Yoon’s foreign policy agenda prioritizes ties with US, sows seeds of conflict with N. Korea, China

Posted on : 2022-03-14 17:40 KST Modified on : 2022-03-14 17:40 KST
The Hankyoreh has compiled the president-elect’s foreign policy and national security pledges and asked experts to comment on them
President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol speaks with Charge d’Affaires ad interim Christopher Del Corso of the US Embassy in Korea at a meeting held at the People Power Party’s headquarters in Yeouido, Seoul, on March 11. (pool photo)
President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol speaks with Charge d’Affaires ad interim Christopher Del Corso of the US Embassy in Korea at a meeting held at the People Power Party’s headquarters in Yeouido, Seoul, on March 11. (pool photo)

A conservative takeover of the Blue House is forewarning a paradigm shift in the policy direction maintained in South Korea by the Moon Jae-in administration. The Hankyoreh has compiled some of the changes to be anticipated in various fields such as diplomacy and security, energy, real estate, the prosecution service, gender, medical welfare, labor and education based on the promises and statements President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol made on the campaign trail.

Yoon’s foreign and security policy pledges boil down to the slogan, “Self-assured foreign policy; robust security.” During his nationwide address on Thursday, Yoon shared the framework that will be the basis of his foreign and security policies. Those were: firmly responding to North Korea’s illegal activities by strictly adhering to principles; rebuilding and strengthening the strategic alliance between South Korea and the US; building a relationship of mutual respect with China; and establishing a future-oriented relationship with Japan.

The promises and statements Yoon has made regarding his foreign and security policy platform can be summed up as “Anything but Moon.” Throughout his campaign, Yoon didn’t shy away from his critical attitude towards the Korean Peninsula peace process, the foreign and security policy keynote of the Moon administration.

Alliance with the US

Yoon wrote in the US magazine Foreign Affairs in February regarding the Moon administration’s foreign and security policies, “The incumbent South Korean administration has been guided by a parochial and shortsighted conception of the national interest [. . .] Most importantly, the US-South Korean alliance has drifted owing to differences between the two countries on North Korea policy.” Even on March 5, just four days out from the election, Yoon took to Facebook and wrote that the Moon administration’s Korean Peninsula peace process failed “because the North Korea policies it laid down were without principle and disregarded the South Korea-US alliance.”

In summary, it seems that Yoon aims to prioritize the alliance between South Korea and the US through his foreign and security policies. While announcing his foreign and security policy platform on Jan. 24, Yoon stressed that he would “rebuild the South Korea-US alliance that has collapsed over the past five years.”

Regarding this, Korea University professor and general architect of Yoon’s foreign and security policy platform Kim Sung-han explained, “[South Korea] failed to do what it should have rightfully done as an ally. That’s why we’ve been saying we will ‘rebuild’ the alliance between South Korea and the US, rather than simply restore it.”

Even in his Friday meeting with Christopher Del Corso, charge d’affaires at the US Embassy in South Korea, Yoon said, “The US is the sole allied nation of South Korea. Because we promised to protect each other’s security even through blood, we will once again settle into a relationship befitting such [an alliance].”

“Future-oriented” ties with Japan

Yoon’s emphasis on “rebuilding” the South Korea-US alliance will inevitably necessitate changes to South Korea’s relationship with Japan. In its “Indo-Pacific Strategy” report released in February, the Joe Biden administration listed the enhancement of South Korea-Japan relations as one of its action plans for the next one to two years. In his phone call with Yoon on Thursday, US President Joe Biden directly referenced the importance of trilateral cooperation among South Korea, the US and Japan, stressing that the three countries should coordinate closely regarding their policy on North Korea.

Having criticized via his campaign platform that the Moon administration “abandoned South Korea-Japan relations on a worsening path obstructed by a preoccupation with past historical problems without any policy efforts to resolve pending issues,” Yoon reaffirmed his goal of establishing future-oriented South Korea-Japan relations during his nationwide address on Thursday.

Of note, however, is that the expression “future-oriented South Korea-Japan relations” has also been used by South Korean President Moon Jae-in time and time again. Because the crux of the conflict between South Korea and Japan lies on the latter’s attitude that the former should be the one to supply the solution to the two countries’ past historical problems, unless this underlying cause is resolved, the situation doesn’t look promising for the Yoon Suk-yeol administration.

Retooling the “complex relationship with Beijing”

South Korea-China relations is another challenge faced by Yoon. In February, Yoon wrote in Foreign Affairs that “Seoul must also retool its complex relationship with Beijing,” slamming the Moon administration for surrendering to China’s economic sanctions and displaying an overly submissive attitude toward China.

Additionally, Yoon wrote that “rather than passively adapting and reacting to the changing international environment, South Korea should actively promote a free, open, and inclusive order in the Indo-Pacific,” adding that “Seoul should willingly participate in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue working groups,” referring to the security partnership among the US, Japan, India, and Australia.

During a meeting with Ambassador Xing Haiming of the Chinese Embassy in South Korea on Friday, Yoon said, “Our people are counting on China to satisfy the role of responsible world country.” Yoon’s use of the adjective “responsible” to describe China is noteworthy, as the word has appeared in US critiques of China in regard to the latter’s actions on climate change and cybersecurity.

Director of Ajou University’s US-China Policy Institute Kim Heung-kyu commented, “The biggest challenge for the incoming South Korean administration will be South Korea-China relations,” adding, “Though strengthening the South Korea-US alliance is something everyone can agree on, policies that depend on an emotional appeal will result in an exorbitant cost for us once realized.”

Inter-Korean relations

Though one of Yoon’s key security policy pledges was to normalize inter-Korean relations and foster common prosperity for both countries, a closer look at the specifics shows that Yoon’s approach is markedly different from that of the Moon administration. The Moon administration’s Korean Peninsula peace process was founded on the premise of a virtuous cycle through which progress in inter-Korean relations would lead to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and vice versa. In contrast, Yoon’s North Korea and denuclearization policy rests upon the principle of reciprocity.

In his Foreign Affairs article, Yoon argued that “relations between the two Koreas have been distorted by Pyongyang’s provocations and Seoul’s subservient reactions.” He then suggested that “South Korea should put forward a road map for the denuclearization of the North that clearly sets parameters for negotiations and establishes corresponding measures for each step Pyongyang takes toward the goal,” adding that “if the North Korean leadership makes the bold decision to denuclearize, the South will offer economic support and discuss cooperation projects, including an inter-Korean joint development plan to guide economic relations in a post-denuclearization era.”

But the approach of demanding denuclearization upfront before improving inter-Korean relations is all too similar to the Lee Myung-bak administration’s failed North Korea policy known as “Vision 3000: Denuclearization and Openness.”

Not only that, but Yoon has also been setting a very high entry barrier for corresponding measures. In a Foreign Affairs contribution, he wrote, “Pyongyang’s sincere and complete declaration of its existing nuclear programs would be the first step milestone in restoring trust.”

But one of the big reasons denuclearization talks with North Korea have failed to achieve progress since the 1990s has been the difference in views on “complete declaration” of nuclear programs. In effect, Yoon made a hurdle Pyongyang hasn’t cleared in three decades into the very first step in rebuilding trust.

Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute, said, “Rather than following in the footsteps of the Lee Myung-bak administration, the incoming administration should take a lesson from the Nordpolitik and North Korea policies of the Roh Tae-woo administration, which brought Pyongyang to the negotiation table by pursuing bipartisan North Korean policies based on active dialogue with the opposition while improving relations with Beijing and Moscow.”

Hwang Soo-young, the director of the Center for Peace and Disarmament at the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, said, “These ideas of maintaining sanctions against the North until denuclearization takes place and only signing a peace agreement when denuclearization is reached are a repeat of same unrealistic policies that failed in the past with their focus on sanctions and pressure.”

“They’re unlikely to bring any real progress with peace on the Korean Peninsula,” she predicted.

She went on to say, “The first step in building trust would be for President-elect Yoon to declare his intent to respect and implement the Panmunjom Declaration and the September 19 [2018] military agreement, just as the Biden administration in the US respected existing agreements with Pyongyang after its inauguration last year.”

National security and military policies

Yoon’s military and national security policies come across as a comprehensive vision for relations with the US, Japan, China and North Korea. He has pledged additional deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, anti-missile system, normalization of joint military exercises with the US, and the characterization of North Korea as the South’s “enemy” in defense white papers.

Given the repercussions that THAAD deployment led to during the Park Geun-hye administration, additional deployment is expected to become a major variable in relations with Beijing if it comes to pass.

Joint military exercises with the US, which are held twice a year, have been carried out by computer simulation since the June 2018 North Korea-US summit in Singapore, without the large-scale mobilization of troops or equipment.

But the exercises scheduled for this August could end up taking place with the same large-scale live simulations as past years. Some observers have voiced concerns that relations on the Korean Peninsula could be in for a deep chill if this leads to a response in kind from North Korea — which has referred to the joint exercises and sanctions as representative examples of “hostile policy.”

With Yoon stating in his national security pledges in January that he planned to list North Korea’s military as the South’s “main enemy” in defense white papers, the 2022 paper that comes out early next year is very likely to include that characterization of the North Korean regime and armed forces.

Expert opinions on Yoon’s policy direction

Experts advised Yoon to reconsider his past foreign affairs and national security pledges, while looking beyond wishful thinking and emotionally based judgments.

“When you’re a candidate, you can make pledges that appeal to partisan feelings and the support base, but once you’ve been elected you’re in a position of being responsible for the country’s destiny,” said Kim Heung-kyu, the Ajou University professor.

Kim called on Yoon to “listen to capable experts of both progressive and conservative walks when it comes to foreign affairs and national security issues while marshaling the transition committee’s capabilities to develop the foreign affairs and national security policies into more than just one-off election pledges.”

Cheong, from the Sejong Institute, said, “If President-elect Yoon wants to proceed in a direction of unity and governing based on cooperation, his transition committee is going to need to boldly accept the criticisms that were made about his pledges during the election campaign.”

As an example, he suggested an approach where Yoon selects a minister of unification who is a rational moderate expert recommended by the Democratic Party.

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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