquarters into the Diplomatic Strategic and Intelligence Headquarters, North Korea continues its provocations unabated. These provocations include comprehensive nuclear exercises and sophisticated cyber attacks on defense companies, underscoring the persistent challenges posed by Pyongyang’s belligerence. Meanwhile, discussions surrounding South Korea’s potential involvement in AUKUS signify a pivotal moment in ROK-US relations, potentially expanding the alliance’s reach into the Indo-Pacific region while also necessitating careful navigation of geopolitical complexities, particularly concerning China’s response.

Amidst these regional dynamics, South Korea finds itself entangled in various diplomatic fronts, including a crisis in ROK-Russia relations following the arrest of a South Korean missionary on espionage charges in Russia, and cautious negotiations between North Korea and Japan regarding a potential summit. Additionally, preparations for a trilateral summit between South Korea, China, and Japan signal efforts to foster regional cooperation, albeit against a backdrop of strained bilateral relations and geopolitical uncertainties. As South Korea grapples with the economic ramifications of escalating tensions in the Middle East, exacerbated by surging oil prices, the government faces mounting pressure to implement effective measures to safeguard the economy and mitigate the impact on households and businesses.

Implications of the South Korean General Elections

Undoubtedly, the most prominent issue in South Korea during March and April was the general election. In the South Korean general elections held on April 10, 2024, the opposition DPP secured 175 seats, while the ruling PPP obtained 108 seats out of the total 300 in the National Assembly. The elections presented the DPK with a chance to mitigate the legislative dominance of the incumbent government. The elections witnessed a turnout of 67 percent among the 44 million eligible voters, marking a 32-year peak in overall participation. The significant presence of voters at the polling stations underscored the profound significance of this election to the Korean populace.1 This trajectory is expected to potentially affect President Yoon’s foreign policy agenda.

The conservative Seoul Kyungjae editorialized that, following the general election, no significant shifts are anticipated in the diplomatic and security policies of South Korea. It has been pointed out that there is a high likelihood that Minister Cho Tae-yul will remain in his position at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Given the recent inauguration and the heightened provocations from North Korea, coupled with the global geopolitical tensions, the diplomatic and security landscape surrounding the nation remains notably grave. Despite expressing remorse immediately after the election, it has been revealed that officials from the National Security Office have been excluded from the voluntary resignation list.2

The progressive Kyunghyang Shinmun underscored that amid the escalating discourse on evaluating the administration and the ruling party’s defeat in the general election, predominant analyses highlight the risks stemming from various incidents that affected this result.3 These included First Lady Kim Keon-hee’s implication in the Dior bag scandal, in which she was accused of accepting a $2,200 Christian Dior bag as a gift, Yoon’s frequent utilization of veto power, and internal disputes with both former and current PPP policymakers and politicians.  Yoon’s foreign policy agenda involves maintaining a firm stance on North Korea, enhancing ties and security cooperation with the United States and Japan to offset Chinese influence, and providing support to Ukraine in its conflict with Russia.4 It appears that the presidential office is adopting a cautious approach towards resuming external engagements at present.

Meanwhile, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), forecast that despite the defeat of the PPP in the general election, there is a high likelihood that South Korea’s foreign policy will maintain its current direction. Victor Cha observed that despite facing significant opposition from the DPK in the legislature and experiencing relatively low approval ratings since the start of the administration, Yoon has remained resolute in diverging from the foreign policy of the previous government. He pointed out that Yoon adhered to his campaign promise of strengthening the alliance between the United States and South Korea and adopting a robust stance against North Korea’s provocations, neither of which is likely to change.5

