Special Forum Issue
“South Korea Edging toward Bipolarity, 2020-2022”
Edging toward Bipolarity: South Korea’s Regional Reorientation, 2020-2022
The Moon to Yoon transition drew South Korea closer to the United States and even to Japan, while seeing a marked falloff in relations with Russia and looming difficulties with China. If the switch from progressive to conservative, as in 2008, accounted for some of the change, no less important were global and regional developments. The Ukraine war had a polarizing effect, but so too did the “extreme competition” between China and the United States. Donald Trump’s “trade war” gave way to Joe Biden’s “high tech decoupling,” at the same time as Kim Jong-un’s missile provocations ended the prospects for diplomacy critical to Seoul’s outreach to Beijing. If Moon Jae-in was adamant about keeping the door open to Pyongyang and to regional diplomacy, Yoon Suk-yeol also hesitated to embrace bipolarity to the full satisfaction of the US. Yoon went well beyond previous ROK presidents but scrambled to meet growing US appeals.
Repeatedly, Seoul showed itself capable of bending toward its ally, the United States, without closing its options for regional diplomacy at odds with US policy. At no time had this proven to be more difficult than in 2020 to 2022. Given the obsession with North Korean diplomacy of the Moon Jae-in administration, accompanied by its perceived need to keep China and Russia in a cooperative mood, limiting the tilt to the US sought by Donald Trump in 2020 and again by Joe Biden in 2021 was not far out of line with precedent. Waiting out events proved harder in 2022, however, when Biden was rallying allies to make Russia a pariah and to decouple from China in dual-use tech, notably involving advanced semi-conductors. Under a conservative leader the tilt toward Washington was greater from May 2022, but the objective appeared to be a tilt without a transformation. Rather than choose the US at China’s expense, where the economic cost was high, or to abandon hope of recovering key parts of the Russian market, Seoul kept up hope for the eventual reversibility of the ongoing polarization. This contrasted with Japan’s response.
Moon’s May 2021 summit with Biden was huge, paving the way for the big shift in 2022 under Yoon. It was transitional in reorienting Seoul toward US-led regionalism. Yoon went further and added a critical values component, refocusing from a “peace regime” prioritizing the Korean Peninsula toward a shared vision with the United States in facing regional and global dangers. The starting point was support for a rules-based order, facing North Korea as an unmitigated threat with values not obscured. With semiconductors in the forefront in the new high-tech competition, South Korea suddenly drew attention as a major player, not a “shrimp among whales.” It was becoming easier for Seoul to push back against China’s zero-sum arguments.
Under Park Geun-hye and Moon, Seoul was reluctant to join the emerging US regional agenda. In 2022 Yoon leaped ahead on regional cooperation but left some room for wavering. Alliance relations became more wide-ranging in Asia and beyond and more multi-dimensional including economic security. In May, Yoon agreed with Biden to a values-based and regionally-oriented alliance more comprehensive than Moon’s understanding with Biden a year earlier. At a three-way summit in November with the US and Japan, Yoon’s support for trilateralism exceeded anything seen from Seoul earlier. The overall trend in 2022 defied China’s repeated warnings. Beijing had warned Seoul against joining US initiatives, whether the THAAD missile defense system, the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy, freedom of navigation exercises, support for Taiwan, technological decoupling, criticism of China’s human rights behavior, or trilateral defense moves with Japan. Yoon was more daring in defying Beijing, but he still exhibited some caution as bilateral relations could suffer serious setbacks. The fact that China sided with Russia on the essentials of the Ukraine war and was viewed as threatening Taiwan in a more urgent manner cast a chill on Sino-ROK relations. So too did China’s “zero-COVID” lockdowns and new market-suppressing controls. Despite Chinese appeals to join in a neighborhood push against US protectionism, Yoon generally accepted the economic security agenda of the US, as civil-military dual-use items drew closer scrutiny. Washington sought a collective approach to industries of the future—research designs, export controls, restricted investments that could lead to technology leakage, and supply chains to reduce economic vulnerability. This holistic US approach—called invest, align, compete—put US as well as Chinese pressure on South Korea.
China’s deteriorating image in 2022 made Seoul’s transition easier. China’s lockdowns, loss of economic dynamism, drift toward greater authoritarianism and centralization, and isolation on the side of Russia all suggested that it had already peaked. Reducing dependency on it seemed to be a good idea. Yet fear of both economic costs and retaliation led to caution. Few in Seoul seemed prepared for the full extent of decoupling Washington had in mind in its Indo-Pacific economic framework and security reassessments, dealing with Beijing as well as Pyongyang.
The ROK habit of focusing on the US as the driving force, giving China and Russia the benefit of the doubt as their help was sought with North Korea and for ROK-driven regional plans, skewed discussions of the downward spiral in regional stability. Rather than point to how China caused the polarization under way, many in Seoul blamed Washington for complicating their economic prospects. China sought to seize on this thinking by proposing more regional trade integration to counteract protectionism and vociferously arguing that the US is treating its ally as a vassal. Yet, in 2022 such appeals mixed with implicit threats proved less effective than in earlier years. Driving the shift were three forces: leadership change, geopolitical factors, and a refocus on economic security—Yoon’s ascent, Sino-US and Russo-US tensions, and a US technology agenda.
The period 2020-2022 saw an extraordinary number of twists and turns centered on ROK-US relations but extending across the region. 2020 spelled the end of the Trump-Moon consensus on North Korea as Sino-US relations plummeted, putting Moon’s regional agenda in jeopardy. 2021 saw a disconnect between Biden’s quest for a regional framework and Moon’s desperate appeals to join in a new offer to North Korea. Relations were in a rut over regional differences. Then, in 2022, the combination of Biden and Yoon found greater accord, but the challenges of transformation they faced dwarfed earlier ones. Joint affirmation of the alliance kept getting stronger. In 2020, the pandemic heightened Sino-US tensions and drew new attention to supply chain vulnerability, as Trump, Moon, and Xi eyed each other from a distance. In 2021, Biden reconfigured ties to both Moon and Xi, affecting the triangle through multilateralism and new stress on regional economics and values. Finally, in 2022, the Yoon election, Ukraine war, and focus on economic sanctions and technological decoupling proved even more disruptive. In the course of three contrasting years, foreign policy had shifted more than at any time in decades. Yet, the bottom line was an indecisive Seoul averting clear commitment as polarization spread.
The Year 2020
From 2017 through 2019 Moon Jae-in was preoccupied with relations with North Korea, and he tried to keep a low profile as regional tensions deepened over other bilateral challenges. When tensions over the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Taiwan accelerated, Moon stayed on the sidelines. Xi Jinping kept up pressure on Moon, demanding that he avoid entanglement in Sino-US controversies after Moon had conceded in late 2017 on three key points of Xi’s concern. In the cases of Russia and Japan, Moon felt relatively little pressure from Trump to follow the US line, tangling more directly with Abe and keeping the door open to Putin. Intent on keeping his opening with Kim Jong-un alive, Donald Trump cut Moon some slack. Unlike the Park Geun-hye period when regional diplomacy was a high priority, Moon had decidedly narrowed his sights.
In the year 2020, the widening gap between Washington and Beijing put greater pressure on Seoul. Not only had the trade war intensified, the pandemic exacerbated signs of an ideological struggle. For at least four reasons, Moon Jae-in found it harder to stay aloof. First, the Korean public’s negative attitudes and business dissatisfaction toward China strongly favored leaning closer to the US. Second, Trump’s cavalier threats toward South Korea, e.g., if it did not raise host-nation support drastically, left a weakened leader struggling to do more to satisfy an ally. Third, the tightening Japanese embrace of the United States left Moon wary of allowing this triangle to become even further unbalanced. Finally, Moon was at an impasse with North Korea and considered his last hope to be Trump’s support for an “end of war” declaration. Although the pandemic brought in-person diplomacy to a halt, Seoul was tilting rather more to the US.
Trump, Abe, and Xi each had soured on Moon in their own way–leaving him little prospect of overcoming a lame duck image in foreign affairs in 2020. Yet, he ploughed ahead, holding three optimistic assumptions: Kim Jong-un was waiting for an initiative from Washington and Seoul to resume diplomacy; Trump could be persuaded to okay an “end-of-war” declaration that would jumpstart diplomacy; and Xi Jinping was agreeable to visit Seoul in 2020 to breathe new life into bilateral relations and to support diplomacy with Kim Jong-un. The fact that expectations were much lower in foreign capitals and within the South Korean public left Moon’s quixotic pursuits with no prospect of success, even before the numbing effect of the pandemic froze diplomacy.
