Yoon Suk-yeol’s dead-on-arrival diplomacy faces pushback on all fronts

Posted on : 2022-08-12 17:27 KST Modified on : 2022-08-12 17:27 KST
In its rush to repeal Moon Jae-in era policies, the new administration is struggling to maintain stable relations with some of its most important counterparts
Foreign Minister Park Jin of South Korea speaks with his Chinese counterpart Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Aug. 9 in Qingdao, China. (courtesy MOFA)
Foreign Minister Park Jin of South Korea speaks with his Chinese counterpart Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Aug. 9 in Qingdao, China. (courtesy MOFA)

Only three months after taking office, President Yoon Suk-yeol’s foreign policy has already fallen into crisis.

The US has repeatedly tried to involve South Korea in its security and economic encirclement of China. China, on the other hand, has proposed five so-called requests of Seoul — something which would be difficult to imagine in any normal bilateral diplomatic relationship — which included a request that Korea “adhere to independence and freedom from external interference” in its foreign policy.

Meanwhile, Japan has maintained a cold attitude toward South Korean efforts to amicably resolve the issue of monetary compensation for victims of forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule over Korea, which currently remains the biggest issue between the two countries.

Things have also not been moving in the right direction with North Korea, which has repeatedly threatened the use of nuclear weapons and most recently even warned of “strong retaliation,” blaming the South for the COVID-19 outbreak in the North.

The Yoon administration’s foreign policy strategies, which have been mainly focused on erasing any and all traces of Moon Jae-in era policies, have failed to take into consideration the increasingly harsh external environment brought about by the new Cold War. As a result, the new government’s diplomatic policies are in danger of collapsing before even having properly started.

The two main diplomatic principles that the Yoon administration advocated from the start of its term were the rebuilding of the South Korea-US alliance and promoting global cooperation based on liberal democratic values.

These priorities reflected the Yoon administration’s perception that South Korea’s international position or status had fallen and that the ROK-US alliance had been undermined due to the Moon administration’s focus on an end-of-war declaration and its “balanced diplomacy” strategy vis-a-vis the US and China.

Yoon’s diplomacy was kicked off with the US-ROK summit held just 11 days after his inauguration. In this meeting, the two leaders agreed to upgrade the bilateral alliance to a “global comprehensive strategic alliance” while also expanding cooperation beyond security issues and into the tech sector.

Then, in June, Yoon attended the NATO summit in Madrid to show the world how South Korea was standing with the “democratic” camp amidst the brewing new Cold War, which reached new levels after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

After this period of relative calm, the Yoon administration’s diplomatic activities came into full swing starting in July.

On July 18, South Korea’s foreign minister, Park Jin, visited Japan and met with his Japanese counterpart Yoshimasa Hayashi, to whom he promised to try and “come up with a desirable solution” before the liquidation of Japanese assets connected with the forced labor compensation ruling.

Then, regarding the THAAD issue and the “three noes” policy, Park stated at the National Assembly on July 25 that the Yoon administration was “not making any promises or agreements with China” regarding the issue, adding that decisions on issues related to security and sovereignty will be made directly by the South Korean government.

On June 11, during a defense ministers meeting, South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup agreed to resume trilateral military drills with Japan and the US to counter the North Korean nuclear and missile threat.

On July 29, when Lee met with his American counterpart in the US, Seoul and Washington decided to expand their combined military exercises starting from the second half of this year. The exercises had so far been postponed due to the COVID-19 situation.

Regarding economic foreign policy, the Yoon government decided to join the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), aimed at containing China. In addition, it was also decided that South Korea will be participating in the preliminary meeting of Chip 4, a dialogue aimed at diversifying semiconductor supply chains.

As these policies show, Yoon has practically accepted all of Washington’s demands aimed at containing China, including modifying the three noes policy, strengthening trilateral cooperation with the US and Japan, and participating in US efforts to reorganize global supply chains.

China reacted extremely sensitively to such moves.

China, which had been trying to keep the new South Korean administration in check with comments made through state media and press conferences throughout July, eventually let loose a rhetorical bomb.

At the meeting of South Korean and Chinese foreign ministers held Tuesday in China, Foreign Minister Wang Yi of China presented his country’s “five requirements” which urged South Korea to remain on the path of “independence and autonomy” and to rule out “external interference.”

The first time the term “independence and autonomy” (dongnipjaju) was used in the context of Korea-China relations was more than 120 years ago when Japan, after coming out victorious in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, used the phrase “Qing China recognizes definitively the full and complete independence and autonomy of Korea” in Article 1 of the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

Through these demands, China is sending a clear message that it won’t just sit by idly and watch Seoul be dragged into the pro-US camp. In reality, South Korea-China relations are expected to fall apart if the three noes policy is altered.

Meanwhile, Japan is also showing a very cold approach toward the Yoon administration's “conciliatory attitude” to smoothly resolve the “dilemma” of the forced labor compensation ruling.

It seems that the only way to improve bilateral relations that Japan would find acceptable would be for the Korean government to contradict its own Supreme Court ruling and to hold up a white flag and surrender the whole issue.

Besides Japan, North Korea has also not responded at all to the Yoon administration’s so-called “bold plan” aimed at the North.

North Korea, which had already ratcheted up threats by hinting at the “preemptive use of nuclear weapons,” further raised tensions on Thursday with remarks by Kim Yo-jong, the powerful sister of leader Kim Jong-un.

Kim Yo-jong warned of “strong retaliation” against the South, blaming South Korea for the North’s COVID-19 outbreak, according to North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper.

Meanwhile, relations with the US, which have been painstakingly strengthened over many years, have also now become awkward after Yoon refused to meet in person with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during her visit to Korea earlier this month.

The root causes of the crises facing the Yoon administration are largely structural: the deepening of US-China strategic competition and North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons. There are also many dilemmas, such as the Taiwan issue, that South Korea cannot do anything about on its own.

As such, some say that the new administration should have formulated a careful and coordinated response that looked at the strategic interests between the US and China from the get-go, instead of carrying out an abrupt change in South Korea’s foreign policy by rushing to undo all the former government’s foreign policy lines.

“It is clear that, whether it is a binding agreement or not, the three noes [policy] is a matter of maintaining the current form [of bilateral relations] through consultations between the two countries,” one foreign policy and security expert commented.

“To change this, we should have communicated with China in advance to explain our position regarding the changed security environment while seeking China’s understanding,” the expert added.

By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter

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

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