Inter-Korean Relations

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) declared that it would disband the Korean Peninsula Peace Negotiation Headquarters. Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul announced this year’s major policy implementation plans including this major reshuffle in his work report to Yoon Suk-yeol on March 7.6 MOFA explained that it decided to reorganize the headquarters into the Diplomatic Strategic and Intelligence Headquarters (tentative name) in order to efficiently promote work on the Korean Peninsula. The headquarters was initially a temporary organization but it was converted into a permanent organization in 2011 as North Korean’s nuclear threats became prolonged.7 The new headquarters will have four directors, tentatively named the Director of the Korean Peninsula Foreign Policy Bureau, the Director of Diplomatic Information Planning, the Director of Diplomatic Strategic Strategy Planning, and the Director of the International Security Bureau.8 What was a vice-minister level organization with 2 countries and 4 departments is being reduced to a director-level organization with 1 country and 3 departments.9 MOFA explained that this decision is not a reduction in the function of the headquarters, but an expansion and reorganization.

The conservative Dong-A Ilbo said that this reorganization of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reflects the reality that South Korea’s government organization in charge of North Korea’s nuclear threats is virtually closed as North Korea has cut off dialogue and committed provocations after the collapse of denuclearization negotiations between North Korea and the United States in 2019. Dong-A Ilbo added that in the rapidly changing international situation, flexible diplomacy is needed more than ever.10 By mentioning that MOFA is not the only government organization in charge of the North Korean issue to be reduced, Yonhap News highlighted that the Ministry of Unification reorganized last year to strengthen its function in analyzing the North Korean situation and providing information while reducing the proportion of cooperation and exchanges between the two Koreas.11 It editorialized that this series of measures is, in part, a response to North Korea’s recent aggressive behavior, citing Kim Jong-un’s decision to rewrite the constitution to identify South Korea as the main enemy.12

Meanwhile, provocations by North Korea persisted unabated. It had been reported on April 23 that North Korea conducted a comprehensive nuclear retaliation exercise utilizing a “super-large” multiple rocket launcher. As part of testing the nationwide nuclear management system, referred to as the “nuclear trigger,” North Korea’s artillery forces participated in the country’s inaugural drills on Monday. This demonstration showcased diversified nuclear capabilities and served as a protest against what North Korea perceives as “provocative and invasive” military exercises conducted by the United States and South Korea.13

Even in the realm of cyberspace, North Korea has been engaging in extensive hacking activities targeting defense companies for a duration exceeding one year. It is alarming that despite these activities, the affected companies remained unaware of the breaches, until the South Korean police force identified that more than ten domestic defense companies had fallen victim, utilizing internally obtained intelligence and sharing cyber threat information among relevant agencies. North Korea’s prominent hacking entities, including Lazarus, strategically divided responsibilities to execute a concerted effort aimed at stealing defense technologies. This collaborative approach contrasts sharply with their previous modus operandi of individual operations. The tactics employed encompassed direct hacking of defense entities, infiltration of networks through vulnerable partner organizations, theft of server account credentials, and the deployment of malicious codes, demonstrating a sophisticated and multifaceted offensive.14

The police revealed the significance of North Korea’s engagement in a concerted cyber offensive, characterized by the deployment of multiple hacking organizations with a common objective of seizing domestic defense technology. It is inferred that behind this operation, there were likely specific directives from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, underscoring the orchestrated nature of the attacks.15

ROK-US Relations

In discussions within the United States, there have been indications of the potential expansion of AUKUS to include South Korea, a military coalition established by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia to address the challenges posed by China. After plans to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines through the “Pillar 1” program, AUKUS is currently progressing with the “Pillar 2” initiative, focusing on the joint development of advanced military capabilities across eight domains, including artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, cyber security, undersea technology, and hypersonic missiles. There is potential for South Korea to participate as a collaborator in this technological endeavor.16

An official from the MOFA stated on April 10, “The government maintains an open stance towards cooperating with AUKUS in various strategic areas, including advanced technology, and is in close communication.” They added, “Specific details will be determined through discussions with AUKUS and internal review processes.”17

