The problem with Yoon’s religious fervor for “values” over national interest in foreign affairs

Posted on : 2023-09-11 17:00 KST Modified on : 2023-09-11 17:00 KST
Out of Syngman Rhee, Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, Yoon’s “values-based diplomacy” bears the most resemblance to that of Chun’s “trilateral security system” with Japan and the US
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at an event marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul on Sept. 1. (courtesy of the presidential office)
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at an event marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul on Sept. 1. (courtesy of the presidential office)

Recent surveys assessing South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s job performance have turned up one particularly striking result: Foreign affairs and national security have been the biggest factors cited in both positive and negative ratings.

Results from a regular survey published by Yonhap News on Wednesday showed “foreign affairs and national security” as the chief reason given by both the 51.2% of respondents who positively rated Yoon’s performance and 28.2% of those who rated it negatively. (See the National Election Survey Deliberation Commission website for more details.)

This trend appears closely tied to the fact that Yoon has been focusing less on domestic political and economic issues than on the realm of foreign affairs and national security, and especially on beefing up South Korea’s cooperation with the US and Japan.

He has been hard at work with activities that include attending a NATO summit in July 2022 and the funeral of the Queen Elizabeth II in September of that year, delivering a keynote speech before the UN General Assembly the same month, visiting the US as a guest of the state this past April, and attending a trilateral summit with the US and Japan at Camp David last month.

How does the South Korean public feel about Yoon’s foreign affairs and national security policies — and about the stronger trilateral cooperation with Washington and Tokyo? Yonhap posed those questions in its survey.

When asked whether they thought the outcome of the trilateral summit would boost security on the Korean Peninsula, it was nearly an even split: 45.1% of respondents predicted it would, while 44.8% said it would not.

President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at a joint press conference with US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida after their trilateral summit at Camp David in Maryland, US, on Aug. 18. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at a joint press conference with US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida after their trilateral summit at Camp David in Maryland, US, on Aug. 18. (Yonhap)
Yoon disconnected from public perceptions

It seems rather strange. Common sense would seem to suggest that stronger trilateral cooperation should clearly be a boon for national security. So why did so many South Korean respondents believe that it would not?

It could just be that Yoon’s diplomatic achievements haven’t been getting a fair shake because the ratings of his job performance are poor. But I think the reason lies somewhere else — namely, in the large disconnect in foreign affairs and national security attitudes between the president and many South Koreans.

While visiting the Korea National Diplomatic Academy for its 60th anniversary on Sept. 1, Yoon made some explosive remarks — as explosive as his comments at a dinner party with People Power Party lawmakers four days earlier, where he stressed the importance of “ideology over practicality.”

“Our freedom is constantly under threat. Even now, there are communist totalitarian forces, their opportunistic followers, and anti-state forces who are inciting anti-Japanese sentiments while misleadingly presenting the South Korea-US-Japan cooperative system achieved at Camp David as something that will expose the Republic of Korea and its public to danger,” he said in his speech at the academy.

“We must work together with countries that share the universal values of liberty, human rights, and law and order and with countries that respect the norm-based international order to build a solid network of collaboration in terms of national security, the economy, information and advanced technology. Any ambiguity in our diplomatic stance signifies an absence of values and philosophy,” he went on.

“When our diplomacy does not afford a sense of predictability to others, we cannot establish trust or uphold our national interest. The Korea National Diplomatic Academy should perform the role of a compass so that our diplomats practice diplomacy that is based on clarity in our values, historical perspective, and our view of the nation,” the president said in his speech.

Simply put, Yoon was stressing the need for solid cooperation with the US and Japan and for a victory in the battle against “communist totalitarian forces.” His message was that values are more important than the national interest.

This is staggering. If he meant what he said, we would need to rewrite the textbooks on international politics.

Yoon seems to be under the impression that he has rescued South Korea through his approach of “values-oriented diplomacy” and trilateral cooperation with the US and Japan. Upon his return from the US, he declared at an Aug. 21 Cabinet meeting that the trilateral summit at Camp David had “ushered in a new era of South Korea-US-Japan cooperation.”

He also said that “trilateral cooperation and the pursuit of shared interests are universal and just rather than something exclusive to us alone.” He explained that this approach would “contribute to liberty, peace, and prosperity for all the people of the Indo-Pacific region and all humankind,” adding that this “aligns with the shared interests of our three countries.” These sound less like the remarks of a politician than those of a religious leader.

Chun Doo-hwan exits the courthouse on March 11, 2019, after appearing in court on charges of defaming the dead in relation to the bloody suppression of a 1980 popular uprising in Gwangju. (pool photo)
Chun Doo-hwan exits the courthouse on March 11, 2019, after appearing in court on charges of defaming the dead in relation to the bloody suppression of a 1980 popular uprising in Gwangju. (pool photo)
Even Rhee and Park administrations had conflicts with US and Japan

The South Korean public’s views on foreign affairs and national security are much more flexible and realistic than Yoon’s. They reflect the wisdom gleaned from the grim experience of losing Korea to the power battle surrounding the peninsula in the late 19th century.

The US effectively sold Korea out to Japan with the Taft-Katsura Agreement of 1905. At the Yalta Conference in 1945, the US, UK and Soviet Union discussed a trusteeship for the Korean Peninsula, which resulted in its division into South and North.

