[News analysis] Yoon ditches balanced diplomacy for US bandwagon

Posted on : 2022-11-15 16:42 KST Modified on : 2022-11-15 16:42 KST
The latest moves from Seoul show a shift toward Korea’s integration into a US-led missile defense system, which is more than likely to rile China
(Left to right) President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea, President Joe Biden of the US and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan speak during a trilateral summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 13. (Yonhap)
(Left to right) President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea, President Joe Biden of the US and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan speak during a trilateral summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 13. (Yonhap)

Through the joint statement adopted Sunday by the leaders of the US, South Korea, and Japan, the three countries made clear their plans to keep not just North Korea, but also China and Russia, in check. As a result, there is a possibility that the geopolitical composition of Northeast Asia may begin to change.

The “Phnom Penh Statement on Trilateral Partnership for the Indo-Pacific” is comprehensive in its content, covering not just security but also the economy, climate and the environment, and also supply chains and data distribution.

White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One on his way to Bali, Indonesia, on Sunday that the statement “is really unprecedented in its breadth and in the scope of issues that it covers,” adding that it “shows the extent to which that trilateral cooperation has really deepened under President Biden’s leadership.”

In fact, the statement included concerns of all three countries. President Yoon Suk-yeol, for example, gained support from the US and Japanese leaders in condemning North Korea’s ballistic missile launches, strengthening extended deterrence, and for his “audacious initiative” aimed at denuclearization of North Korea.

The three leaders also agreed to an immediate resolution of both US and Japanese concerns, including the US government's efforts at the blockade targeting China and the denouncement of Russia and the Japanese government's long-standing concern regarding the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea.

In particular, the three ratcheted up their rhetoric for China. In the joint statement, the three leaders decisively said that they “strongly oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in waters of the Indo-Pacific, including through unlawful maritime claims, militarization of reclaimed features, and coercive activities.”

The leaders also reiterated their firm commitment to “freedom of navigation and overflight” in the region and “the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

In putting out this statement, South Korea has further raised its level of participation in the US and Japan-led pressure campaign targeting China. Given this, the possibility of South Korea becoming dragged into an unexpected situation in Taiwan or a territorial dispute in the South China Sea cannot be ruled out.

Experts pointed out that the burdens and risks that the Yoon Suk-yeol administration, which has actively sought to stick closely with the US and Japan, will have to manage have also increased.

“Under the Lee Myung-bak administration, the Korea-US strategic alliance was made up of three pillars: security, economy, and ideology. But through the Phnom Penh Statement, this has expanded to include Japan as well,” Lee Hye-jung, a professor at Chung-Ang University, pointed out.

”Unlike in the past, the 'law of diminishing marginal utility' is also at work in the Korea-US alliance as there are more things to yield than to get from the US in military as well as economic terms,” Lee explained.

“Nevertheless, President Yoon said he would definitely stand on the US' side in the strategic competition between Washington and Beijing,” Lee added.

Moon Jang-ryul, a former professor at Korea National Defense University, agreed with this assessment. “The leaders of the three countries seem to have taken a ‘path of no return’ by expressing a strong response to China and Russia in the form of a joint statement,” he said.

Moon added that “as a result, cooperation between North Korea, China, and Russia will inevitably be strengthened,” adding that “if these two triangles are solidified, it could sever inter-Korean relations for good."

Missile intel-sharing hints at Korean integration into US-led missile defense system

In addition, given that the three leaders agreed to share warning information concerning North Korean missiles in real time, some point out that South Korea has effectively been incorporated into the missile defense (MD) system that is being pushed by the US.

South Korea, the US, and Japan are expected to share information on North Korean missiles in real time through Link 16, a tactical data linking system used by the three countries. Developed by the US, Link 16 is a communication tool that links tactical information to surveillance, reconnaissance, command, control and strike systems.

Since 2016, South Korea and the US have been exchanging information on North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles in real time by linking the Korea Interface Control Cell (KICC) and USFK’s Joint Interface Control Cell (JICC) at Osan Base in Gyeonggi Province through Link 16. The US and Japan also share real-time military information through Link 16 while the KICC is also connected to the USFK through Link 16.

Through the tool, the three countries have been able to put up a united front, detecting North Korean missile targets and even confirming coordinates.

This is the background of criticism that South Korea has effectively been incorporated into the US-led missile defense system,

Deputy Defense Ministry spokesperson Moon Hong-shik responded to such criticisms in a regular briefing on Monday, calling such concerns of Seoul being incorporated into a US-led missile defense system “reaching interpretations” due to “the fact that, from development to deployment, the missile systems must correspond in order to even begin talks of [Korea’s participation in a] missile defense system.”

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter; Jung In-hwan, staff reporter

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

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