Special Forum Issue

“South Korea Edging toward Bipolarity, 2020-2022”



What made South Korean foreign policy different in the early 2020s? The balance between conservatives and progressives was little changed; a leader from one party gave way to one from the other, in a pattern typical of this vibrant democracy. Yet, the external environment, was markedly transformed, contradicting last-minute progressive calls to proceed as if little change had occurred. Four changes, in particular, had forced far-reaching recalculations. First, Korean public opinion had turned strongly against China, given its ongoing conduct, building on the shock of its THAAD sanctions in the second half of the 2010s. Second, Sino-US relations had deteriorated sharply, making hedging between the two much more difficult. Third, North Korea had closed the door to diplomacy, dealing a severe blow to progressives. Fourth, Russia’s war in Ukraine and the threat of Chinese coercion against Taiwan had broken the hold of “peace and prosperity” as Seoul’s mantra. A new president in 2022, untethered to previous policies, took charge in trying to steer relations with all of the regional powers onto a decidedly new track.

After years of repetition that the state of US-ROK relations was excellent, the message in late 2022 for the first time drew no pushback. Not only were the customary sources of divergence minimized, but new sources of convergence were also being showcased, broadening the significance of the alliance. The tempo of engagement was unprecedented. On both sides, the alliance enjoyed popularity. Agreement was strong on centering North Korean policy on extended deterrence, although bilateral talks explored more clarity on that. Coordination on China policy was greater than in the past, albeit remaining differences reflected divergent levels of vulnerability. The US side was pleased with the political courage Yoon showed in talks with Japan, holding out hope that resolution of the forced labor compensation issue would follow, and, if not, relations on other matters were charging ahead. Reorientation toward shared economic security concerns and ways to facilitate technologies of the future served trilateral as well as US-ROK objectives.

The challenges facing South Korean foreign policy were formidable: to sharply reduce economic vulnerability to China after it had risen to alarming levels; to jumpstart trilateralism including Japan as well as the United States despite the forced labor court ruling threatening relations; and to redirect the focus beyond the peninsula even as North Korean provocations intensified. All of this had to be done against the background of a National Assembly dominated by Moon Jae-in loyalists, business interests rattled by the costs of any decoupling from China, and a new and inexperienced president whose pro-US language was not necessarily manifested in policies.

Seoul had reason to proceed cautiously. Pyongyang might exploit tension over Taiwan or even the South China Sea, requiring preparations for a multi-front crisis, while ROK allies would likely be distracted. The arena for competing with China was broadening precipitously, ensnarling a country long narrowly focused on Northeast Asia even into planning for the Pacific Islands along with the US, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. The extent of Chinese displeasure was growing rapidly, as many of its earlier red lines were being crossed. Public opinion could be mercurial on Japan given the emotional hold of the victims. Moreover, the US congress could be insensitive to the interests of allies as in a new law protective of home-built electric vehicles. The global security and economic environment was shifting abruptly, demanding strategic responses.

South Korea’s foreign policy in 2020 to 2022 tilted increasingly toward the United States and its framework for regional and global affairs, but the shift proceeded jerkily affected by factors in the way of making a firm break with the past. Some doubted the sense of direction or cohesive leadership. North Korea’s threat grew more ominous without a satisfying answer. China posed a growing challenge, leaving Seoul wary of stepping across a line inviting retaliation. Russia was moving into a hostile camp, but sending weapons to Ukraine appeared too risky, given Russian ties to North Korea. The clout of the chaebol left politicians wary of some tough decisions about economic security. Political divisions and indecision at the top resulted in a degree of hesitation greater than in other US allies, especially Japan, which had become the “poster-boy” of allies.

Sue Mi Terry, “South Korea Confronts the New Missile Age: 2020-2022”

For the Seoul-Washington-Pyongyang triangle, the period 2020-2022 proved to be a watershed. Ever since the Sunshine Policy launched in 1998, leaders in Seoul had envisioned some sort of breakthrough with the leadership in Pyongyang capable of transforming this triangular setting. To do so was perceived as vital to peace and stability, to South Korea’s leverage in great power maneuvering, and to national identity as a middle power with potential to rise even further. In 2020 these hopes were left on life support, given the breakdown in diplomacy. In 2022 they were relegated to history by North Korean behavior and the deteriorating global environment.

