By Christina Dasom Song and Yves Tiberghien*
South Korea new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, broke with his predecessor’s careful balance between Seoul’s trade relationship with China and the security alliance with the United States. South Korea joined the Quad Summit in May 2022, signaling its desire to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, and recently joined the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).
This change in foreign policy is due to the hardening of public opinion against China since 2017. Still, South Korea’s trade interdependence with China and the costs of closer alignment with Washington and Japan will force Yoon to act with caution.
The roots of this profound shift in public opinion can be traced back to China’s massive economic and political retaliation against South Korea’s 2017 deployment of the US THAAD missile defense system. Since these reprisals, public opinion towards China fell from 56% in 2016 to 34% in 2018.
Another survey from May 2022 show South Koreans look more to the United States and its allies: 58% of South Koreans support the deployment of THAAD, 83% support security cooperation between the United States and South Korea, 86% support Quad membership and 83% support increased trilateral cooperation. between South Korea, the United States and Japan. 70% say South Korea has a nuclear weapons program. These numbers represent a historic shift in public opinion, 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 in the name of security realignment. A SBS Survey 2022 showed that 42% of the public want Yoon to focus on policies that improve economic growth, while only 13% want to prioritize foreign and security policy.
Supply chain issues will also hamper South Korea’s efforts to move away from China, as the economies of these countries are deeply intertwined. 2020 IMF data shows that 32% of South Korean exports went to China (including Hong Kong), compared to 15% to the United States and 5% to Japan. 24% of imports came from China, while only 12% came from the United States and 10% from Japan.
These ratios, unchanged since 2010, show how deeply the two economies are intertwined. A recent investigation shows that South Korean academics and business experts are aware of this reality and favor economic cooperation with China, even though 51% of South Koreans also support US-led containment policies against China.
24% of materials and equipment from South Korea for its semiconductor industry come from China and are difficult to replace. Any disruption to this trade relationship would also depress the US economy as it restsheavily on these microchips.
Yoon’s government doesn’t have much leeway because the National Assembly, which doesn’t have a new election until 2024, is controlled by a large opposition majority. Yoon’s margin of victory in May 2022 presidential election was very narrow. The opposition supports a more cautious approach to foreign policy – denounce Yoon’s pivot to Washington as unpragmatic and ideological.
Japanese reaction to South Korea’s newfound enthusiasm for cooperation has been cautious and will likely remain so for some time. Some see the divide between Japan and South Korea as a possible sticking point that would prevent South Korea from joining the Quadruple and hinder other multilateral endeavors.
South Korea was not invited as a guest at the G7 summit held in Germany in 2022, although it has been in the past. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida also declined a bilateral meeting with President Yoon on the sidelines of the NATO summit in June 2022.
While Yoon reaffirmed his confidence at the summit that they could work out their differences, Kishida was more circumspect. A positive step came following Kishida’s resounding victory in the Upper House elections. On July 19, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin had a rare encounter with Kishida during his three-day visit to Japan. But Japan will go no further unless South Korea finds a solution to the bitter historical dispute over forced labor during Japan’s long occupation of the peninsula. Japan insists that any solution must be based on the 1965 diplomatic agreement which resolved all historical issues.
There is another constraint for Korea in its efforts to fend off China. China continues to hold some influence over North Korea’s nuclear and military actions, as it remains one of North Korea’s few security and economic partners.
Given these 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 these alliances. Seoul enthusiastically joined IPEF and participated in the Quad Summit in Tokyo. Yet, to date, it has not adopted any consistent policy; 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 views the IPEF as a framework for rule-making in critical areas such as infrastructure and digital governance rather than a tool to diversify its trade away from China. Although the U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai presents the IPEF as a trade agreement close to the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement, Yoon does not see it that way. Conducting a security policy with high economic costs would be unpopular with the public.
Yoon faces the same challenge as his predecessor – balancing the dual demands of trade relations with China and security alignment with the United States. It will also be limited by the rise of nationalism in the region and the resulting volatility in relations between states. While Yoon has capitalized on anti-China sentiment in South Korea, it may also exacerbate a tense regional environment. Its quickly declining popularity among the electorate may further restrict its foreign policy agenda.
*About the authors:
- Christina Dasom Song is a master’s student in political science at the University of British Columbia.
- Yves Tiberghien is a professor of political science and holder of the Konwakai Chair in Japanese Research at the University of British Columbia.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum