South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol, who takes office on Tuesday, is candid about his desire to align his country’s strategic goals more closely with those of the United States – a shift that analysts say will be visible when Mr. Yoon will host President Biden for a summit on May 21 in Seoul.
The inauguration and summit come at a time of heightened tension with North Korea, amid predictions from regional analysts that Pyongyang may seek to disrupt developments by testing more intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or perhaps even a nuclear weapon within the next few days.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears to bristle at the election of Mr Yoon, who has signaled his desire to step back from Seoul’s conciliatory policies of proximity to Pyongyang and Beijing that incumbent South Korean President Moon Jae-in had incurred over the past five years.
Mr Yoon, a 61-year-old career prosecutor who has never held elected office, describes North Korea as the South’s “main enemy”. While he says he will always keep a chance for diplomacy with the Kim regime, Mr Yoon has openly announced his intention to strengthen the southern military in response to the regime’s growing provocations and refusal to join the talks. of denuclearization with Washington or Seoul, which blocked more than two years ago.
Mr Yoon said during the election campaign that he would enter into a stronger alliance with the United States, which already has some 30,000 military personnel stationed in South Korea, the center of its foreign policy during his next five-year term. .
More broadly, Yoon argued that now is the time for South Korea to take a more proactive role as a defender of the democratic and economic freedoms that have helped his country emerge as a regional power.
“In just over half a century, South Korea has undergone a dramatic transformation from a poor, authoritarian country devastated by war to an economically vibrant, culturally rich and resilient democracy,” he said. he writes in a February op-ed published in Foreign Affairs under the headline: “South Korea must step up.”
Mr. Yoon used the op-ed to openly deplore South Korea’s foreign policy under Mr. Moon’s stance toward North Korea, writing, “Dialogue with the North was once a specific means to a specific end: the complete denuclearization of North Korea. Under President Moon Jae-in, however, dialogue with the North has become an end in itself.
“Meanwhile, as US-China tensions rose, South Korea failed to adapt, maintaining an approach of strategic ambiguity without stating a position of principle,” Yoon wrote. “Seoul’s reluctance to take a firm stance on a number of issues that have rocked relations between Washington and Beijing has given the impression that South Korea is leaning toward China and away from its longtime ally, United States.”
Regional dynamics are complicated by the fact that China has over the past decade become the top trading partner of pro-democracy US allies Japan and South Korea. Analysts predict Mr. Yoon will be more outspoken about South Korea’s geopolitical stance.
“Under Yoon, I think we’re going to see South Korea move from a posture of strategic ambiguity to a posture of strategic clarity,” said David Maxwell, a retired U.S. Special Forces colonel and senior research fellow specializing in region with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
“South Korea will always try to walk a tightrope between China and the United States, but what I think you’re going to see from Yoon is a statement that what’s in South Korea’s interest is the protection of the rules-based international order,” Maxwell told The Washington Times. “I don’t think you’re going to see South Korea poking China directly in the eye, but I do think you’re going to see the Yoon government upholding the values of free countries.”
Joseph DeTrani, a former CIA official and longtime diplomatic adviser on US Asia policy, offered a similar perspective.
Japan reacted to Mr. Yoon’s election with optimism. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said relations between Japan and South Korea, which have deteriorated in recent years amid lingering historical mistrust, must improve in the face of increasing North Korean threats and to China’s rise as the dominant autocratic political and economic power in the region.
Tokyo and Seoul are both key Washington allies and closely linked economically and culturally, but their relationship soured after the war during Mr. Moon’s presidency due to unresolved issues related to Japan’s 1910 colonization of the Korean peninsula. to 1945.
North Korea reacted to Mr Yoon’s election by testing a wave of increasingly sophisticated nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in what experts call an attempt to intimidate South Korea’s president-elect and pressure the Biden administration to offer sanctions relief in a stalled diplomatic environment. talks.
China reacted to Mr. Yoon with caution. An editorial in one of the main newspapers of the ruling Chinese Communist Party praised South Korea’s president-elect last month, saying that Beijing “respects South Korea’s independent foreign policy”, but warning that “Seoul does not has no opportunity to play in the -called match between Beijing and Washington.
The op-ed, published by the Global Times, said it was particularly concerned about what it described as indications that Mr Yoon favored an expanded deployment in South Korea of sophisticated US missile defense technology. Beijing said the policy was less about countering North Korean threats and more about containing China.
The problem is the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system. The Global Times editorial said the president-elect’s “senior adviser” indicated that Mr Yoon “supports further deployment of THAAD” in South Korea. “We hope this is a misinterpretation of Yoon’s opinion,” the editorial said.
The US military began deploying THAAD in South Korea before Mr Moon became president in 2017. Mr Moon engaged in efforts to block further deployments of the system after China imposed sanctions economic benefits to South Korea for accepting a first tranche of the system.
Mr Moon’s efforts to block further deployments are widely seen as motivated by a desire to appease the anger of China, South Korea’s main trading partner. At the same time, Chinese officials say the US goal in deploying THAAD was to use the system’s advanced “X-band radar” to potentially neutralize China’s ballistic missile capabilities.
US officials have strongly denied those claims, although the THAAD issue could strengthen the US-South Korea strategic alignment once Mr Yoon takes office.
In particular, the president-elect has indicated that he wants South Korea to be included in the “quadruple” security dialogue with the United States and Asia’s other most powerful democracies: Australia, Japan and India. China has also strongly complained about the dialogue.
The Quad, lined up for more than a decade, gained new momentum during the Trump era. The administration has used the grouping to counter what U.S. officials say are China’s increasingly aggressive economic and military moves in the Indo-Pacific. The Biden administration has taken over the Trump initiative to promote the Quad’s potential.
Regional experts point to an opportunity for the Biden administration to seize Mr. Yoon’s interest in the Quad and any effort to restore relations between South Korea and Japan – potential developments that China seems keen on. anticipate.
DeTrani referred to a visit China’s special representative for Korean Peninsula affairs Liu Xiaoming made to Seoul last week, saying that while it showed that China “wants to work with South Korea on the nuclear issue North Korea, so there is no further escalation”. there are other concerns that Beijing wants to address.
“I think China will reach out to the Yoon government aggressively to make sure the trade relationship continues and that the Yoon government doesn’t go too far to align with the United States, in organizations like the Quad, which Beijing sees as being focused on containing China,” DeTrani said.
Mr Maxwell added that he thinks South Korea under Mr Yoon “will for sure align with the Quad, although I don’t know if the Quad countries will extend an invitation to join or if they do, South Korea will agree.”