Yoon and South Korea’s Foreign Policy: Switching between Strategic Ambiguity and Strategic Clarity

South Korea’s new president will soon be taking charge of the Blue House, as the former president Moon Jae-in will leave office. South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol expressed that he will follow a new foreign policy that will align and work closely with the U.S. Strategist associated with Yoon’s campaign stated this shift as the policy of ‘Strategic clarity.’ The policy proposed by President-elect Yoon stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, who was following a policy of strategic ambiguity under President Moon Jae-in. With the statements of President-elect Yoon during the campaign, some scholars and experts following developments in the Korean peninsula were content with a clearer expression of interest toward the U.S. in Yoon’s Foreign Policy Stance. After the policy announcement by Yoon on closer proximity to the U.S., the PPP (People’s Power Party) candidates were seen as one that would be better for the U.S. policy in the region. The intention of the U.S. even resonated in the Indo-Pacific strategy, specifically concerning the North-East Asian region released by the White House. The two major issues stand apart among many stated in the strategy focused on the northeast Asian region. Firstly ‘build connections within and beyond the region’ to improve relations between South Korea and Japan. The second one was ‘building regional resilience to transnational threats’ through the development of a coherent policy stance towards the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) between South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. Both the recommendations seem to have been taken positively by the president-elect Yoon based on actions taken by the transition team. There may be some positive developments following soon. President-elect Yoon’s policy group has already visited the U.S and Japan. Yoon has even expressed his intention of improving relations with Japan. In an interview, he expressed his desire to have better relations with Japan, building on convergences that the two countries have in the face of the threat from DPRK. However, another point of contention was mentioned in the U.S Indo-Pacific report, namely the PRC (People’s Republic of China).

President-elect Yoon’s China Policy

President-elect Yoon had stated that he would follow ‘strategic clarity’, but how much of the policy shift he expressed was directed towards China was never clear from his statements. His contentious decision about deploying additional THAAD batteries near Seoul could be a big irk between China-South Korea relations. There are oppositions to the deployment from both citizens against the existing deployed system and experts who say that the THAAD missiles don’t provide any additional deterrence. As we saw in 2016, when under Park’s government, the first THAAD was deployed, the reaction from China was in the form of economic coercion where the domestic population was weaponized as a tool of the state to punish South Korean companies. The Moon administration tried to normalize relations by stating their Three-No’s policy. The issues raised till now were only bilateral as they are restricted to the Korean Peninsula. However, with the Russian Invasion of Ukraine, the world is already moving toward a more polarizing system where states are expected to express their position. South Korea, too has sided clearly on the western side by joining the sanctions regime under the Democratic Moon government, even finding resonance with the Conservative President-elect Yoon. But as stated before, Yoon’s vision of South Korea-China relations is not so clear, as we see in the case of Russia.

One apparent reason is that no state can take on Chinese might; even the U.S. realizes this. After recognizing the increasing Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific region, the U.S has worked closely with its like-minded allies and partner in the region for an open, free and inclusive Indo-Pacific in bilateral, minilateral, and multilateral formations like Quad. Quad comprises the U.S, Japan, Australia, and India. All the member countries share concerns about the rising Chinese military and economic power in the Indo-Pacific region due to respective issues between the member countries and China. The Quad vision is to uphold the rules-based order in the Indo-pacific region. The Moon administration did express its support for grouping like Quad. Even earlier, President-elect Yoon stated his intention to work with Quad (not join). By participating with Quad’s working groups on vaccines, climate change, and emerging technologies. In his recent statement, Yoon indicated to positively consider joining Quad if approached but said that he doesn’t think it is happening anytime soon. Yoon had stayed away from expressing any intention to join the Quad immediately. This seems to be going against his policy of ‘strategic clarity.’ The lack of clarity on China is in contrast to his stand on Russia, where the state’s policy is precisely aligned with the U.S.

South Korea shares very cordial and good relations with all the Quad members, except for Japan, with whom relations under the Moon administration saw some downward trajectory due to domestic developments. But the Japan factor is not big enough for Seoul to be puzzled and remain tangled. The lack of interest or, to say, a cautious stance regarding the Question of Quad by South Korea under President-elect Yoon is a curious case of study. Here I would like to address the following questions to understand the balancing act by Yoon. What does South Korea bring to the Quad? And how will the Quad member see South Korea’s application to join the Quad?

South Korea and the curious case of Quad

Firstly, South Korea is a fellow democratic-liberal state in the Indo-Pacific region that upholds the rule of law and international liberal order as a touchstone of a stable international politico-economic system. In Quad parlance, South Korea is a ‘like-minded’ state with which every Quad member shares values and a converging vision for a ‘rules-based’ Indo-Pacific region. Secondly, South Korea has deep strategic interests in an ‘open, free, and inclusive’ Indo-Pacific region as it is intertwined with its export-oriented economy and exclusively the need for a resilient supply chain. As a leading technological innovator in emerging critical sectors like ICTs, AI, and 5G, it becomes incumbent for South Korea to play a more prominent role in shaping the Indo-Pacific region’s geoeconomics and geopolitics. By emphasizing the two points mentioned above, South Korea strengthens the structural capacity of a multipolar Asian regional order instead of the dictates of one country. As a norm influencer and middle power, South Korea also influences the states in south-east asia to take a more proactive stands on issues. Even its role in capacity building in cybersecurity through CAMP and as an arms provider is vital for the region’s stability.

South Korea is an ally of the U.S, a comprehensive strategic partner of Australia, a special strategic partner of India, an important neighboring country for Japan, as expressed by Japanese PM Fumio Kishida. South Korea is perceived as a state whose contribution to the region is positive, and its participation in the global economy is vital.  For all Quad member states, the U.S, Australia, India, and Japan, South Korea is critical to their interests for a stable North-East Asian region and Indo-Pacific, particularly on critical emerging technologies, supply chain, and deterring North Korean belligerence. For Australia and India, South Korea helps modernize and strengthen its military capacity in the face of rising Chinese military threats. India actively deploys South Korean K9-Vajra at LAC with China, and Australia uses South Korean made artillery weapons, radar, and supply vehicles. Even Japan, instead of strenuous relations with South Korea, shares common interests to cooperate in the face of North Korean nuclear brinkmanship and cyberspace. South Korea has already engaged with the Quad framework in Quad-plus format on the issue of addressing COVID-19 early in 2020 with other countries like Vietnam and New Zealand. Irrespective of all the positives for South Korea, its applications to the Quad are almost perfect. There remain some impediments too.

Issues still linger within Quad on the consensus of South Korea. The Japanese negative reaction to South Korea joining G7 could hint at its response if South Korea applied for the Quad membership application. Japan thinks South Korea’s weak stand against China and its fluctuating policy on North Korea with different administrations could prove a disaster for the Quad. In addition, the bilateral relations and domestic constrain between Japan and South Korea may hinder Quad’s response. We saw this happening between India and Pakistan in SAARC, which eventually led to SAARC’s irrelevance in South Asia. Even India would like to see a more consistent South Korea stand towards issues that concern its interests, particularly on the China question. India still remembers Australia backtracking on China. However, that hasn’t deterred India from developing better relations with Australia. The U.S would welcome it if South Korea joined the Quad; as the saying goes, All hands-on deck would be better. This would also help to broaden the security perspective by bringing in subjects that find consensus among all Quad members, such as the denuclearization of North Korea. Any approach that forms a broader consensus on North Korea in the region would help pressure China, giving tacit support to the regime in Pyongyang.

South Korea Foreign Policy approach under President-elect Yoon remains a work in progress as he still hasn’t shifted to the Blue House. Yoon’s foreign policy stance of Strategic Clarity has found resonance on the subject of the west’s action toward Russia. However, it is yet to be seen whether his approach would replicate itself in the case of China. President-elect Yoon’s intentions, as expressed on working closely with the U.S., may not result in some kind of reaction as we have seen in the case of Russia. Yoon’s policy towards China will not be similar to Russia’s as many factors overshadow this relationship. These factors include geographical proximity, economic interdependence, North Korea, and strategic stability in the North-East Asian region. A policy similar to President Moon may not be an accurate way to proceed again. Still, one that changes dramatically may also present way more challenges to South Korea than it could handle in the current uncertain global economic scenario. Therefore, the way to proceed should be to strengthen relations with like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly the Quad members. At the same time, it is vital to engage with the working groups of the Quad to support non-conventional security issues, like Climate Change, Vaccines, and tech. The new administration’s focus should be to ensure strategic stability of the Indo-Pacific region in a manner that maneuvers tactical obstacles presented by China and South Korean interlinkages.       

Abhishek Sharma
Abhishek Sharma
Abhishek Sharma is a Doctoral Student in Korean Studies under the Department of East Asian Studies at University of Delhi. He is a postgraduate in International Relations from South Asian University. He is interested in evolving Geopolitics of East Asia and the Indo-Pacific Region, focusing on India-South Korea relations and Indian Foreign Policy. His research interests also include the intersection of Gender and International Politics, particularly in Environmental Peacebuilding, Nuclear Disarmament, and Feminist Foreign Policy