Notably, the countries mentioned by the United States as potential partners for Pillar 2 include South Korea, New Zealand, Canada, and Japan. To be specific, a senior official from the US National Security Council (NSC) responded on April 9 to a query regarding whether there are countries, besides Japan, being considered as cooperation partners in the Pillar 2 initiative stating, “In addition to Japan, AUKUS is considering various additional partners, including South Korea, Canada, and New Zealand, which could bring unique strengths to Pillar 2.”18

Both Canada and New Zealand are part of the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance alongside the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia. Additionally, Japan and South Korea are bound together through the “trilateral cooperation between the United States, Japan, and South Korea.” Seoul Shinmun pointed out that if AUKUS’s Pillar 2 initiative expands as intended by the United States, it could potentially evolve into a vast regional military alliance bridging the Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific regions.19 Also, the conservative Joongang Ilbo said that managing China’s potential backlash should be a crucial consideration for South Korea.20

ROK-Russia relations

On March 11, the Russian TASS news agency reported that Russia had arrested a South Korean man, named Baek Won-soon, for spying.21 Baek was detained on suspicion of espionage in Vladivostok and was transferred to Moscow for further investigation.22 The news agency also stated that he passed on a Russian state secret to a foreign intelligence agency, and it is the first time that a South Korean citizen has been arrested on suspicion of espionage in Russia.23

According to Yonhap News, he was a missionary involved in rescuing North Korean defectors, and mainly engaged in North Korea-related activities in the Russian Far East.24 South Korea’s media outlets all expressed concern about this issue. The conservative Kookmin Ilbo questioned why he was imprisoned in Moscow’s infamous detention center, which was a concentration camp for political prisoners during the Stalin era.25 It emphasized that whenever Russia’ relations with Western countries deteriorated, it arrested diplomats or journalists on espionage charges to send a warning sign or used them as leverage in negotiations.26 The centrist Hankook Ilbo urged the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to mobilize all its diplomatic power and communication channels to prevent Baek from being treated unfairly.27 There is the view that Russia intended to pressure South Korea by arresting a missionary who supported North Korean defectors28 The progressive Kyunghyang Shinmun editorialized that this was bound to escalate into a diplomatic issue.29 Unlike China, Russia had cooperated with South Korea regarding the North Korean defectors issue, but as North Korea-Russia relations grew closer during the Ukraine War, it may have accepted North Korea’s request and strengthened  crackdowns.30 Kyunghyang Shinmun said that the detention center where Baek was detained has been notorious for its harsh interrogations of political prisoners; therefore, our government should demand that Russia comply with international human rights norms for prisoners.31

ROK- Japan relations

According to reports from Japanese media, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida engaged in a telephone conversation with Yoon Suk-yeol on April 17. It appears that both leaders, faced with stagnant public support and recent electoral setbacks, are exploring diplomatic avenues for progress.32

Kishida, speaking to Japanese journalists at the Prime Minister’s residence that evening, explained, “There was agreement to continue deepening Japan-Korea and Japan-US-Korea cooperation and to foster close communication between Korea and Japan as partners.” He disclosed that during this phone call, he provided an overview of the US-Japan summit held in Washington on the 11th. Japanese media reported that this phone call was initiated at the request of Kishida. The South Korean presidential office stated, “Both leaders shared their views on bilateral responses to North Korea and agreed to further develop close coordination between South Korea and Japan, as well as among South Korea, the US, and Japan.”33 The presidential office emphasized: “Both sides reaffirmed their commitment to continue high-level and diplomatic communication without interruption throughout this year, in order to sustain the solid trust built through last year’s seven summit meetings and the positive momentum between the two countries. They agreed to strive for the advancement of bilateral relations.” Yoon remarked, “given the escalating instability in the international situation, including the Korean Peninsula and the Indo-Pacific region, let us contribute to regional peace and prosperity through close cooperation among South Korea and Japan, as well as among South Korea, the US, and Japan.”34