Toward the end of 2020, critical forces of transformation were advancing against desperate attempts to salvage Moon’s legacy. Three forces defied Moon’s efforts: the unbridgeable gap between the US and North Korea; the accelerating divide between China and the US; and the intensifying regional coordination between the US and Japan, isolating Moon. As these forces gained momentum, aspirations alive in 2019, when he was thwarted, grew further out of reach.
Against the backdrop of conservatives and progressives offering diametrically different advice on what to do about rising North Korean-US tensions, relations with other countries took a back seat. Having only at the end of 2019 retracted his threat to withdraw from GSOMIA sharing of intelligence with Japan, Moon hesitated to take new steps. As for China and Russia, they had at the end of 2019 called on the Security Council to ease restrictions on North Korean workers abroad, on exports of seafood and textiles, and on inter-Korean projects. If progressives were inclined to go along, Moon did not dare to break from US-led maximum pressure so blatantly.
A now delayed Xi visit to Seoul was seen to boost cooperation on North Korean policy.
Foreign policy was on hold. The pandemic effect and the wait for US elections left policy in limbo. Ties to Japan remained troubled, although Abe’s announcement at the end of August that he would step down was seen as hopeful. Divergence in regional strategy as well as policy toward North Korea cast a dark shadow over ROK-US relations, compounding the unresolved negotiations over host-nation support. This was not a time for complacency given expectations that challenges would, before long, worsen due to deeper Sino-US, North Korean-US, and ROK-Japanese tensions.
Deepening Sino-US rivalry posed the central foreign policy dilemma for Moon Jae-in. Pressure was mounting to join in exclusive economic arrangements, to make clear Seoul’s position on the PRC national security law for Hong Kong, to meet with the G7 to address concerns over China, and to coordinate as a US ally to counter the military build-up of China. As conservatives debated how to double down on the alliance despite Trump’s one-sided demands, the Moon supporters insisted on balancing US and Chinese ties, resisting US plans for an economic bloc or to join in condemning repression in Hong Kong. After Moon accepted Trump’s invitation to an expanded G7 with China the focus, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson issued a sharp warning. Moon strove to remain ambiguous on supply chain decoupling, a US economic bloc, and even regional security issues. On the national security law Seoul did not join 27 countries that raised concerns that it would erode the human rights of Hong Kong citizens. On Xinjiang’s Uighur human rights abuses, the National Assembly only urged the international community to establish a cooperative regional order and seriously consider Korea’s future role. Avoiding choosing sides prevailed over standing on clear principle. Yet Moon’s December 2019 visit to China ended with a skirmish after the PRC foreign minister quoted him as saying to Xi that “Hong Kong affairs and issues concerning Xinjiang are China’s internal affairs.”1 Seoul quickly denied that Moon had made such a pro-China comment.
On September 25, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said it is “not a good idea” to join the US-led Quad aimed at keeping China in check. “We don’t think anything that automatically shuts out, and is exclusive of the interests of others, is a good idea,” Kang said in response to a question asking if South Korea is open to join the Quad Plus. This was the first time a high-ranking official publicly expressed a negative view on the Quad. In contrast, Chosun Ilbo bemoaned that the Quad foreign ministers’ meeting held in Tokyo without South Korea on October 7 epitomizes “Korea Passing.” 2
On foreign policy, conservatives pressed their criticism of Moon and welcomed Biden’s election as an opportunity to overcome bilateral tensions and also repair the trilateral South Korea-US-Japan security framework. Capitalizing on public favor for the US over China (nearly 5:1), they urged the Moon administration to scrap its pro-China foreign policy and come up with a value-based foreign policy supportive of Biden’s emerging regional agenda, but Moon was loathe to commit himself.
The pandemic brought no relief to tensions with China. Travel restrictions on foreigners aroused early charges and countercharges with Beijing. Supply chain disruptions focused attention on economic dependence on China. When on February 20 Moon and Xi spoke by phone, they agreed on a joint response to COVID-19, and Seoul soon did not impose a total ban on Chinese entrants, as a visit from Xi still appeared on the horizon. Dong Xiangrong applauds the inter-government cooperation over the pandemic, such as opening a “fast track” for businessmen, but she finds an “obvious cognitive mismatch in public opinion.” Unlike Chinese praise for South Korea’s handling of it, the South Korean “assessment of China’s response to the pandemic is seen in China as unreasonably negative.” She links this to “media ideologues accusing China of human rights violations, conspiracy, and discrimination against South Koreans inside China. In addition to blaming China for responsibility linked to the pandemic, they convey a broader critique, which is influencing the Korean public.” Citing an October 6, 2020, Pew poll, she stresses that “79 percent of respondents in South Korea gave a negative assessment of China’s response to the pandemic… From the spring of 2019 to the summer of 2020, South Koreans who have an unfavorable view of China rose by 12 percent to 75 percent.” Separately, Dong wrote that netizens were aroused to turn on each other, e.g., over rival claims that their country was the real origin of pickled vegetables (paocai or kimchi) and the BTS singing group’s speech on accepting a prize, recognizing the suffering of Koreans and Americans on the 70th anniversary of the Korean war but not of Chinese who lost their lives in the war. Dong links these clashes in 2020 to years of cultural tensions between Chinese and South Koreans coupled with the aftereffects of the THAAD clash in 2016-17, leading to a drop in the sale of Korean cars in China, and to new strains in the geo-economic environment facing the two sides. After South Korean opinion had shifted to view China as anti-reunification and a military threat, she called these nations just “superficial friends.”3
Woo Jong Yeop puts the emphasis on geopolitics linked to global supply chains. The impact came from the growing pressure from the United States and China, as they responded to the pandemic. He writes, “Never before has Seoul faced a dilemma similar to the push and pull awaiting between Washington and Beijing, while the Pyongyang factor adds more difficulty.”4
Yang Jiechi visited Busan from August 21 to meet with Moon’s new national security adviser Suh Hoon and explained China’s position regarding current US-China relations. Reportedly, he asked Seoul to remain at least neutral in the intensifying rivalry while championing multilateralism and free trade.5 Yet, China’s pressure was backfiring, as it continued earlier restrictions, e.g., over the “Korean Wave” and THAAD, while calling for closer economic integration, seen warily in Seoul.
Seoul is targeted by China differently than Tokyo for at least four reasons: (1) it is considered a more integral part of the Sinocentric order, given historical ties and geography; (2) vulnerability to North Korea gives China more leverage; (3) its economic dependency is greater; and (4) it is not viewed as a power of the same order as Japan or with the same high degree of internal political cohesion as Japan.6 In the opinion of Eun A Jo, Moon had responded with “double allegiance,” but “as Seoul continues to pursue North Korea, satisfying both sides of the increasingly belligerent conflict will become a tough—possibly untenable—balancing act.” She emphasizes that “China’s cooperation on North Korea will be tied to South Korea’s deference, even at the expense of the United States,” and that “neither Biden’s win in the upcoming presidential election nor Xi’s attempts to capitalize on the narrowing scope of the US-South Korea alliance is propitious for Moon’s strategy of double allegiance.”7 Indeed, Moon’s approach was reaching a dead-end.
The pandemic was a missed opportunity for ROK-Japan cooperation, argues Scott Snyder. Moon proposed a regional response in the fall of 2020, but did not mention Japan. Thus, “the pandemic response appears to have become a new venue for Japan-South Korea political competition.”8
Why did Moon take little interest in Japan. According to Park Cheol-hee, for progressives, Japan’s “role is negligible or minimal at least in the process of establishing a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula…progressives remain quite generous regarding Chinese moves while they remain extremely critical toward Japan’s motives…They blamed the United States for entangling South Korea in a regional security front.”9 Park finds that progressives view Japan but not China through the prism of history, but he discerns a growing backlash among conservatives and the younger generation against demonizing Japan and for resisting further China’s pressure.
Claiming that the Korean government is helpless to intervene in court proceedings, Seoul warned Tokyo that if it did not accept the court ruling that Japanese companies must compensate forced labor victims, their assets would be liquidated. In return, Japan’s government refused to conduct business as usual until Seoul found a different solution. This issue halted all normal diplomacy.
