By Christina Dasom Song and Yves Tiberghien*
South Korea’s new President, Yoon Suk-yeol, has broken from his predecessor’s cautious balancing of Seoul’s trade relationship with China and security alliance with the United States. South Korea joined the Quad Summit in May 2022, signalling its desire to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, and recently joined the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).
This foreign policy shift is due to hardening public opinion against China since 2017. Still, South Korea’s trade interdependence with China and the costs of aligning more closely with Washington and Japan will force Yoon to act cautiously.
The roots of this deep public opinion shift go back to China’s massive economic and political retaliation against South Korea’s 2017 deployment of the US’ THAAD missile defence system. Since this retaliation, public sentiment toward China fell from 56 per cent in 2016 to 34 per cent in 2018.
Another May 2022 survey showed South Koreans turning more to the United States and its allies: 58 per cent of South Koreans support the deployment of THAAD, 83 per cent support US-South Korea security cooperation, 86 per cent support joining the Quad and 83 per cent support increasing trilateral cooperation between South Korea, the United States and Japan. 70 per cent support South Korea having a nuclear arms program. These numbers represent a historic shift in public opinion, even though China’s next moves may well shape future trends.
Domestic concerns will likely overshadow South Korea’s foreign and security policy. President Yoon cannot sacrifice economic growth for the sake of security realignment. An SBS 2022 survey showed that 42 per cent of the public want Yoon to focus on policies that improve economic growth, while only 13 per cent want to prioritise foreign and security policy.
Supply chain issues will also hamper South Korea’s efforts to distance away from China, as these countries’ economies are deeply intertwined. 2020 IMF data shows that 32 per cent of South Korea’s exports went to China (including Hong Kong), compared with 15 per cent to the United States and 5 per cent to Japan. 24 per cent of imports came from China, while only 12 per cent came from the United States and 10 per cent from Japan.
These ratios, unchanged since 2010, show how deeply intertwined the two economies are. A recent survey shows that South Korean academics and business experts are aware of this reality and favour economic cooperation with China, even though 51 per cent of South Koreans also support US-led containment policies against China.
24 per cent of South Korea’s materials and equipment for its semiconductor industry come from China and these are hard to replace. Any disruption to this trade relationship would also depress the US economy since it reliesheavily on these microchips.
The Yoon government does not have much room to manoeuvre as the National Assembly, not due for another election until 2024, is controlled by a large opposition majority. Yoon’s margin of victory in the May 2022 presidential election was very narrow. The opposition supports a more cautious approach to foreign policy — denouncing Yoon’s pivot to Washington as unpragmatic and ideological.
The Japanese reaction to South Korea’s newfound enthusiasm for cooperation has been cautious and will likely remain so for a while. Some see the rift between Japan and South Korea as a possible sticking point that would prevent South Korea from joining the Quad and hamper other multilateral ventures.
South Korea was not invited as a guest at the G7 summit held in Germany in 2022 despite having been in the past. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida also turned down a bilateral meeting with President Yoon on the sidelines of the NATO summit in June 2022.
While Yoon reasserted his confidence during the summit that they could settle their disputes, Kishida has been more circumspect. One positive step did take place in the wake up of Kishida’s resounding victory in the Upper House election. On 19 July, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin had a rare meeting with Kishida during his three day visit to Japan. But Japan will not move further unless South Korea finds a solution to the bitter historical dispute about forced labour during Japan’s long occupation of the peninsula. Japan insists that any solution must be on the basis of the 1965 diplomatic agreement that resolved all historical matters.
There is one further constraint for Korea in its effort to push back against China. China continues to hold some leverage over North Korea’s nuclear and military actions, as it remains one of North Korea’s few security and economic partners.
Given such economic and geopolitical considerations, the Yoon government has rhetorically embraced existing alliances with the United States and Japan without yet committing to a coherent and concrete foreign policy to deepen those alliances. Seoul has enthusiastically joined the IPEF and attended the Quad summit in Tokyo. Yet, to date, it has not enacted any consequential policies; nor has it resolved the conflict between its trade relationship with China and greater strategic alignment with the United States.
The Yoon administration has made clear that it sees the IPEF as a framework for rule-setting in critical areas such as infrastructure and digital governance rather than a tool to diversify its trade away from China. Although US Trade Representative Katherine Tai presents the IPEF as a trade agreement akin to the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement, Yoon does not see it that way. Pursuing a security policy with high economic costs would be unpopular with the public.
Yoon faces the same challenge his predecessor faced — balancing the dual demands of trade relations with China and security alignment with the United States. He will also be restricted by rising nationalism across the region and the ensuing volatility in relations between states. While Yoon has capitalised on anti-China sentiment within South Korea, this can also exacerbate a tense regional environment. His quickly waning popularity amongst the electorate may constrain his foreign policy agenda further.
*About the authors:
- Christina Dasom Song is a Master’s student in Political Science at the University of British Columbia.
- Yves Tiberghien is Professor of Political Science and Konwakai Chair in Japanese Research at the University of British Columbia.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum