Yoon eagerly takes up baton of Biden’s black-and-white diplomacy

Posted on : 2023-03-31 17:05 KST Modified on : 2023-03-31 17:05 KST
The president seems determined to yoke South Korea’s strategic worldview to that of the US
President Joe Biden of the US speaks to leaders from across the world virtually during the second Summit for Democracy held on March 29. (Reuters/Yonhap)
President Joe Biden of the US speaks to leaders from across the world virtually during the second Summit for Democracy held on March 29. (Reuters/Yonhap)

The South Korean government has decided to host the third Summit for Democracy, one of the signature initiatives of US President Joe Biden. That shows how Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has been standing in the vanguard of the US-led value-oriented diplomacy.

While expanding democracy — the ostensible objective of these efforts — is a noble goal, such actions could have a negative impact on inter-Korean relations while also straining ties with China and other countries that stand on the other side.

“We are announcing that the Republic of Korea will host a future, third Summit,” the South Korean and US governments said in a joint statement on Wednesday.

John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the US National Security Council, said in a briefing Wednesday that the US, which has hosted the first and second Summit for Democracy, will be happy to pass the baton to South Korea for the third summit.

“The Republic of Korea’s democratic institutions are a beacon of strength in the Indo-Pacific and demonstrate to the world that democracy fosters the conditions needed to cultivate continued security and prosperity,” the White House said in the joint statement while explaining why the US had chosen Korea to host the third summit.

In other words, South Korea — being a key American ally that surmounted the trials of colonization and war to achieve both democracy and economic growth in the Indo-Pacific region, where the US and China are locked in a fierce strategic rivalry — is a textbook example of the superiority of American democracy.

“Korea will seek a common vision for democracy and prosperity to pay back the international community for the ways it has helped us achieve liberal democracy and prosperity,” Yoon said Thursday in an opening address at a meeting of ministers from the Indo-Pacific region in the second Summit for Democracy.

But there are concerns that if Korea becomes the standard-bearer for the value-oriented diplomacy advocated by the US, it stands to lose more than it will gain.

The summit was originally organized because of Biden’s black-and-white view that the world stands at an “inflection point” between democracy and autocracy. Since Biden’s inauguration in January 2021, the US has been mobilizing allies and partners around the world in the rivalry between the forces of democracy, led by the US, and the forces of autocracy, represented by China and Russia.

In terms of foreign policy and national security, that campaign has included boosting the Quad (short for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), launching the AUKUS security deal with the UK and Australia and strengthening trilateral cooperation with South Korea and Japan. In economic terms, it has included launching the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and reorganizing supply chains to encourage the relocation of semiconductor plants around the world to the US.

But along the way, Russia’s growing strategic isolation led to the war in Ukraine, and China and Russia have stepped up strategic cooperation. In the Middle East, the “energy alliance” between the US and Saudi Arabia has been greatly damaged, and efforts to restore the Iran nuclear deal have gone nowhere.

There has also been increasing activity by India and other countries in the Global South that are uninterested in siding with either the US or China.

Significantly, putting undue stress on democracy would thwart dialogue with North Korea, in which South Korea has a vital interest.

“Democracy, which has been a driving force beyond human freedom and prosperity for over the past century, is facing grave challenges,” Yoon remarked in his speech on Wednesday.

The South Korean president seemed determined in the speech to yoke South Korea’s strategic worldview to that of the US, despite the subtle differences that inevitably arise between them. But in so doing, he willingly forfeits the “strategic autonomy” that’s needed to manage Seoul’s relationships with Beijing and Pyongyang.

If Korea stands in the front row chanting slogans, it may well win plaudits from the United States, but it will also be wide open to any rocks thrown by the other side.

By Kim Mi-na, staff reporter; Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter

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

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