On September 24, Moon and Suga held an official phone call–the first conversation between the leaders of the two countries since the trilateral summit in late December 2019. Moon proposed that the two countries work together to find an “optimum” solution to the wartime forced labor issue, called for Japan to withdraw its “unjust” export restrictions, and stressed the need for Tokyo to “respond actively” to Seoul’s efforts to host the Korea-Japan-China trilateral summit this year. In response, Japan called on Seoul to find a solution for the forced labor issue that does not liquidate the seized assets of Japanese firms, adding that Suga would not attend a trilateral summit in Seoul unless South Korea put a stop to the liquidation of Japanese corporate assets in that country.
The Year 2021
With North Korea and China on lockdown and Japanese leadership in flux, South Korean eyes were focused on the new US president Joe Biden. Unlike Trump’s transactional, bilateral approach and attraction to diplomacy with Kim Jong-un, Biden took a regional, Indo-Pacific strategic prism. The two leaders struggled to find common ground: Moon persisting in his North Korean obsession, and Biden raising multilateral initiatives in managing China. Isolated, Moon gave ground gradually.
As the Biden administration was taking shape, Moon spoke by phone on January 26 with Xi and expressed hope that Xi would visit South Korea as soon as the COVID-19 situation stabilizes and looked forward to the constructive role of China in resolving the North Korean problem through dialogue. In response, Xi said that he supports inter-Korean and US-North Korean dialogue, and emphasized the important role of South Korea in a political resolution of the North Korea issue.10
In the wake of Biden’s inauguration, diplomatic activities in March and April, brought into sharp focus the dilemma of a middle power wedged between the US and China, unambiguously heading toward multifaceted confrontation, as illustrated by their March, face-to-face high-level talks in Alaska. South Korea’s balancing act will be constrained to an unprecedented extent, many warned.
Amid the March 18 2+2 meeting between Seoul and Washington, conservatives appealed to the government to strengthen ties with the US while guarding against both North Korean and Chinese aggression, but progressives were wary that the US aimed to send China a warning. The meeting failed to adopt a statement that listed North Korea human right issues and “denuclearization of North Korea,’’ due to South Korea’s demand to replace it with “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” A day later, in response to the acrimonious Sino-US talks in Anchorage, commentators in South Korea expressed concern about a “new cold war,” and its negative impact on solving the North Korean issue, while making it hard to maintain strategic ambiguity between the two powers. As calls to support the US grew, progressives demurred, blaming it for trying to check China.
After on February 24 signing an executive order on supply chains, Biden on April 12, at a virtual CEO summit on semiconductor and supply chain resilience, said, “the Chinese Communist Party aggressively plans to reorient and dominate the semiconductor supply chain.” Clearly, a world-leading chipmaker could not continue to keep business out of politics. Samsung Electronics was a summit participant and urged the ROK government to develop a survival strategy by mobilizing all diplomatic resources. rather than leaving the sole responsibility to companies to answer Biden.11
The May 21 summit between Moon and Biden was the most critical event for ROK foreign policy in 2021, testing the notion of “strategic ambiguity” amid deepening US-China competition. Criticisms from the right against this policy had grown louder as Biden was appearing to undermine Moon’s “Korean peace process.” Rumors that Moon was turning down US demands for participation in the Quad fueled conservative views that Moon was choosing North Korea and China over the alliance. Biden’s meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Suga just a month earlier had set a rather high bar.
Providing flexibility for Moon to pursue his own inter-Korea policy, Biden agreed to abolish the bilateral missile guidelines, which capped South Korea’s ability to develop longer range missiles. In return, Moon gave ground. The news media sounded the alarm that this new-found sovereign right could cause a backlash from China and Russia as if Biden’s intention was to contain China through South Korea. The main takeaway was that Moon had abandoned “strategic ambiguity” by supporting the US on three regional issues (ASEAN’s role in the region, stability in the Taiwan Strait, and democratization in Myanmar) and supporting the Quad. Some forecast gloomy days for Sino-ROK relations, worrying about Moon holding hands with Biden on regional issues.12
Yet, on the whole, optimism prevailed that Moon had threaded a needle, overcoming a spell of passive diplomacy by satisfying Biden, who gave him room to maneuver with Pyongyang in return for a “global alliance,” and not crossing China’s red line. The US gained a boost from Korean firms’ investments linked to semiconductor supply chains. The security alliance was being transformed to address technology issues, although some warned of a new round ahead in the Sino-US trade war, drawing Seoul further to the US side, and others found Moon’s diplomacy still ambiguous on China compared to that of the G7 countries, including Japan. China’s response was anxiously awaited.
Attention focused on two issues: China’s official opinion on the ROK-US joint statement mention of the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, and the prior plan for Xi Jinping’s visit to South Korea. In addition to China’s foreign ministry criticism of broaching the Taiwan issue, Amb. Xing Haiming stressed the importance of “genuine multilateralism,” open and inclusive, condemning the Quad as fake multilateralism that excludes and targets a specific country. Xi’s visit went unmentioned.
Moon’s foreign policy, apart from the US, was near a standstill. China showed its intention to revive its alliance with North Korea. Japan’s LDP, ahead of the general election, found the feud with South Korea useful to appeal to its ultra-conservative voters. A Japanese official insulted Moon, as talks collapsed for a summit at the Tokyo Olympics, while the Chinese ambassador brusquely interfered in politics, attacking a presidential candidate’s defense of the sovereign decision to deploy THAAD, while intimating that if Seoul does not take a zero-sum approach to ties to the US and China, it will pay. Relations with both Tokyo and Beijing were more troubled at summer’s end than before. Meanwhile, North Korea and Russia were growing more belligerent.
After three decades of active regional diplomacy, Seoul was isolated again. Yet, Moon remained cautious about joining in Biden’s plans for Indo-Pacific regionalism, the Quad, or trilateralism with Japan. Each would have acknowledged a degree of polarization that risked his plans, especially for winning China’s cooperation on North Korea. At stake for progressives was a longstanding view on how to weave between the great powers while prioritizing values such as peace, coexistence, and reconciliation, which contrasted with the Cold War, where the “us” versus “them” mentality was built on ideological blocs. As a “middle power,” South Korea needed to maintain its neutrality.13 On March 12, in response to the first virtual summit of the Quad, conservative newspapers urged the government to join as a “Quad-Plus” partner.The Quad summit joint statement referred to “denuclearization of North Korea,” raising concern about South Korea being left out of discussions on the issue. Feelings of isolation were mounting with only conservatives offering a clear answer.
When AUKUS was announced, South Korea’s muted response was not close to Japan welcoming the creation of AUKUS nor China calling it “extremely irresponsible.” Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong stressed the importance of US-China cooperation, rather than developing two blocs in Asia, a Chinese one and a non-Chinese one. Moon Chung-in in a column titled “Four Shadows of AUKUS,” expressed concern over its long-term impact in the region and said its “four shadows” – emerging hierarchy among the US allies, exclusive support for Australia’s development of nuclear-powered submarines, increasing possibilities of an arms race and nuclear proliferation in the region, and increasing uncertainty in regional security – served as an ominous signal of a new cold war.14
On September 24, Biden hosted the leaders of the three other members of the Quad, broadening cooperation in space, 5G, cyber threats, and infrastructure. On October 13, asked whether the US had asked Seoul to join, ambassador to the US Lee Soo-hyuck said that the US did not intend to expand this grouping. Conservatives disagreed, saying that South Korea naturally falls within it.15 Moon attended the “Summit for Democracy” but was more cautious in his language than Biden. As the summit was seen as a US effort to counter two uninvited countries, China and Russia, media outlets raised concerns over the growing tension between the US and China or were even dubious about Moon Jae-in’s attendance there. Progressives also reacted warily to the first Xi-Biden summit, virtual as it was, and to the planned US diplomatic boycott of Beijing’s Winter Olympics.
Even as US relations with Russia worsened in 2021, Moon Jae-in continued to value that country for its potential contribution to diplomacy over North Korea vital for the Korean Peninsula peace process. He was loathe to pull back from the New Northern Policy, centered on Russia. As the US rallied allies to deliver a message to Moscow of the dire consequences of an assault on Ukraine, Seoul stayed aloof, as if Moscow were only bluffing. Preparations for sanctions were not a focus.
The year 2021 saw Chinese warnings to Seoul but no major change in relations. On February 5, Amb. Xing Haiming expressed opposition to anti-China coalitions, including the Quad. “China deems forming a small group internationally or instigating a new Cold War in an attempt to exclude, intimidate, and isolate a third country as well cutting off its ties with others will inevitably force the world into division and confrontation,” he said, explaining that Seoul’s relations with Washington and Beijing are “both important.”16 Thus, he warned against joining Biden’s agenda.
The conservative camp faulted Moon’s China policy, e.g., for remaining silent about Beijing’s claim that it entered the Korean War to defend peace, its attempts to claim sovereignty over the “West Sea,” and its crackdown in Hong Kong, while repeatedly protesting Japanese distortions of history. Many argued that Seoul should positively consider participating in the US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy and in the Quad since the alliance is the basis of ROK foreign and security policy.
In an exchange between foreign ministers, Wang Yi cast South Korea and China as “eternal neighbors” and said that the two should focus on strengthening cooperation in various fields such as 5G, big data, green economy, artificial intelligence, integrated circuits, new energy, and the health industry. Wang said, “China, along with South Korea, will seek a process for a political resolution of the Korean Peninsula issue through dialogue.” Progressives welcomed this sign of Moon’s “balanced diplomacy,” rather than picking sides, and keeping alive hopes for diplomacy with North Korea. Chosun strongly criticized the administration’s obsession with “magic bullets,” such as Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul and resumption of US-North Korea dialogue. Chung Eui-yong had urged Xi to visit Seoul, but the Chinese side made no mention about such a visit in its briefing after the meeting.17 Influential progressive Moon Chung-in argued that the more intense the US-China conflicts become, the more limited South Korea’s options will be, so it should move ahead toward alleviating their conflicts, through what he audaciously termed “transcendental diplomacy.”18
When on July 1, China celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, conservatives warned that China’s illiberalism, including removal of term limits for its leader, repression of the Uyghurs and Hong Kong, and “wolf warrior” diplomacy, had invited international anger. Noting glorification of participation in the “War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea” at the anniversary, conservative Seoul Kyungjae editorialized that walking on eggshells toward China shrank South Korea’s standing, urging a stronger alliance with the US based on shared values and openly expressed views to China.19 Conservatives and progressives criticized China, but the latter were more wary of arousing China’s ire, fearing spillover to the Sino-North Korean relationship.
On July 16, a controversy arose over an op-ed by Xing Haiming in response to Yoon Suk-yeol, the front-running presidential candidate, who had claimed that the ROK decision to deploy THAAD clearly fell within its area of sovereignty and that China should first withdraw its long-range radar near the Korean Peninsula if it wants to insist on THAAD withdrawal.20 Stating that the deployment harmed Beijing’s security interests and trust, Xing implicitly warned Seoul to defer to China’s rising economic power. Park Jin, a member of the Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee at the National Assembly, wrote that by challenging a presidential candidate’s stance on foreign policy, the ambassador had violated ROK sovereignty and interfered in its election.
On September 15, Wang Yi met with Moon Jae-in and Chung Eui-yong. Asked about that day’s North Korean cruise missile launch, Wang said, “not only North Korea but also other countries engage in military acts.” He urged restraint by all sides to prevent unilateral military action from resulting in a vicious circle on the peninsula. A week earlier, the International Olympic Committee announced that North Korea would be banned from the Beijing Winter Olympics. Despite this, Moon told Wang he hoped the Olympics would be another turning point in improving inter-Korean relations and contributing to peace in Northeast Asia. Joongang Ilbo underlined the gap between the announcements from Seoul and Beijing on the outcome of Wang’s visit to Seoul. The Blue House’s briefing omitted that “China firmly supports both Koreas in overcoming difficulties and steering clear of disruptions to improve relations.” “Steering clear of disruptions” reflects both tension between the US and China and China’s intention to separate ROK-US relations from diplomacy over inter-Korean relations.21
On November 15, Biden and Xi Jinping discussed a wide range of issues facing their countries, foreshadowing long-running competition and conflict. Progressives, who sought the support of both for security as well as the economy, appealed for additional strategic room for Seoul. After Biden, on November 18, warned of a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, Seoul was in a bind. Resisting the call for coalescing against China’s repressive policies against the Uighurs, progressives feared a boycott would impair efforts to improve relations with the North. Attendance was viewed as an extension of efforts to elicit support on an end-of-war declaration.
Progressives often echoed Chinese wording that those who did not prioritize diplomacy over deterrence were engaged in “cold war” thinking. Rather than acknowledge threats posed by China, including its economic and cultural behavior toward South Korea, they were prone to view the US responses as the cause of setbacks to the active diplomacy they continued to desire, above all.
From early to mid-November, South Korea suffered an acute shortage of urea, used to make diesel exhaust fluid for reducing emissions, induced by China’s decision to restrict exports on which South Korea was 97 percent dependent. This threatened to halt four million passenger cars and freight vehicles. The crisis exposed the danger of overdependence on Chinese raw materials and intermediary goods, leading to calls for a new mechanism to address supply chain vulnerabilities.22
There were modest signs from Seoul of trying to improve ties to Tokyo. Its new ambassador on January 22 called the Japanese Emperor his “Majesty the Emperor,” after previously claiming that the emperor should be called a king.23 On March 1, Moon marked the March First Independence Movement by emphasizing future-oriented development of bilateral relations at odds with his previous remarks that stressed Japan’s “sincere self-reflection,” but he reaffirmed the principle of resolving historical issues by stressing a “victim-centered approach.” In response, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary urged him to first suggest concrete proposals to settle pending bilateral issues.
In a phone call on October 15 with the new prime minister Kishida Fumio, Moon Jae-in differed on the scope of the 1965 normalization treaty but called for accelerating the search for a diplomatic solution to the forced labor and “comfort women” issues. On November 17, after a trilateral meeting of deputy foreign ministers, Japan boycotted the joint press conference on the grounds that on the same day, the South Korean National Police Agency’s commissioner-general made a public visit to Dokdo. Koreans were dismayed that Japan’s claim over Dokdo had been growing stronger as shown by listing Dokdo as its territory in the Defense White Paper, school textbooks, and the map on the website of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee.24 At year’s end, there was no sign of a turnabout in ROK-Japan relations and ample reason to think that public opinion remained wary and the Moon administration was still wary of trilateralism.
The Year 2022
The South Korean government tilted toward the United States in 2022. There were long-term factors and precipitating ones. Two long-term factors were: the bursting of the illusion, held by progressives against all evidence to the contrary, that North Korea would entertain thoughts of peaceful coexistence and denuclearization; and the realization that China leans more closely to North Korea than South Korea, as it prioritizes driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington, not regional cooperation. Opinion toward China had shifted sharply from 2016 and toward the North from 2019. Moon delayed the inevitable by clinging to “peace diplomacy” and “strategic ambiguity” as late as early 2022, but in the face of the Ukraine war and Biden’s new economic security appeals, Moon slowly yielded ground, Yoon Suk-yeol responded with greater clarity.
Yoon declared the intention of making South Korea a “global pivotal state,” often interpreted as joining with the United States in an activist foreign policy while exercising autonomy in making things happen pivoting. Attention shifted from reshaping diplomacy over the Korean Peninsula to Asia more broadly. With the situation in Northeast Asia unpromising, talk of a more active role in Southeast Asia and India (expanding on the New Southern Strategy) was intensifying.
Trade is being used to advance national power and deter adversaries, altering the dichotomy between free trade and protectionism. This shift has raised questions about what constitutes national security and what types of dominance in high tech pose a security threat. Given the US inclusion of traditional security, new economic security, and human rights in calculations about trade, Seoul found alignment complicated, cooperating but seeking its own policy guidelines.
Why was Seoul inclined to buy time rather than to commit fully to the bifurcation under way? We can point to leadership, structural, and identity factors. The Yoon administration did not have the experience or top-down cohesion to proceed in an expedited manner. Yoon had scant foreign policy experience, while the presidential administration, bureaucracy, and chaebol leadership proved unwieldy to corral into a far-reaching, coordinated change of course. Of the structural factors, economic and security vulnerability to China weighed far more heavily than in Japan. METI had a long track record of working closely with companies, and the priority on economic security could more easily be swallowed. If chaebol differed on how far to embrace this, central leadership could not galvanize consensus, especially in a short turnaround time. On the identity dimension, as much as Japan had struggled for more autonomy in Asia, consensus on alliance identity as overshadowing all else remained strong and was growing. In contrast, despite strong support for the US alliance in South Korea, an alternate identity as a wielder of autonomous regional clout—whether over North Korean matters or over great power politics related to the peninsula—had become deeply embedded. If conservatives insisted that their worldview clashed with the progressive one, the degree of overlap should not be overlooked.
For progressives, leaning sharply to the US, e.g., joining its Indo-Pacific strategy, risked China’s cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue. For conservatives, indecision stemmed from a host of factors despite a predisposition to work more closely with Washington. The degree of change in foreign policy over a short time span proved difficult to manage without delay tactics.
The 30th anniversary of Sino-ROK normalization in 2022 passed with little recognition, while the anticipated 70th anniversary of the US-ROK alliance in 2023 was expected to lead to celebratory fanfare. Watching nervously as North Korea tested ever-more advanced missiles and relations among China, Russia, and the North strengthened, Seoul sought more reassurance from the US, not to be abandoned in the face of Chinese retaliation (as was perceived in 2016 over THAAD). Not only was extended deterrence more in doubt, as the North gained the means to attack the United States, but so too was US willingness to share the economic burdens ahead rather than to impose new rules damaging to South Korean companies. Feeling new vulnerability from old enemies in Moscow, Pyongyang, and Beijing, Seoul moved closer to Washington. The Biden administration welcomed this, but it remained concerned about a lack of clarity on key points. At the end of 2022, James Kim wrote, “Over his first 200 days as president, Yoon Suk-yeol has toed a narrow path of tilting toward the United States without arousing retribution from China.”25
In campaigning Yoon made denuclearization of North Korea the priority. His opponent insisted that in order to pursue the national interest, Seoul must get along with Beijing. Yoon gave voice to an Indo-Pacific strategy, participation in the Quad, as well as ROK-US-Japan trilateral cooperation. “Comprehensive strategic alliance with Washington” means moving beyond traditional security to cooperation on diverse issues, including supply chains. A shift was easier since “The South Korean public appears genuinely skeptical about China’s intentions given their experience with THAAD, kimchi wars, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the COVID outbreak in Wuhan, and the Winter Olympics.”26
Yoon veered from “strategic ambiguity,” to “peace through force.” The first Yoon-Biden summit in May, held less than two weeks after Yoon’s inauguration, left no room for doubt that Seoul was poised to increase its cooperation, expanding the scope of joint military exercises, exchanging emerging technologies, and securing resilient global supply chains. Seoul’s announcement that it would join the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) reenforced its decision to coordinate more closely on economic security with the United States and various other like-minded countries.
On the one hand, Biden’s visit to Seoul drew praise for Yoon now actively shaping the rules of an emerging order. On the other, the progressive reaction was skeptical with a touch of alarmism, and there was a middle group nervous about aspects of Biden’s trip to the region but reserving its judgment. Worries about future moves by China and North Korea cast a lingering shadow for all.
Yoon affirmed that South Korea would join IPEF, the US-led initiative to establish a resilient supply chain with partners in the region. Yoon virtually attended the summit launching in Tokyo and said that South Korea would share its experience and work together with a dozen partners in all fields covered by IPEF, a process of setting a wide range of rules related to economics and trade in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly in strengthening supply chains. He added, “It is only natural to join the process,” and “If we excluded ourselves from the process to set the rules, it would cause enormous harm to our national interests.” Yet, Yoon noted that there is no need to view the government’s decision to join IPEF and ROK-China relations as zero-sum.27
For conservatives. IPEF was greeted as US reengagement on trade after its withdrawal from TPP, but it remained too vague to answer key questions. A shift away from Moon’s wariness of regional goals was much welcomed; however, whereas US leaders see a historic urgency to transform an alliance that no longer fully reflected the challenges both countries face, even conservatives were wary of tilting sharply to the US, given the need for cooperation from China on both economic and security issues, warning that Seoul must not be swept into the US-led new order, but must find its own approach. The ongoing trend was to follow the US in linking economy and security and to maximize the benefits of a new technology alliance, but to retain wariness.
The progressive camp found many things of concern in Biden’s visit. Some treated the US as the disruptor of the status quo, refusing to accept China’s rise and containing China without sufficient reason. The ostensible reason for expanding the scope and scale of joint military exercises is North Korea, but some warned that another reason was to contain China with a three-way military framework including Japan. Suspicious of Japan’s real intentions and echoing Chinese charges against the Quad—now proceeding from pandemic and climate change measures to policing the movement of Chinese ships—writers warned of aggressive intentions. IPEF aroused warnings of “economic containment” of China. Hesitant to follow the US lead fully on Ukraine and alarmed by Biden’s statement on Taiwan in Tokyo, progressives charged that Biden is seeking to fundamentally alter the nature of the alliance after seven decades. They criticized a renunciation of “balanced diplomacy” by Yoon and appeared to worry about some sort of a Chinese backlash.28
In light of strong public support for the alliance, the visit was mostly well received. Helpful was the fact that North Korea had spurned talks, China’s role in support of North Korea and Russia had further soured its image, and difficult choices had yet to be spelled out. The focus on close cooperation on technology played to South Korea’s strength, as the visits by Biden to Samsung and Hyundai offices showed the US need for its ally, not pressure on Seoul. Semiconductors became a symbol of deepening technology cooperation. The summit at the Samsung Pyeongtaek campus symbolized a “semiconductor alliance.”29 If earlier asymmetry stood out with the US providing security, now the South Korean role in providing technology pointed to two-way ties.
Following Moon’s ambivalence about a regional agenda and expectations of agency as a force for change in Northeast Asia, the message from Biden was not easy to accept. Rather than shaping the peninsula’s future through its diplomacy, Seoul is reduced to signing onto a US-led strategy in which Tokyo is already heavily invested. Cautious responses often belied Yoon’s upbeat rhetoric.
Yoon seemed to straddle between a framework opposed by China and reassurance to China and Korean economic interests that the pro-trade policies of recent decades would persist. Two keywords were linked to this pursuit: “values” to reassure the US and “prosperity” to appeal to China. Ambivalence is a sign of “strategic ambiguity” rather than “strategic clarity.” Some said that strong support for the alliance signaled the latter-as it did for military deterrence of North Korea. Others argued that on regional policy or even thinking on North Korea “ambiguity” was more applicable. As much as Yoon’s rhetoric added clarity on broader alliance support, reaching consensus among bureaucracies, now free of Moon’s top-down approach, was proving difficult.
US regional goals drew more support from Yoon but not full endorsement. On security, Taiwan and the South China Sea received new notice but the language was left vague. On economic or “comprehensive” security, the language was upbeat but details needed to be clarified. And on values, a new tone arose, if limits remained on how vocal to be. A lot was left for clarification on digital trade, supply chain resilience, and high-tech decoupling. Washington prioritized security over the economy more than Seoul did in dealings with China. Suspicions abounded that IPEF was launched for “America first” unfair to US allies, including South Korea. Was the chief threat China or the deterioration of Sino-US relations, some were asking.
At the end of December, the Yoon administration released its Indo-Pacific strategy, largely echoing the US strategy but avoiding direct mention of China’s transgressions and claiming “inclusiveness” opens the door to engagement with China. Openness to closer cooperation with Japan and with Australia and India as well as stress on values aligns with US interests. The call for a more mature relationship with China based on mutual respect and reciprocity leaves the door ajar, but this puts the burden on Beijing to find common ground with a strategy it is not inclined to accept. Mention of expanded cooperation with NATO and the Quad also are consistent with US objectives. Making parallel mention of trilateral ties to the US and Japan and to China and Japan obscures the sharp distinction between the former—proceeding quickly—and the latter still largely at an impasse and requiring Beijing to cater to two US allies together by making major policy changes. While keeping an element of “strategic ambiguity” through inclusiveness, there is some sign of strategic clarity. Heartening to the US are references to “cooperation to promote rule of law and human rights,” expanding comprehensive security cooperation,” and “building economic security networks.” Also mention of “stability on the Taiwan Strait” and “freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea” affirmed principles long advocated by the US and anathema to China. Yet, vagueness and a failure to call out China by name left the impression that Yoon could not make up his mind.
Seoul’s cautious approach toward the Ukraine war threat did not end with invasion. On February 24, at the brink of war, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted the possibility of joining multilateral sanctions, including export controls, but set all-out war against Ukraine as a precondition. When Russia unleashed a full-scale invasion, Seoul drew the line at imposing unilateral sanctions such as financial sanctions.30 Putin warned Yoon that if South Korea aided Ukraine militarily, it would destroy Russia-South Korea relations, presumably also leading to a shift in Russia-North Korea relations. Given that the North was soon sending ammunition to Russia and relations were drawing closer, the implications could be serious. When the US asked Yoon for ammunition for Kyiv, the response was that it could be sent only to the US but would not signify lethal aid to Ukraine.
