Yoon locks Korea into new Cold War structure, dismissing fears of security risks

Posted on : 2023-08-22 17:07 KST Modified on : 2023-08-22 17:07 KST
South Korea’s national interests diverge considerably from those of the US and Japan, particularly when it comes to China
President Yoon Suk-yeol and members of his Cabinet pledge allegiance to the flag ahead of their meeting on Aug. 21. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol and members of his Cabinet pledge allegiance to the flag ahead of their meeting on Aug. 21. (Yonhap)

Highlighting the outcome of the recent South Korea-US-Japan summit, President Yoon Suk-yeol remarked on Monday that the three countries’ cooperation will “lower the risk of North Korean provocations and strengthen [South Korea’s] security.” Moreover, he said the three countries will work towards forming a comprehensive partnership encompassing not just security but information technology, economics, and cutting-edge technology, which would “reduce the risks faced by our public while expanding opportunities.”

By making such statements, Yoon dismissed the concern that Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo’s agreement to cooperate at a level equivalent to that of a military alliance will add to South Korea’s security risks by putting the country on the front line of conflict with China and increasing the chances of its involvement in disputes in nearby regions, such as the Taiwan Strait.

In his opening statement at Monday’s Cabinet meeting, which was broadcast live, Yoon added, “The Camp David trilateral summit opened up a new age of cooperation for South Korea, the US, and Japan. The more the risk of North Korean provocations increases, the sturdier the three countries’ security cooperation will become.”

Citing the three countries’ agreement to establish an early warning system regarding information on North Korean missiles, regularize trilateral joint military exercises, and surveil and interdict illegal cyber activities by North Korea as major achievements attained in the field of security, Yoon continued, “Along with AUKUS and the Quad, the partnership among South Korea, the US, and Japan will expand and grow by functioning as a powerful cooperative body that enhances peace and prosperity within and without its region.”

Yoon’s spokesperson Lee Do-woon also shared that during his closing statement at the Cabinet meeting, Yoon rebutted claims that trilateral cooperation with the US and Japan will endanger South Korea’s security, saying, “If we become stronger through trilateral cooperation, the risk of outside attacks will decrease, so our security will not be endangered.”

Yoon also noted that “the public will be better able to feel the increased benefits and gains of trilateral cooperation” among South Korea, the US, and Japan, including less uncertainty for corporations thanks to the launch of an early warning system regarding semiconductors, electric vehicle, and battery supply chains, advantages in the competition to acquire emerging technologies in artificial intelligence and quantum computing, and increased resilience and the stabilization of the financial market.

However, Yoon did not mention any concerns or adverse effects the quasi-alliance linking South Korea, the US and Japan may have on South Korea’s national interests. The three countries expressly referred to China as an agent of dangerous and aggressive activities in their joint statements, which shows that their partnership is largely intended to contain and encircle China.

This is a heavy burden for South Korea to shoulder. China has been a key player when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, enabling mediations as well as the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea. Although South Korea’s reliance on exports to China has declined recently, the country’s economic influence remains significant, accounting for 19.6% of South Korea’s total exports in July.

South Korea’s national interests diverge considerably from that of the US, which is betting its all on blockading China for world hegemony, or that of Japan, which is competing with China for hegemony in Asia while claiming territorial sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu Islands in China.

“Pressuring North Korea by involving the US and Japan may cause North Korea to react even more strongly, putting [South Korea] in danger,” commented Kim Dong-yup, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. “Considering this, it is baseless to say cooperation among [South Korea, the US and Japan] may reduce security concerns on the Korean Peninsula.”

Yun Gyong-woo, a professor of Chinese political economy at Kookmin University, shared a similar outlook.

“Japan can earn security benefits from the three countries’ security cooperation by expanding its military role. But for South Korea, the chances of provoking North Korea will increase,” commented Yun. “Economically, there’s still a lot of room for cooperation between South Korea and China, so growing apart from China and focusing on relations with the US and Japan is not desirable for economic diversification.”

Furthermore, the three countries’ “commitment to consult” which stipulates that the three countries cooperate “in an expeditious manner” in the event of “regional challenges, provocations, and threats,” may embroil South Korea in conflict across the Taiwan Strait or territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Discord may arise within South Korea due to the alliance between the US and Japan, which is stronger than that between South Korea and the US. Regarding conflict between South Korea and Japan, the US has historically sided with the latter, disregarding relevant historical context. During his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in January, US President Joe Biden said he welcomed Japan’s plan to acquire enemy base strike capability and double its defense spending, a far cry from the dominant sentiment in South Korea — unease regarding Japan’s potential rearmament. This is why it is difficult to discount the possibility of South Korea being forced to make concessions for the sake of “trilateral cooperation” if the issue of territorial sovereignty over Dokdo or past historical issues come up in the future.

Chung Jae-hung, the director of the Center for Chinese Studies and the Sejong Institute, analyzed that security cooperation among Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo will “take place under the leadership of either the US or Japan,” questioning whether “the order in and around the Korean Peninsula will go according to [South Korea’s] wishes.”

By Bae Ji-hyun, staff reporter; Jang Ye-ji, staff reporter

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

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