[News analysis] N.E. Asian balance shifting as S. Korea places economic, security eggs in US’ basket

Posted on : 2022-05-23 17:16 KST Modified on : 2022-05-23 17:16 KST
The recent summit between Yoon and Biden highlighted a more hostile attitude toward China
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and US President Joe Biden speak with military personnel at the KAOC at Osan Air Base on May 22. (Yoon Woon-sik/The Hankyoreh)
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and US President Joe Biden speak with military personnel at the KAOC at Osan Air Base on May 22. (Yoon Woon-sik/The Hankyoreh)

South Korea and the US agreed through Saturday’s summit to upgrade the two countries’ alliance into a “global comprehensive strategic alliance” that extends beyond the Korean Peninsula. Unlike during last May’s summit with the US, when it strived to maintain a balance between the US and China amid the two countries’ strategic competition, South Korea clearly took the side of Washington while adopting a more hostile attitude towards Beijing in the name of “economic security.”

In terms of their North Korea policy, South Korea and the US focused on strengthening their deterrence against the North by discussing expanding the two countries’ joint military exercises.

Although Seoul and Washington will now cooperate in a broader array of fields for their alliance, South Korea will in turn have to navigate the difficult foreign policy tasks of recalibrating its relationship with China and finding a solution to North Korea’s nuclear program.

One of the core agendas of Saturday’s summit was the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), a US-led economic initiative aimed at holding China in check. The joint statement between South Korea and the US mentioned other details that can all be considered part of the two countries’ anticipated efforts to contain China: the importance of an open internet; a free and open Indo-Pacific; cooperation with the Quad, a security partnership among the US, Japan, India, and Australia; and the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Sue Mi Terry, the director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, even remarked that the agenda centered on China.

While the joint statement between the leaders of South Korea and the US last year provided a safeguard for South Korea through the line, “our respective approaches to the Indo-Pacific region,” so that the country wouldn’t be embroiled in the conflict between the US and China, this year’s joint statement read that “President Yoon also welcomed the US Indo-Pacific Strategy.” In turn, Biden also shared “his support for President Yoon’s initiative to formulate ROK’s own Indo-Pacific strategy framework.”

Regarding this, Yoon’s presidential office announced that it will “start working in earnest to come up with specifics of our own Indo-Pacific strategy.”

The Moon Jae-in administration had pursued the New Southern Policy, through which it sought cooperation with India and ASEAN member states, as coming up with its own Indo-Pacific strategy could have been interpreted as a move aligning itself with the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy that aims to rein in China.

Though this year’s joint statement between the leaders of South Korea and the US directly referenced the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, it didn’t mention China by name.

Kim Sung-han, Yoon’s national security advisor, explained, “Language concerning Taiwan was also included in last May’s [joint statement]. [This year’s joint statement] should be understood as an extension of [last year’s statement that mentioned] ‘the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.’ The issue of stabilizing the Taiwan Strait can be seen as a case directly connected to our national interest. There’s almost no room for China to misunderstand or retaliate.”

Despite not referring to the country by name, this year’s joint statement targeted China with heightened intensity. The Taiwan Strait was imparted new meaning as “an essential element in security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.” The passage about Yoon and Biden “sharing our mutual concerns regarding human rights in the Indo-Pacific region” seems to be a reference to Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

A fierce response is expected from China, as the country has pushed back against remarks such as those in South Korea and the US’ joint statement, labeling them as attempts to interfere in its domestic affairs.

Recalibrating its relationship with China has now become a significant foreign policy challenge for South Korea. Regarding such concerns, the Yoon’s presidential office explained that South Korea joining the IPEF is not a rejection of China, and that the country can keep on managing its ties with Beijing.

This year’s joint statement also didn’t mention the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration or the Singapore Joint Statement between North Korea and the US. This signifies that the pathway to a diplomatic solution to denuclearizing North Korea has significantly narrowed.

Last year’s joint statement included the passage, “We also reaffirm our common belief that diplomacy and dialogue, based on previous inter-Korean and US-DPRK commitments such as the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration and Singapore Joint Statement, are essential to achieve the complete denuclearization and establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.” On this, the Moon administration had explained that the Biden administration had designated the Panmunjom Declaration and the Singapore Joint Statement as the starting point of North Korea-US relations.

Meanwhile, this year’s joint statement was more specific about how South Korea and the US will be responding to North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles. According to the statement, Yoon and Biden agreed to “reactivate the high-level Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group at the earliest date” and to “initiate discussions to expand the scope and scale of combined military exercises” between South Korea and the US.

A more straightforward reference to human rights issues in North Korea was made in this year’s joint statement as well. While last year’s statement said, “We agree to work together to improve the human rights situation in the DPRK,” this year’s statement read that Yoon and Biden “express grave concern over the human rights situation in the DPRK.”

In lieu of more neutral wording, this year’s joint statement referred to the conflict in Ukraine as “Russia’s further aggression against Ukraine,” which can be seen as a move that leaves open the door for South Korea to involve itself with the US and its allies in Europe.

In regard to this, Yoon remarked during a Saturday press conference, during which he mentioned the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and challenges to democracy, that “these challenges can only be tackled when countries sharing the universal values of a liberal democracy and human rights come together.”

“Korea and the US, as global comprehensive strategic allies, stand ready to meet these challenges collectively and shape a rules-based order in that process,” Yoon added.

Having emphasized technological security, South Korea and the US specifically mentioned strengthening their cybersecurity in their joint statement this year. In it, the two countries listed “deterring cyber adversaries,” “cybersecurity of critical infrastructure,” “combating cybercrime and associated money laundering,” and “securing cryptocurrency and blockchain applications” as ways to “deepen ROK-US cooperation on regional and international cyber policy.”

Recently, the US Department of the Treasury announced that it is continuing to make efforts against North Korean hacking groups partaking in money laundering and the theft of cryptocurrency.

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

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

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