The Moon administration faced a supreme test after Russia launched a massive assault on Ukraine on February 24. Other US allies were already on board, but Seoul took a week of handwringing, as bureaucratic divisions bubbled to the surface. The security community recognized quickly that this was a critical test for the alliance. The ministry of trade, industry, and energy reportedly dawdled from concern about the economic costs. The foreign ministry included those who feared that the sanctions would spell an end to three decades of diplomatic diversification and cooperation from Russia on North Korea. Some in the progressive camp seemingly saw Ukraine and its leadership, not Russia and Putin, as the cause of the mounting tension in Ukraine. The excruciating wait to join the US-led coalition aroused a sense of crisis prior to the inauguration as Moon’s tenure ended.
Some found it hypocritical of Moon to claim that South Koreans inherited the spirit of the March 1st Movement—resistance against violence and hegemonic world order—while keeping silent about Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. It seemed to be the only US ally excluded from the exemption from US export control measures before Moon finally decided on such measures.
North Korea’s May 25 ICBM test and the veto cast by China and Russia at the UN Security Council, which hindered further sanctions against North Korea, raised more serious concerns over the consolidating ties between North Korea, China, and Russia. Many were alarmed that China and North Korea defended Russia, voting against suspending the country from the Human Rights Council. Concerned about the strengthening ties among the three nations, conservatives argued that the incoming government should put emphasis on democratic allies and the ROK-US alliance.
In his April 11 virtual speech to the National Assembly, Zelensky drew an analogy between the Korean War and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, citing the urgency of “indispensable” weapons for its air defense that South Korea already has.31 However, the Ministry of National Defense drew the line at sending lethal weapons. Defense Minister Suh Wook noted “limits” to military support due to the security situation on the peninsula and potential impact on South Korea’s military readiness.
Given the US focus on Ukraine, Biden’s visit offered reassurance that Asia was not overlooked, although, it was not the Korean Peninsula but the Indo-Pacific that was showcased. The degree of South Korean support for the full range of sanctions on Russia loomed as an issue not fully resolved. Whether because of business interests or lingering fear of a further Russian tilt to North Korea, this challenge hovered in the background. If Seoul hesitated in pressuring Moscow, it was assumed that it would be more reluctant to take measures for economic security opposed by Beijing. The “wait and see” approach to Russia meant keeping channels open. Hyundai auto did not close its operations despite problems with payments. Progressives needed Russia for the next stage of diplomacy with North Korea, business interests hesitated to cut ties, and bureaucratic infighting found vested interests in resisting the security community’s calls to back US sanctions.
The Ukraine war indirectly involved both Koreas, one asked by the US to apply sanctions and help to replace depleted arms stocks as well as to echo broad-based alliance rhetoric, the other willing to supply arms to Russia and eager to parrot its narrative. The war deepened the global divide and gave Moscow and Beijing reason to further demonize the US to Pyongyang’s satisfaction. Russia’s nuclear blackmail set a precedent. The spate of missile tests by the North in 2022 led some to fear new provocations. The Ukraine war threatened to embolden Pyongyang at Seoul’s expense.
Even at the end of 2022, clarity was missing on the Ukraine war and Russia, as if waiting for a time might salvage past economic investments and some degree of diplomatic cooperation. Naturally, the New Northern Strategy did not survive the Moon-Yoon transition despite wistful thinking. In contrast, the much more successful New Southern Strategy of Moon could be rebranded under the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework being prepared by the US for rollout at the US APEC 2023.
The cultural clash with China was overshadowing that with Japan. If Japan’s new history textbooks in March and its bid for a UNESCO world heritage site for the Sado mine aroused criticism, more attention focused on a woman wearing hanbok at the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, which was denounced as an attempt to appropriate Korean culture, and for marring the Olympics spirit in a refereeing decision at the men’s 1,000-meter short track speed skating semi-finals, when two South Korean world-record skaters were disqualified for violations, as Chinese won the medals.
On May 16, Park Jin held a virtual meeting with Wang Yi, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties. On the same day at the National Assembly, Yoon Suk-yeol pledged to discuss South Korea’s participation in IPEF with Biden. As a result, Wang Yi’s remarks on the future of ROK-China relations came into the spotlight as a response to Seoul turning away from Beijing. Addressing fields for future cooperation, Wang argued that both sides “oppose the negative tendency of decoupling and cutting off chains,” and “maintain the stability and smoothness of the global industrial and supply chains.” His remarks were taken as opposition to Seoul’s changing trajectory. Vice President Wang Qishan had stressed that both sides should work together to “safeguard multilateralism” during his visit to Seoul for Yoon’s inauguration.32
Contrasts were drawn between the two May summits with Biden of Moon and Yoon. At the second, however, Seoul was faulted by progressives for tilting sharply to the US side and even turning hostile to China. The new theme of “economic security” drew criticism as a way to contain China. In 2021, the joint statement said, “our respective approaches to the Indo-Pacific region,” but in 2022 Yoon praised the US strategy as if Seoul had no other and led China to think Seoul had joined in containment. On Taiwan, all that was said in 2021 was “the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” In 2022 the Taiwan Strait was called an “essential element in security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.” Human rights were another challenge to China, seemingly pointing to Hong Kong and Xinjiang by “sharing our mutual concerns regarding human rights in the Indo-Pacific region.” Finally, on North Korea, mention of the Panmunjom Declaration and Singapore joint statement was omitted, shifting the framework for diplomacy, and human rights were raised more clearly. Progressives were wary of supply chains to be secured against “countries that don’t share our values,” i.e., Russia and China.
While abandonment was on people’s minds, fearing a distracted US due to events in Europe and lack of urgency over North Korea, the summit shifted the focus for some to entrapment. Biden’s remark on Taiwan in Tokyo only heightened that concern. Knowing China’s tough stance on South Korean involvement in the Quad and other regional initiatives it saw as containment, fear of a repeat of the sanctions of 2016 was palpable. The shift toward a regional and global alliance aroused some criticism, coming at the expense of the focus on North Korea and reunification.
With the rising criticism from China’s of IPEF US-led clique politics, economic retaliation from China was on people’s minds. Some claimed that it was no longer feasible to pursue strategic ambiguity since a country’s national security was intertwined with its economy. Recalling the memory of China’s economic coercion during the THAAD dispute, others insisted that the government continue to communicate closely with China and send a clear message about its position.
Following North Korea’s flurry of missile launches, including the ICBM launched on May 25, the Security Council voted on a draft resolution strengthening sanctions. China and Russia used their veto. On May 27, South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its deep regret, and media outlets condemned China for exonerating North Korea from responsibility. Joongang Ilbo expressed regret over China’s representative to the UN Zhang Jun’s remarks in which he addressed the US Indo-Pacific strategy as a cause of the “latest developments on the peninsula.”33
The dilemma of navigating between the US and China was put into sharp relief by heightened military diplomatic tensions over Taiwan when US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited that island to the welcome of China’s military drills. Having long tried to stay on the sidelines on Taiwan, Seoul was under new pressure to support US forces in one manner or another. Yoon already had agreed to language on “the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” in a joint statement with the US. If the US was abandoning “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan, Seoul would find it harder to stay aloof. In Seoul after her visit to Taiwan, Pelosi was not met by Yoon—just a phone call–, raising concern that Yoon was distancing South Korea from the Taiwan issue, giving China reassurance. After agreeing to language on Taiwan in May, Yoon had faced strong warnings from China on this issue, leading to his response to Pelosi.34 Conservatives found this inconsistent with the promise to prioritize the alliance; progressives endorsed sticking to a balanced approach.
When Park Jin went to Qingdao in August to meet Wang Yi, marking the 30th anniversary of the establishment of relations, a wide range of issues was discussed, but security took center stage so soon after Nancy Pelosi’s tense visit to Taiwan. Wang Yi demanded that Seoul abide by the “three nos and one restriction,” the latter being on the use of the deployed THAAD system. China called for consideration of each other’s core interests, unimpeded supply chains, and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs—all of which Seoul was accused of ignoring in Chinese media. The reaction was to insist that the “three nos” were the approach of the Moon administration, not binding on Yoon and internal matters for the ROK. Instead of deterring the North, China was pressuring South Korea, many responded. Yoon’s efforts to avoid antagonizing Beijing might have been to no avail as Wang warned Park that Seoul should abide by the “five requirements” for relations, abstaining from the US-led semiconductor partnership “Chip 4,” and additional deployment of the THAAD system on South Korean territory. Asserting its sovereignty over THAAD deployment, Seoul revealed its intention to attend a preliminary meeting for Chip 4.
