Yoon offers no plan to tackle economy, N. Korea except by partnering with US, Japan

Posted on : 2023-04-06 17:40 KST Modified on : 2023-04-06 17:40 KST
As other countries are busy pursuing balanced diplomacy, Yoon is sticking to his guns on three-party cooperation with Japan and the US
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at a policy review meeting held at the Blue House guest house on April 5. (presidential office pool photo)
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at a policy review meeting held at the Blue House guest house on April 5. (presidential office pool photo)

At a policy review meeting on Wednesday, President Yoon Suk-yeol failed to propose a plan to manage the current situation on the Korean Peninsula in a stable way that would establish peace. This is despite rising tensions on the peninsula that continue to exacerbate the situation day by day.

In addition, in the midst of the US-China hegemonic and strategic competition and ongoing supply chain restructuring issues, Yoon put forth no new economic foreign policy strategies to turn around Korea’s trade balance, which has recorded a deficit for 13 consecutive months.

Instead, the president repeatedly reaffirmed his hard-line response to the North Korean nuclear, missile, and human rights issues, saying, “the economy is at the heart of foreign policy,” and “trilateral cooperation between South Korea, the US, and Japan is more important than ever.”

Yoon emphasized that he would deal with these three North Korean threats through “solidarity and cooperation among countries that share universal values.” This is the foundation and philosophy for the foreign policy that Yoon has held since taking office last year.

The problem, however, is the highly complex reality that South Korea is facing. Peace on the Korean Peninsula has been pushed to the brink due to shows of force conducted by both the South and the North. To make matters worse, South Korea has been unable to escape the trend of continued falling exports for six months and a trade deficit for 13 consecutive months.

Nevertheless, the president’s approach to dealing with these issues has not changed.

“The security situation is more serious than ever due to North Korea’s illegal nuclear and missile development and provocations,” Yoon said, saying his administration would respond by “strengthening the alliance’s extended deterrence capabilities” and through “the Korean three-axis system.” Such words reaffirm the basis of the current government’s “peace through strength” approach.

Despite the rhetoric, the approach doesn’t seem to be resonating with Pyongyang.

Unconcerned with Yoon’s calls for a stern response, North Korea fired strategic and tactical ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons more than 10 times last month alone. This shows how much the “Korea risk,” which hurts the image and reliability of South Korea’s economic and financial market internationally, has increased.

Moreover, the UN Security Council, which officially forbids North Korea from launching ballistic missiles, is paralyzed since a consensus can’t be reached on North Korea-related issues due to ongoing discord between the US and China and the US and Russia.

Multiple former Korean government officials agree that deterring North Korea’s nuclear and missile development and establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula “cannot be achieved only through cooperation between South Korea, the US, and Japan,” arguing that cooperation from China and Russia is essential.

However, since the inauguration of the Yoon administration, South Korea’s ties with both China and Russia have become increasingly tense with no breakthrough in sight.

Yoon repeatedly emphasized “South Korea-US-Japan cooperation” in his opening remarks at the meeting on Wednesday but made zero mention of China and Russia. The two countries don’t seem to fall under the category of “value-based solidarity” partnerships hailed by Yoon, but are instead seen as authoritarian states.

Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that China has the most influence over North Korea and is also South Korea’s largest trading partner.

South Korea’s exports to China plunged by 33.4 percent last month year over year after recording a deficit of 4.4 percent last year for the first time since diplomatic ties were established in 1992. Some point out that these figures could be a reflection of the unbalanced diplomacy toward the US and the weakening relationship between South Korea and China since the inauguration of the Yoon Suk-yeol administration.

Due to the war in Ukraine, it is also difficult to substantially improve relations with Russia, despite Moscow having long been a supporter of South Korean efforts to improve inter-Korean relations and the development of domestic defense capabilities and a space program since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1990.

Meanwhile, Yoon also directed the Ministry of Unification to prepare a “psychological warfare” strategy aimed at South Korean citizens to widely spread information on the “reality” of human rights in North Korea. In other words, rather than talking and negotiating with North Korea to stabilize the situation, Yoon is calling for the weaponization of the South Korean people’s consciousness.

Yoon’s emphasis on “freedom-based solidarity” and “value-based diplomacy” as the government\'s foreign policy strategy stands in stark contrast with the much more balanced diplomatic strategies being pursued by other countries trying to maneuver through the current era of US-China competition.

A key example is Saudi Arabia, a long-time “strategic partner” of the US. On March 28, Saudi Arabia made the shocking decision to join the Chinese and Russian-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a dialogue partner. Then, on Sunday, the Saudis announced plans to cut oil production, despite opposition from Washington.

The biggest shock, however, came on March 10 when Saudi Arabia resumed normal diplomatic relations with Iran thanks to Chinese mediation. This is especially significant given the highly hostile relationship between the US and Iran and serves to highlight the sudden shift in Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic strategy.

Also noteworthy is how, on March 28, the United Arab Emirates, which Yoon once called a “brother nation,” received payments for liquefied natural gas exports to China in Chinese yuan, not US dollars, for the first time ever.

As these examples show, many countries are busy pursuing balanced diplomacy and trying to walk a tightrope to find a way to survive and continue developing without having to rely solely on the US.

In fact, despite the US being an advocate for value-based diplomacy, Washington has been hurting South Korea’s semiconductor and automobile industries, which are largely the driving forces of the country’s economy. The US has been doing so through its protectionist trade and industrial policies, as reflected by the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act.

“The Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s value-based diplomacy is naive at best and anachronistic at worst,” a former high-ranking government official said, adding that “thinking about what will help South Korea’s economic development and [create] peace on the Korean Peninsula is an urgent task.”

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

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

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