Even after the collapse of diplomacy and summitry with Kim Jong-un following the failure of the Hanoi summit, Moon still clung to the hope that he could make a breakthrough with the North in the remaining time in his term. His administration doubled down on diplomatic efforts with the North. Yet, by the time Yoon Suk-yeol came into office in May 2022, the North had returned to an unprecedented level of provocations, including sustained and frequent ballistic missile tests. 2022 ended with inter-Korea relations entering a new, more dangerous phase.

As the two-year anniversary of the historic Kim-Trump summit in Singapore approached in June 2020, Kim Jong-un began shifting to a harder line. In response, the Moon administration was willing to be at odds with Washington if it meant making even incremental progress on inter-Korea relations, the Trump administration having maintained that the improvement of inter-Korean relations should take place in tandem with the pace of denuclearization. Yet, the Kim regime simply underscored that it was not interested in Moon’s attempt to preserve the Korean détente, dramatically escalating tensions. The message it was sending with its repeated tests was that it was in a position of strength, that it was making incredible progress on its nuclear and missile program and their delivery systems, and that time was on its side despite the raging pandemic, its strict border closure with China, typhoons, and other challenges.

Moon faced an unenviable environment heading into the final year-plus of his presidency. North Korea remained utterly impassive in the face of his outreach, and he was running out of time, but he remained undeterred in his desire to achieve a breakthrough. He sought positive support from the new Biden administration, which, following a months-long policy review, announced that it would take a “calibrated, practical approach” with a goal of denuclearization. It said it will pursue “diplomacy, as well as stern deterrence,” and said it had at the same time reached out to the North, open to talks without preconditions. It emphasized it still supports inter-Korean engagement and said it was exploring diplomatic options for North Korea with South Korea and Japan. However, it did not make the bigger concessions North Korea has demanded—such as sanctions relief—or take greater risks to jump-start a diplomatic process.

With the election of Yoon on March 9, South Korea’s policy toward North Korea was now poised to significantly shift away from Moon’s policies. Moon approached North Korea issues as a peacemaker pursuing dialogue above all else; Yoon signaled, before he was elected, that he would prioritize strengthening the military alliance with the US, build up advanced missile programs, and enhance extended deterrence of North Korea’s nuclear program. Yoon pledged that his administration would strengthen the US-ROK military alliance by invigorating joint military drills and deploying additional THAAD anti-missile launchers.

Once Yoon was in office, while he made clear that South Korea’s role going forward would not be that of a mediator between Washington and Pyongyang, he did try to continue some aspects of Moon’s North Korea policy, including his desire to interact economically with the North as a means of incentivizing denuclearization. Even more concerning than the record number of missile tests was the North’s announcement of legislation that effectively threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes. The Yoon administration and South Korean media outlets expressed concern over the new doctrine. In the face of the North’s “outright and offensive nuclear threat,” the new government prioritized military readiness and strengthening America’s extended deterrence. In response to an unprecedented year-long bluster and missile barrage, the Yoon administration began raising the possibility of redeploying US tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea and of abolishing the confidence-building measure and denuclearization agreements with North Korea.

The years 2020-2022 were a period when the North Korean nuclear and missile threat grew at an unprecedented rate while the United States and South Korea struggled to find an effective response. While Trump largely abandoned attempts at a diplomatic breakthrough after the failure of the 2019 Hanoi summit and the onset of the covid pandemic, Moon held on until the very end of his tenure the illusion of denuclearization and genuine peace in the Korean Peninsula. His hopes were dashed, and indeed his eagerness for outreach may actually have encouraged Kim to think that he could expand his WMD arsenal and carry out provocations without repercussions.

Yoon took a tougher stance, but it did not pay dividends, either. Biden, for his part, preoccupied with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s growing intransigence—and not unaware that it was nearly impossible to make any progress on North Korea—failed to come up with an effective North Korea policy. That left Biden and Yoon discussing with Kishida how to bolster “extended deterrence” of North Korea to prevent Kim from using his expanding WMD arsenal.

Gilbert Rozman,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, as did the “extreme competition” occurring between China and the United States. 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.  He went well beyond previous ROK presidents but scrambled to meet growing US appeals. Waiting out events proved harder in 2022, however, when Biden was rallying allies to make Russia a pariah and decouple from China in dual-use tech, notably involving advanced semi-conductors. Under a conservative leader the tilt toward Washington was greater, 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 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 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.

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

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.

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.

