Jan 4, 2023 5 min read
Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center
Bruce Klingner specializes in Korean and Japanese affairs as the senior research fellow for Northeast Asia.South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (R) shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris (L) during their meeting on September 29, 2022 in Seoul, South Korea.South Korean Presidential Office / Getty Images
In its first-ever Indo-Pacific strategy, Seoul committed to strengthening a regional rules-based order to protect freedom, democracy, and human rights.
Yoon has clearly aligned South Korea with the United States and other like-minded democracies in opposing China’s coercive tactics to intimidate Asian nations.
Yoon’s actions will need to match his bold statements. The real test will come when Beijing attempts to pressure Seoul.
In its first-ever Indo-Pacific strategy, Seoul committed to strengthening a regional rules-based order to protect freedom, democracy, and human rights. The document expands on President Yoon Suk Yeol’s earlier pledges to assume greater responsibility for defending democratic principles and is consistent with the U.S. and Japanese national security strategies. Seoul emphasized the danger of North Korea’s expanding nuclear and missile arsenal but again refrained from clearly delineating the Chinese threat to the degree that Washington and Tokyo have.
The Yoon administration has clearly staked out a larger and more assertive South Korean posture for combating challenges that threaten a free, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific. Seoul incorporated economic and societal challenges, along with security threats, into its comprehensive Indo-Pacific strategy. Defining itself as a “Global Pivotal State,” Yoon’s South Korea vowed to bolster its bilateral and minilateral partnerships to further common interests such as maritime security, non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, maritime security, cyber security, and public health.
Seoul declared North Korea as a “serious threat to peace and stability,” not only to South Korea and the Indo-Pacific but globally as well. Yoon’s strategy affirmed the necessity for complete North Korean denuclearization, rejecting calls by some experts to abandon the UN Security Council requirement in favor of partial arms control objectives. South Korea correctly argues for strong international efforts to fully implement required UN sanctions while combating sanctions evasions.
Yoon affirmed his “audacious initiative” approach to Pyongyang, in which extensive economic benefits would be provided to the regime in return for negotiated incremental steps toward denuclearization. The approach, consistent with that of the United States and Japan, dismisses calls for prematurely providing concessions in the vain hope that doing so will induce Pyongyang to resume dialogue.
The document’s references to non-proliferation may be an indirect rebuff to growing South Korean public support for an indigenous nuclear weapons program. The Yoon administration, like its predecessors, rejects the proposal, as well as redeploying U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula and a nuclear-sharing arrangement, but advocacy for all three options has become more strident in recent months. Advocates point to the escalating North Korean nuclear and missile threat as well as growing uncertainty of the viability of the U.S. extended deterrence guarantee.
Commendably, the Indo-Pacific strategy continues President Yoon’s efforts to improve relations with Japan as a means of enhancing regional cooperation against shared security threats and regional challenges. Yoon seeks a “forward-looking partnership,” despite contentious historic issues and sovereignty disputes that have strained bilateral relations. Highlighting shared values of liberal democracy and human rights, Seoul vowed continued diplomatic efforts to restore trust.
The inauguration of President Yoon brought about a positive sea change in South Korea’s approach to Japan. South Korean-Japanese relations had plummeted when then-President Moon Jae-in withdrew from a bilateral agreement to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the comfort women agreement (a euphemism for South Korean women forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese 1910-45 occupation), threatened to abrogate a bilateral military intelligence sharing agreement, and abstained from resolving other disputed issues.
Under Yoon, the two countries have resumed bilateral diplomatic efforts to improve relations as well as restored trilateral military exercises with the United States after a five-year hiatus. The Yoon Indo-Pacific strategy emphasized that trilateral cooperation is essential to address not only the North Korea threat but also supply chain disruptions, cyber-security, climate change, health crisis, and other emerging regional and global issues.
The strategy’s discussion of the extensive Chinese threats to the region is both encouraging and disappointing. In its pages and in other comments, Yoon has clearly aligned South Korea with the United States and other like-minded democracies in opposing China’s coercive tactics to intimidate Asian nations.
The Yoon administration has adopted a more coordinated, multilateral approach toward regional threats and challenges than his predecessor. By not being overly fixated on improving relations with North Korea, President Yoon will be less beholden to China. South Korea will likely adopt a firmer approach toward countering Chinese actions and no longer preemptively self-limit its policies out of concern for potential reactions by Beijing.
Yoon has pledged to implement a principled, values-based foreign policy that would not acquiesce to Chinese and North Korean threats nor subjugate South Korean national security interests. Yoon emphasized that a strengthened “comprehensive strategic alliance” with the United States would form the foundation for Seoul’s outreach to Beijing and Pyongyang.
But Yoon’s Indo-Pacific strategy only blandly describes a “combination of challenges,” including rising uncertainties in the security environment, democratic backsliding, and geopolitical competition. Despite escalating global concerns about the impact of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine on China’s ambitions to subjugate Taiwan, there was only muted discussion. There was only a singular mention of Taiwan in the context of reaffirming the “importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” and criticism of Moscow was restrained.
The only direct mention of China is in positive terms as a “key partner for achieving prosperity and peace in the Indo-Pacific region.” The document advises that Seoul will seek to nurture a more mature relationship based on mutual respect and reciprocity.”
Through successive administrations, South Korea pursued a risk-averse hedging policy in which it balanced its relations with its security guarantor (the United States) and its largest trading partner (China). South Korean officials privately commented that Seoul’s “heart was in Washington, but its wallet was in Beijing.” South Korea was fearful of triggering Chinese economic retaliation as Beijing had done against Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Taiwan.
Criticizing Chinese actions but not identifying Beijing as the culprit is consistent with recent U.S.-South Korean joint presidential statements under both the Moon and Yoon administrations. By contrast, the U.S.-Japan joint statements of 2021 and 2022 more assertively and directly criticize China for its transgressions. Similarly, Japan’s national security strategy released in mid-December more boldly censured China.
Seoul indicated that subsequent ministry documents will provide more detailed implementation plans for the new Indo-Pacific strategy. In doing so, the Yoon administration should more clearly delineate measures to confront and combat aggressive Chinese policies in southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands.
Yoon’s Indo-Pacific strategy commendably vows to reinforce South Korean efforts to enhance regional maritime security and maritime domain awareness while building a mechanism for multilateral security cooperation through the East Asia Summit.
As South Korea works toward assuming a larger regional security role, the good news is that it will be building on an existing foundation. The South Korean military has been involved in regional security relationships, capacity-building efforts, and military exercises, though at low levels, particularly when compared with other regional militaries.
Since his inauguration, Yoon Suk Yeol has energized U.S.–South Korean relations and generated optimism amongst U.S. officials and Korea watchers that Seoul will adopt a pragmatic, principled approach toward authoritarian regimes. Yoon appears likely to take greater steps than his predecessors to expand South Korea’s role in the Indo–Pacific region and counter Chinese attempts to coerce Southeast Asian and Pacific Island nations.
But Yoon will likely do so in a low-key manner not depicting these steps as “anti-China” and making it difficult to discern whether his policies are truly different from his predecessors. Yoon’s actions will need to match his bold statements. The real test will come when Beijing attempts to pressure Seoul into acquiescing to Chinese demands. But the recently released Indo-Pacific strategy is another positive step forward for South Korea to assume a more influential and pivotal role commensurate with its diplomatic, security, and economic strengths