After Korea’s liberation, there was a folk song that enjoyed popularity for a time. Its lyrics went, “Don’t trust the Americans / Don’t be fooled by the Soviets / Japan is rising / Koreans, beware.” These succinct lyrics reflect the horse sense of a public that understood the cold reality of international politics: no one is a friend forever, and no one is an enemy forever.

South Korea’s relationship with its powerful neighbors was the single biggest concern for past presidents. For the most part, they were willing to lock horns with those neighbors in order to protect Korea’s national interest.

This was true even under dictators like Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee. They too were presidents of the Republic of Korea.

Rhee was criticized for appointing Japanese collaborators as officials and for dismantling the Special Investigation Committee of Anti-National Activities. But his identity was that of an independence activist who had fought against imperial Japan, and he adhered to an ultra-hard line on Japan throughout his time in power.

Rhee was also on very poor terms with US Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. This was the result of him refusing to do as Washington told. It was around this time that the US started demanding military cooperation from South Korea and Japan.

Early on in the Korean War, the US proposed bringing in Japanese troops. Rhee was vehemently opposed, insisting that this would lead to South Koreans “battling the Japanese army first before the communist troops.” He also promulgated the “Syngman Rhee line” to guard the waters around Dokdo and seized Japanese fishing boats that crossed it.

During a South Korea-US summit in 1954, Eisenhower made strong demands for Seoul to establish diplomatic ties with Tokyo. Rhee once again dug in his heels. At one point, the US even developed plans to oust him as president.

After coming to power through a coup, Park Chung-hee established diplomatic relations with Japan in 1965 in order to obtain the necessary funds for economic development. At home, a strong wave of public opposition had arisen the year before.

To appease the incensed public, Park had statues of anti-Japanese fighters like Ahn Jung-geun, Son Byeong-hui, Kim Koo, Ahn Chang-ho, Yun Bong-gil, and Kim Jwa-jin placed in greenspaces along the way from Seoul’s Namdaemun Gate to the former Japanese Government-General building.

A statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin was erected in Gwanghwamun in 1968, just after the establishment of diplomatic relations with Japan. Kim Jong-sung’s recent column for OhmyNews went into the specifics of Park Chung-hee’s move to erect statues of independence fighters.

Park Chung-hee’s relations with the US were rocky, with human rights abuses and the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea being the main areas of contention.

Park Chung-hee ordered Park Tong-sun to lobby US politicians, which led to the Koreagate scandal. To prepare for the possibility of US troops being withdrawn from South Korea, Park Chung-hee made commitments to building up Korea’s ability to autonomously defend itself, even attempting to develop nuclear weapons.

The US wasn’t happy with the South Korean president, and the feelings were reciprocated. It’s been reported that Park Chung-hee often used choice phrases like “US bastards” to refer to the suits in Washington.

A stroke of genius or flinging open a Pandora’s box?

Chun Doo-hwan was different from Rhee and Park in that he maintained very good relationships with the US.

He actively supported Ronald Reagan’s hard-line policy against the Soviet Union, endorsed Washington’s deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Korea, ratcheted up the tenor of the joint Team Spirit military exercises, and greatly increased spending on stationing US troops in South Korea.

Relations with Japan were also amicable: Chun maintained a close relationship with then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, and in 1983 he received US$4 billion in “security cooperation funds” from Japan.

“Korea occupied a position similar to that of an outpost of the Cold War between the East and the West, as it geographically faced the two main pillars of the communist bloc: the Soviet Union and China,” Chun wrote in his memoirs. “Any strategy to achieve national development while ensuring Korea’s survival and safety had to be based on this fact. Strengthening cooperative relations with our allies had to be a top foreign policy priority.”

He added that “strengthening cooperation with Japan, a Pacific nation alongside the US that is part of a joint security cooperation system against communist countries, would strengthen the ‘trilateral security system’ and contribute significantly to maintaining peace in Northeast Asia as well as deterring North Korean provocations.”

Yoon’s approach to Korea’s relationships with the US and Japan is very different from the approaches of Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee, but bears quite a resemblance to that of Chun Doo-hwan.

Chun established a “trilateral security system” and Yoon has established a “trilateral cooperation system” between South Korea, the US, and Japan. What could be behind this coincidence: similarities in the situation of Korea in these two eras, or a shared ideology between the two leaders?

I shall leave you, reader, with a few final questions.

Will the comprehensive trilateral cooperation system established at the Camp David summit be a proverbial stroke of genius that will further strengthen Korea’s national security and contribute significantly to securing South Korea’s future growth and creating high-quality, high-paying jobs, as Yoon claims?

Or, as some learned intellectuals fear, will it pit the US-Japan-South Korea and China-Russia-North Korea relationships in East Asia against each other and dramatically exacerbate tensions between North and South Korea on the Korean Peninsula?

There are predictions that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will meet President Vladimir Putin in Russia and offer conventional weapons in exchange for satellites or nuclear-powered submarine technology.

Some believe that there is the possibility that North Korea, China and Russia will hold joint military exercises in response to trilateral exercises that have been held by South Korea, the US and Japan.

It’s hard not to wonder if Yoon has flippantly flung open a Pandora’s box. I certainly pray that this isn’t the case.

By Seong Han-yong, senior politics writer

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

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