Considering the fallout from US-China competition and the Ukraine crisis, media diverged in their response. Conservatives argued that it was inevitable for the US and South Korea to strengthen their bilateral cooperation for economic security and technology, turning “an-mi-gyung-jung” (“United States for security, China for economy”) into “strengthening the alliance with the United States and pursuing common interests with China.”35 Progressives argued that strengthening the ROK-US economic security alliance should not lead to deterioration in the ROK-China relationship, urging Yoon to balanced diplomacy that protects national interests with both the US and China.36
Seoul has inched toward recognition with Washington of a Taiwan contingency, first noting “peace and stability in Taiwan,” then adding the context of “Indo-Pacific stability,” and later recognizing the interests of the “international community.” Beijing frowns on such statements as “interference in its internal affairs.” Yoon is living dangerously by, month-by-month, testing the limits of China’s patience, even as he proclaims “mutual respect” to be the centerpiece of his approach. The increasing prominence of his “alliance first” diplomacy keeps testing China. Yoon hoped to disentangle US-ROK and Sino-Korea relations,37 but this became increasingly difficult as Sino-US tensions continued to mount.38 Putting aside episodic events like the Pelosi visit, Seoul’s actions epitomize “alliance First,” wholesale support for the US Indo-Pacific strategy and commitment to participate in the IPEF. Although Yoon’s pledge to “formulate ROK’s own Indo-Pacific strategy framework” signals possible differences, alignment was close.
Wang Yi and Park Jin met in August. According to the Chinese readout, Wang reiterated “the five-point commitment” to independence free of external interference; to upholding good neighborliness and friendship while accommodating each other’s major concerns; to openness and win-win cooperation, and stable and unimpeded industrial and supply chains; to equality, mutual respect, and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, and to multilateralism and the principles of the UN Charter. The South Korean side reiterated the importance of cooperation on North Korean denuclearization as well as revitalization of the Korea-China-Japan trilateral dialogue. The Chinese readout did not mention these other issues
Yoon Suk-yeol and Xi Jinping held talks in Indonesia during the November 2022 G20 summit.
Yoon sought a Chinese response to North Korea’s continued threats, while Chinese state media did not mention any North Korean issues but focused on economic cooperation and opposed its politicization, i.e., US policy calling on South Korea to prioritize economic security. In Seoul’s report, Xi had said that South Korea and China have a common interest in the Korean Peninsula and should protect the peace, calling on South Korea to actively improve inter-Korean relations, i.e., talk with North Korea instead of conducting joint exercises with the US and Japan or implementing sanctions. Xi told Yoon the two countries should keep global industrial and supply chains unclogged and oppose politicizing economic cooperation or overstretching the concept of security. Earlier at the Korea-ASEAN summit, Yoon announced he would implement the Indo-Pacific strategy using engagement, trust, and inclusiveness as the three principles of cooperation. The “inclusive” principle to regional order, however, seemed to exclude China.
The meeting between in Bali resulted in clashing readouts. The Koreans said that Yoon started off emphasizing the “pursuit of freedom, peace and prosperity of the international community based on common values and norms.”39 He also noted the threat posed by North Korea and urged Xi to “play a more active and constructive role.” The Chinese readout did not mention these talking points.40 Instead, it emphasized the “need to enhance alignment of development strategies and work for common development and prosperity.” Xi also highlighted the value of cooperation on trade, high tech manufacturing, big data, green economy, and supply chains. Absent was any mention of values or North Korea.
In May, Yoon agreed to a joint statement more provocative, in Chinese eyes, than Moon’s joint statement with Biden a year earlier. In June, Yoon bolstered ties with European states as they not only rallied against Russian aggression but warned against China’s behavior, including in the Taiwan Strait. In September, at the UN General Assembly, Yoon firmly advocated for universal norms to undoubted Chinese displeasure. Then, in October, Seoul was put on the spot over a host of US-announced export controls over semi-conductors, promising to impede ROK-Chinese high-tech transactions. And in November in the shadow of the East Asian Summit Yoon joined with Biden and Kishida to give momentum to trilateralism against Chinese warnings. As Beijing raised concerns, Yoon’s appeals for “mutual respect” never faded. “’Mutual respect’ as expressed by Yoon refers to “South Korea not opposing China’s Belt and Road Initiative and working with Beijing in trade and commerce, [while] China… accepting, rather than opposing, South Korea’s cooperative system with its allies.” Many were left wondering if Yoon could avoid a strong Chinese backlash in the year 2023,41 James Kim concluded.
From the moment of Yoon’s election an upbeat mood prevailed in ROK-Japan relations. While a target of resolving the forced labor issue by the end of the year always seemed ambitious, security and economic ties kept advancing. Biden’s input was unmistakable, culminating in the trilateral summit in the shadow of the November East Asian Summit as well as a bilateral summit of Kishida and Yoon. The “Phnom Penh Statement on Trilateral Partnership for the Indo-Pacific” brought regional strategies closer, as Yoon also joined the group led by the US and Japan known as “Partners in the Blue Pacific” to cooperate with island nations. Trilateralism tightened on behalf of the Korean Peninsula, including intelligence sharing, and universal values. The three vowed to share North Korean missile warning data in real time and to launch a dialogue among the three on economic security. The joint statement covered maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, emphasizing the three nations’ commitment to stand with Ukraine, and working together to strengthen supply chains for emerging technologies. Strongly opposing any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in waters of the Indo-Pacific targeted China without mentioning it by name, as did stressing the “importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” This was the first time that the leaders of the three countries chose to adopt a comprehensive joint statement. Unprecedented trilateral coordination aligned in pursuit of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”
Earlier in the year candidate Yoon called for negotiating a comprehensive solution for “comfort women,” forced labor, export controls, and GSOMIA, restoring the lost trust between the two countries. Improved Korea-Japan relations would lead to improved regional cooperation among Korea, the US, and Japan, he recognized.42 In the face of relentless North Korean missile launches, Tokyo and Seoul accepted US appeals for closer trilateral security cooperation coupled with three=way naval exercises. If some progressives foresaw a chain of events leading to a new Japanese invasion, the public was shifting to support Yoon’s outreach to Japan, as was Japanese public opinion.43 The survey found the largest improvement since it began a decade ago, with the most marked change in South Korea, where fear of China has been growing rapidly.
On June 13, at a joint ROK-US press conference, Park Jin was asked whether he envisaged a US role in reviving GSOMIA between South Korea and Japan, which allowed the two countries to share information on North Korean military threats. The agreement took effect in 2016 but had been suspended in 2019 after Japan imposed export restrictions and South Korea, in turn, terminated the extension of GSOMIA. The South Korean foreign minister said he wanted “GSOMIA to be normalized as soon as possible” on the basis that South Korea, the US, and Japan need policy coordination and information sharing.44 Conservatives saw it as a way to improve Japan ties.
The assassination of Abe Shinzo on July 8 induced Koreans to reflect on Japanese policy. Some saw a danger of the far right strengthening, which could set back diplomacy, following Yoon’s meeting with Kishida at the NATO summit. One concern was further distortion of history in line with Abe’s extremist image. Another was momentum for amending the Constitution and increasing military spending. On June 7, the Japanese cabinet approved guidelines for boosting military spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product, within the next five years. Some warned that this could trigger an arms race in the region, adding that Japan should not try to justify a larger defense budget by citing the Ukraine war, the North Korean threats, and the Taiwan Strait but sound out neighboring countries with which it has continued rows over historical issues.45 Abe’s death provided one more opportunity to warn of danger emanating from Japan, but most desired improved relations.
Casting a shadow on the progress made in ROK-Japan relations was the forced labor issue despite Japan’s insistence that compensation was settled by the 1965 normalization agreement. Kishida’s hesitation makes it hard for the Korean government to sell this proposal, where progressives are bound to be opposed. Political weakness of leaders on both sides makes agreement difficult. The launch in early July of a consultative, public-private body on Korean victims of forced labor showed Yoon’s determination to resolve the diplomatic row, perhaps even using Korean government funds for initial payments. Yet this was premised on both the willingness of the victims to accept some compromise and a change in attitude by the Japanese government.
The meeting between Park Jin and his counterpart Hayashi Yoshimasa on July 18 was the first in person at this level since December 2017. They agreed to find a new approach to the handling of Japanese companies’ assets and on the urgency of improving ties. Yoon had pledged to seek a comprehensive solution for improving the strained ties, and Kishida, who led a moderate faction within the LDP, gave some reason for hope. Media on both sides, however, were not optimistic.