The conservative Chosun Ilbo pointed out that Kishida’s direct discussion with Yoon regarding this matter could be interpreted as a commitment to ensure that South Korea, as a key stakeholder in the North Korean nuclear issue, is not excluded from relevant information sharing. Additionally, it appears to indicate an intention to prevent North Korea from attempting to divide South Korea, the US, and Japan in its pursuit of dialogue with Japan.35 Hankyoreh noted that within Japan, there is a mounting sense of anticipation concerning the ramifications of the decisive triumph of South Korea’s ruling party in the 22nd National Assembly elections held on the 10th, particularly regarding its influence on bilateral relations between the two nations.36

DPRK- Japan relations

On March 25, Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korea’s leader, said that Kishida had requested a summit with Kim Jong-un at an early date.37 In a statement carried by North Korea’s state-run news agency, she said Japan recently conveyed Kishida’s position.38 She added that opening a new pathway to improve bilateral relations depends on Japan’s political determination and set as the precondition that nuclear and missile developments and the abduction issue not be raised.39 It means that there will be no breakthrough as long as Japan brings up the issue of abductions by North Korean agents of Japanese citizens.40 On the evening that Kim Yo-jong revealed Japan’s request, Kishida met with reports at the prime minister’s residence, saying that “a summit is important to resolve all pending issue with North Korea.”41 He added that nothing has been decided right now.42

Asked about Kim Yo-jong’s press release by an opposition member at the Budget Committee of the House of Councilors, Kishida replied “I am not aware of the report you point out,” but emphasized that a summit is important to resolve all pending issues related to North Korea such as the abduction issue and various responses are being delivered to North Korea on the prime minister’s direct authority.43

The conservative Kookmin Ilbo mentioned that there is no reason for either side not to conduct the summit but cast doubt on whether North Korea was truly willing to proceed because it set as a precondition for the summit avoiding the abduction issue and nuclear weapon and missile development.44 The paper editorialized that rumors of a summit with a low possibility of success are intended to open a crack in South Korea-US-Japan trilateral cooperation. It may be that North Korea, more isolated due to the establishment of diplomatic ties between South Korea and Cuba, continues to promote the North Korea-Japan summit with the intention of offsetting this. Kookmin Ilbo highlighted that if North Korea really wanted to hold a summit with Japan, it must establish itself as a normal country first.45 The progressive Kyunghyang Shinmun said that looking at Kim Yo-jong’s statement, it appears that a breakthrough in negotiations has not yet been achieved, and it is unclear how North Korea-Japan negotiations will follow.46 However, it seems clear that both sides feel the need to improve relations. The paper noted that the Yoon Suk-yeol administration has maintained a particularly hardline stance against North Korea, saying that there are signs of a methodological gap forming between South Korea and the US as voices within the US government are currently seeking dialogue due to concerns about a possible conflict. As South Korea-China relations have deteriorated due to Yoon’s remark on Taiwan last year, cooperation on the North Korea issue is not smooth. In the event of substantial negotiations between North Korea and Japan under these circumstances, South Korea could find itself at a disadvantage diplomatically.

Planning the Trilateral Summit of South Korea, Japan, and China

South Korea, China, and Japan are currently contemplating the organization of a trilateral summit in Seoul, tentatively scheduled for around May 26-27. Discussions have reached an advanced stage, with the foreign ministries of all three nations gathering input on the summit’s timing. Should the meeting materialize, it is anticipated that Yoon Suk-yeol, Kishida Fumio, and Premier Li Qiang will be in attendance. The last trilateral summit among these nations occurred in Qingdao, China, in December 2019. Subsequent attempts to convene have been hindered by various factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic and strained bilateral relations, notably between South Korea and China, and between China and Japan.47

The foreign ministers of South Korea, China, and Japan agreed in November last year during their meeting in Busan to expedite preparations for a trilateral summit, but scheduling coordination has not been achieved.48 With diplomatic communication progressing, the likelihood of consecutive high-level exchanges has increased. Seoul Kyungjae commented that as the Yoon administration has focused on strengthening the ROK-US alliance, restoring ROK-Japan relations, and enhancing trilateral cooperation among the ROK, US, and Japan, it is now of interest whether it can also create strategic space in relations with China.49

Impact of Crisis in the Middle East

As Iran’s retaliatory attack on Israel casts a pall over the Middle East, South Korea faces the prospect of a significant economic downturn. With oil prices surging and financial markets experiencing volatility, there is a heightened risk of exacerbating and prolonging the “3 Highs” phenomenon—characterized by high inflation, elevated exchange rates, and elevated interest rates. The progressive Kyunghyang Shinmun criticized that at a critical juncture there appears to be a lack of emergency measures from the government and that Yoon Suk-yeol’s proactive economic initiatives, which included nationwide livelihood forums, have seemingly disappeared along with the general elections. Kyunghyang Shinmun added that despite a lack of correlation with international oil price hikes, food and essential goods prices are again surging, suggesting that the government’s pre-election efforts to control prices have been abandoned.50

The government convened an emergency economic ministerial meeting on April 14 and extended the fuel tax cut until the end of June, adding two more months. Seoul Shinmun editorialized that while this action is necessary, it remains insufficient. It pointed out that enhanced monitoring is needed to prevent opportunistic price increases in energy costs, even when there is sufficient inventory, and efforts should be made to induce price stability through strategic release of reserve oil stocks. Surveillance should also be strengthened to prevent “greedflation”—price increases driven by greed—in line with price hikes by manufacturers.51

The conservative Joongang Ilbo pointed out that amid growing concern about the future of the South Korean economy, households, self-employed individuals, and businesses are expected to face difficulties due to a domestic economic slowdown, excessive debt burden, high interest rates, inflation, and exchange rate volatility. Additionally, if international oil prices continue to rise, the South Korean economy, which relies on oil imports, could suffer a severe blow. Joongang Ilbo editorialized that minimizing the adverse effects of external shocks on the economy and people’s livelihoods should be the government’s top priority.52

1. “제22대 국회의원 선거 결과”, Kyunghyang Shinmun, April 11, 2024,

2. “미일, 북중, 중러 정상회담 이어가는데… 총선 후 왹 정책은?” Seoul Kyungjae, April 13, 2024,

3. “윤 대통령, 총선 후 첫 정상외교… 김건희 여사, ‘비공개’ 일정만,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, April 23, 2024,

4. South Korean Elections cast a shadow over Yoon’s Presidency,” April 27, 2024,

5. “South Korea’s 2024 General Election: Results and Implications, CSIS, April 10, 2024,

6. “‘평화’ 에 인색한 尹정부…외교부 ‘한반도평화교섭본부’ 사라진다,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, March 7, 2024,

7. “‘북핵 협상’ 한반도평화교섭본부 18년만에 사라진다,” Dong-A Ilbo, March 8, 2024,

8. “ ‘북핵 협상 최전선’ 한반도평화교섭본부 18년 만에 간판 내린다,” Seoul Shinmun, March 8, 2024,

9. Ibid.

10. “‘교류’ 뺀 통일부 이어 ‘평화’ 뺀 외교부의 조직개편,” Dong-A Ilbo, March 7, 2024,

11. “‘평화’ ‘교류’ 현판 떼는 조직개편, 국면 전환에도 대비를,”Yonhap News, March 8, 2024,

12. Ibid.

13. “北, 초대형방사포 동원 첫 핵반격 훈련… 도발 수위 극대화,” Kookmin Ilbo, April 24, 2024,

14. “北 해킹에 탈탈 털린 방산업체, 사이버 안보 3법 조속 통과를,” Hankuk Kyungjae, April 24, 2024,

15. “북 3개 해킹조직 힘 합쳐 국내 방산업체 총공격…10여곳 피해,” Yonhap News, April 24, 2024,

16. “백악관 ‘오커스 추가 협력파트너로 한국도 고려’…외교부 ‘환영,’” Joongang Ilbo, April 11, 2024,

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. “美 ‘오커스, 한국과 첨단 군사기술 협력 고려’… 외교부 ‘환영,’” Seoul Shinmun, April 11, 2024,