Eun A Jo, “South Korea in the Crosswinds: Battling Partisan Narratives”

The second half of Moon Jae-in’s presidency was marred by diplomatic deadlock, as talks between North Korea and the United States collapsed, tensions between China and the United States deepened, and relations with Japan hit a new nadir. In this thorny climate, partisans debated South Korea’s shifting role in the region as well as the scope of its foreign policy autonomy. Having inherited the THAAD crisis, Moon was especially attuned to Beijing’s sensitivities regarding the regional reach of the US-South Korean alliance and the potential costs of Chinese retaliation. This awareness underlay his administration’s reluctance to participate in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) agenda, which Beijing has time and again framed as US-led encirclement. Meanwhile, the worsening feud with Japan made its multilateral framework politically untenable for Moon, who had made a “victim-centered” approach to history issues with Japan the cornerstone of his progressive legacy. The onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, however, obscured the slowdowns in Moon’s foreign policy.

Partisan narratives continued to polarize as conservatives—emboldened by Moon’s diplomatic failures—campaigned on promises of strategic clarity, based on a rehabilitated alliance relationship with the United States and partnership with Japan. Upon inauguration, Yoon Suk-yeol has sought to institutionalize this back-to-the-basics foreign policy agenda, though the fine print of his newly introduced Indo-Pacific Strategy suggest some continuity with the Moon-era ambiguity. The resulting partisan debates have thus concerned the substantive contours of strategic clarity and the necessity, desirability, and feasibility of such geostrategic alignment. The futures that conservatives and progressives imagine for South Korea’s role in the Indo-Pacific appeared to diverge drastically from one another.

The final two years of Moon’s presidency were marked by four interrelated developments: (1) collapse of diplomacy with North Korea; (2) frictions in the alliance with the United States; (3) tensions in the relationship with China; and (4) hostilities in relations with Japan. Partisan narratives during this period continued to diverge over the prospects of peace—both inter-Korean and regional—and the right approach to pursue it.

In March 2022, the conservative candidate—and political novice—Yoon Suk-yeol was elected president. Speculation of a radical reversal of “strategic ambiguity” abounded, given Yoon’s electoral promises, including “clarity and boldness” as well as a “commitment to principles.”
Many expected a closer realignment of South Korean foreign policy with the Indo-Pacific framework of the United States, and with it, a diminished priority given to diplomacy with North Korea and engagement with China. This also meant more concerted efforts to reconcile with Japan, with whom strained ties over history issues had impeded cooperation.

Four developments, in particular, sustained and intensified South Korean debates surrounding South Korea’s evolving role in international and regional security, and especially the scope of its integration into the US-led regional framework: (1) the Ukraine war, (2) Abe’s assassination, (3) Biden’s foreign economic policy, and (4) Yoon’s nuclear ambitions. Assessments of Yoon’s performance were mixed in each respect, further driving partisan rifts in South Korea over its preferred grand strategy.

It was in this climate of tension and indecision—across military, diplomatic, and economic domains—that the Yoon administration introduced the much-anticipated Indo-Pacific strategy. The document established key tasks for safeguarding a rule-based international order and promoting regional cooperation in areas of non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, cybersecurity, public health, and supply chain resilience. While broadly appreciated, many also noticed that it characterized China as “a key partner” with which South Korea will seek a sounder and more mature relationship. That was in stark contrast with Canada and Japan’s identically named reports, released in November and December, which called China an “increasingly disruptive global power” and “unprecedented strategic challenge” respectively.

For the conservatives, the report did not go far enough to address the threats to values posed by China and North Korea. Meanwhile, the progressives questioned what the new strategy meant for South Korea’s ties with China. The specificities surrounding Seoul’s commitment to values and its implications for relations with China remained somewhat open-ended.

The years 2020-2022 revealed both the changing ambitions and lingering limitations of South Korean foreign policy. If the transition from Moon-era “strategic ambiguity” to Yoon-era “strategic clarity” illustrated Seoul’s desire to play a more active role in regional and international security, Yoon’s continued reluctance to estrange China exposed Seoul’s unresolved vulnerabilities. Indeed, there were long-standing, structural impediments to a more decisive realignment under Yoon, including North Korean security issues and South Korean economic demands—both of which commanded China’s cooperation—as well as the unsettled “history problems” with Japan that compromised trilateral initiatives. Meanwhile, newer developments, such as the insular turn in American trade and technology policy and growing public support for indigenous nuclear weapons in South Korea, also complicated Seoul’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Together, these issues sustained partisan debates around the specific configurations of strategic clarity under Yoon and the appropriate nature and scope of South Korea’s realignment—between an enduring progressive vision of a critical balancer in the region and an emerging conservative one of a “pivotal state” in the maintenance of the liberal international order.

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