By the beginning of 2023 a proposal was circulating for a South Korean foundation instead of the two Japanese corporate defendants to compensate plaintiffs over forced labor during colonial rule. As Park Cheol-hee observed, “a change in thinking underlies this change in strategy, from a hierarchical and subordinate one that framed South Korea as a victim and Japan as an aggressor to one that sees the two countries as equal actors.” He saw an effort to “expand the horizon of South Korea-Japan cooperation from a narrow focus on bilateral cooperation or the Korean Peninsula, to one that includes East Asia, the Asia-Pacific region, and even the Indo-Pacific region and the whole world…This forward-looking approach is based on the idea that the pursuit of the interests of all Koreans and the national interest is the basis of diplomacy, rather than limiting the main audience of South Korea-Japan relations to victims of historical abuses.”46
In the triangle with the United States, however, the ROK-US leg continued to lag behind the ever-strengthening Japan-US leg. In Washington in early January 2013, Kishida demonstrated lockstep closeness on regional challenges, raising the bar for Yoon. His recent wavering on key US concerns left in doubt how he could assuage concerns as bipolarity kept intensifying.
The years 2020-2022 were marked by a decisive, but incomplete, tilt toward the United States and away from China. Relations with Japan advanced with much promise of a solution to forced labor compensation and increased confidence that history issues were being resolved. Relations with Russia tanked following its decision to launch a full-scale war in Ukraine and acquiescence to US-led economic sanctions. After Moon’s hesitation to embrace the emerging, US-defined Indo-Pacific framework, Yoon proved to be more supportive, although his call for “mutual respect” with China left unclear many details and his follow through raised doubts of his will to make tough choices.
Three key uncertainties loomed for Yoon’s regional approach: defining economic security and how semi-conductor restrictions on China would proceed; preparing for Chinese retaliation, keeping in mind the earlier pressure applied due to THAAD deployment; and anticipating regional dynamics in case of a severe North Korean provocation. Nothing suggested a reversal of the ongoing tilt to the United States. With China warning against it and North Korea expected to be on the verge of a more serious provocation, Yoon was finding it challenging to stick to the course he had chosen.
*I am indebted to Hong Sanghwa, Jung Seyoon, and Shin Munkyoung for preparing the “Country Reports: South Korea” in The Asan Forum over this period. This article draws heavily on them.
1. See Won Byun, “Chinese Views of South Korea: Aligning Elite and Popular Debates,” in Gilbert Rozman, ed., Joint U.S.-Korea Academic Studies. East Asian Leaders’ Political Frameworks, New National Identity Impact, and Rising Economic Concerns with China (Washington DC: KEI, 2020), p. 164.
2. Sanghwa Hong, “Country Report: South Korea,” The Asan Forum, November 2020, citing Chosun Ilbo, September 26.
3. Dong Xiangrong, “Shared History, Divided Consciousness: The Origins of the Sino-ROK Cultural Clash,” in Gilbert Rozman, ed., Joint U.S.-Korea Academic Studies. Questioning the Pandemic’s Impact on the Indo-Pacific: Geopolitical Gamechanger” Force for Deepening National Identity Clashes? Cause of Shifting Supply Chains? (Washington DC: KEI, 2021); Dong Xiangrong, “Perceptions and Misperceptions between China and South Korea amid the COVID-19 Pandemic,” The Asan Forum, January 11, 2021.
4. Woo Jong Yeop, “How COVID-19 Has Affected the Geopolitics of Korea,” in Questioning the Pandemic’s Impact on the Indo-Pacific, p. 95.
5. Sanghwa Hong,“Country Report: South Korea,” The Asan Forum, September 2020, citing Xinhua News.
6. Gilbert Rozman “China’s Strategies toward South Korea, Japan, and Australia in the Biden Era,” The Asan Forum, March 2, 2021.
7. Eun A Jo, “Double Allegiance: Moon Jae-in’s Strategy amid US-China Rivalry,” The Asan Forum, August 27, 2021.
8. Scott A. Snyder, “The Pandemic and Its Impact on the South Korea-Japan Identity Clash,” in Questioning the Pandemic’s Impact on the Indo-Pacific, p. 71.
9. Cheol Hee Park, “South Korean Views of Japan: A Polarizing Split in Coverage,” in East Asian Leaders’ Political Frameworks, p. 174.
10. Sanghwa Hong, “Country Report: South Korea,” The Asan Forum, March 2021.
11. JoongAng Ilbo, April 14, 2021.
12. Donga Ilbo, May 24, 2021.
13. Kim Tae Hwan, “Value Diplomacy Driving Global ‘Blocization’ of Values: Implications of Great Power Cases for Korea’s Public Diplomacy,” Culture and Politics, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2019.
14. Hankyoreh, October 10, 2021.
15. Joongang Ilbo, September 26, 2021.
16. Sanghwa Hong, “Country Report: South Korea,” The Asan Forum, March 2021.
17. Chosun Ilbo, April 5, 2021.
18. Asahi Shimbun, April 11, 2021.
19. Seoul Kyungjae, July 1, 2021.
20. JoongAng Ilbo, July 14, 2021; JoongAng Ilbo, July 16, 2021; Newsis, July 16, 2021.
21. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “ROK’s President Moon Jae-in Meets with Wang Yi,” September 15, 2021; Joongang Ilbo, September 16, 2021.
22. Donga Ilbo, November 11, 2021.
23. Sanghwa Hong, “Country Report: South Korea,” The Asan Forum, March 2021.
24. Donga Ilbo, November 18, 2021.
25. J. James Kim, “Alliance First and Mutual Respect: Yoon’s Foreign Policy Approach on China and the United States,” The Asan Forum, December 26, 2022.
26. J. James Kim, “Stepping Up to the Challenge and Embracing Pragmatism: Two Visions of Foreign Policy in the South Korean Presidential Election of 2022,” The Asan Forum, March 2, 2022.
27. Hankyoreh, May 20, 23, 2022.
28. Jung Seyoon and Shin Munkyoung, “Country Report: South Korea,” The Asan Forum, July 2022.
30. Yonhap News, February 24, 2022; Hankyoreh, February 24, 2022.
31. The Presidential Office of Ukraine, “Speech by the President of Ukraine in the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea,” April 11, 2022.
32. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “Wang Yi Holds Virtual Meeting with ROK’s New Foreign Minister Park Jin,” May 16, 2022; Segye Ilbo, May 17, 2022.
33. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China “Explanation of Vote by Ambassador Zhang Jun on the UN Security Council Draft Resolution on the DPRK,” May 26, 2022.
34. Yomiuri Shinbun, November 13, 2022.
35. Kukmin Ilbo, May 23, 2022.
36. Kyunghyang Shinmun, May 20, 2022.
37. 김예경. “수교 30주년 한중관계의 미래: 윤석열 정부 대중정책의 쟁점과 시사점,” Issues and Perspectives. National Assembly Research Service, No. 1975, August 4, 2022; 정재흥. “윤석열 정부의 대중국 정책,” 도전과과제,” No. 19, April 4, 2022; 박병광, “윤석열 대통령 당선인의 대중정책 방향과 새로운 한중관계,” Issue Brief. INSS. No. 337, March 22, 2022.
38. Archie W. Simpson, “Realism, Small States and Neutrality,” in Davide Orsi, J. R. Avgustin, and Max Nurnus, eds., Realism in Practice: An Appraisal. E-International Relations (2018); Daniel A. Austin. “Realism, Institutions, and Neutrality: Constraining Conflict Through the Force of Norms,” Commonwealth: A Journal of Political Science, 9, 1998, pp. 37-56.
39. Office of the President, Republic of Korea, “President Yoon Returns after 1st Summit with China in Bali,” November 16, 2022.
40. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “President Xi Jinping Meets with ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol,” November 15, 2022.
41. J. James Kim, “Alliance First and Mutual Respect,” The Asan Forum, December 2022.
42. J. James Kim, “Stepping Up to the Challenge and Embracing Pragmatism.”
43. The Genron NPO, September 12, 2022.
44. U.S. Department of State, “Secretary Anthony J. Blinken and Republic of Korea Foreign Minister Park Jin at a Joint Press Availability,” June 13, 2022.
45. Donga Ilbo, June 8, 2022.
46. Park Cheol-hee, “The Adhesive for South Korea-Japan Cooperation,” Asia Sentinel, January 3, 2023.