20. Joongang Ilbo, April 11, 2024.

21. “’러시아서 한국인 간첩혐의로 첫 체포’…한러 갈등 커지나,” JoongAng Ilbo, March 11, 2024,

22. “러시아서 한국인 간첩 혐의 체포… 외교부 ‘소통 중,’” Kyunghyang Shinmun, March 12, 2024,

23. “한국인, 러시아서 간첩 혐의 첫 체포…모스크바 이동,” Yonhap News, March 11, 2024,

24. “러시아서 간첩 혐의 체포된 한국인은 탈북민 구출활동 선교사,” Yonhap News, March 12, 2024,

25. “선교사 체포한 러시아 ‘인질 외교’ 에 강력 대응해야,” Kookmin Ilbo, March 14, 2024,

26. Ibid.

27. “한국 선교사 ‘간첩 혐의’ 로 채포한 러시아, 적극 대응해야,” Hankook Ilbo, March 13, 2024,

28. Ibid.

29. “러시아의 첫 한국인 ‘간첩 혐의’ 체포, 인권 규범 준수해야,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, March 13, 2024,

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. “총선참패 윤석열, 지지율 침체 기시다, ‘외교로 돌파’ 동병상련?” Pressian, April 17, 2024,

33. “윤 대통령, 기시다 일본 총리와 통화…”한일 협력 심화,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, April 17, 2024,

34. “기시다 총리, 윤 대통령과 통화해 ‘일미한 연계 심화해나가자,’” Hankyoreh, April 17, 2024,

35. “바이든 만난 기시다, 윤에 전화 걸었다… 이례적 공유 ‘케미,’” Joongang Ilbo, April 18, 2024,

36. “기시다 총리, 윤 대통령과 통화해 ‘일미한 연계 심화해나가자.’”

37. “북, 돌연 ‘기시다, 김정은 만남 원해’… 한ㆍ미ㆍ일 흔들기,” JoongAng Ilbo, March 26, 2024,  

38. Ibid.

39. “김여정 ‘日이 정상회담 제의’ 기시다 ‘알지 못해,’” Chosun Ilbo, March 26, 2024,

40. Ibid; 김여정 “일본수상이 ‘만나자’ 또 전해와’… 북-일 수싸움,” Hankyoreh, March 25, 2024,

41. “북, 돌연 ‘기시다, 김정은 만남 원해’… 한ㆍ미ㆍ일 흔들기,” JoongAng Ilbo, March 26, 2024,

42. “기시다, 북일 정상회담 가능성 제기에 ‘결정된 것 없다,’” Chosun Ilbo, March 25, 2024,

43. “日 기시다 ‘김여정 담화 보도 알지 못해… 北과 정상회담 중요,’“ Yonhap News, March 25, 2024,

44. “ 北, 日과 회담설로 갈라치기 골몰… 도발 야욕부터 버려야,” Kookmin Ilbo, March 26, 2024,

45. Ibid.

46. “일 총리 ‘김정은 회담’ 제의, 한국만 외교 미아 되려나,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, March 25, 2024,

47. “한중일 정상회의, 내달 26~27일 서울 개최 검토,” Donga Ilbo, April 10, 2024,

48. “교도통신 ‘한국, 한중일 정상회담 5월로 조율중,’” Kyunghyang Shinmun, April 4, 2024,

49. “한중관계 개선되나… 조태열 외교장관, 다음달 한중일 정상회의 전 방중추진,” Seoul Kyungjae, April 28, 2024,

50. “중동 전운까지 덮친 ‘3고’ 경제 위기, 정부 비상대책 있는가,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, April 15, 2024,

51. “중동발 경제위기, 비상대응체제 전환을,” Seoul Shinmun, April 15, 2024,

52. “5차 중동전쟁 비화 우려, 외교, 경제 비상 플랜 마련을,” Joongang Ilbo, Aprl 15, 2024,

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