Does Yoon know that when he speaks, he’s speaking as South Korea’s president?

Posted on : 2023-04-25 17:30 KST Modified on : 2023-04-25 17:30 KST
Recent remarks by the president on the possibility of lethal aid to Ukraine and the “global” nature of the Taiwan issue have invited criticism from Russia and China ahead of a summit with the US
President Yoon Suk-yeol sits in the presidential office in Yongsan, Seoul, during his interview with Reuters on April 18. (Reuters/Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol sits in the presidential office in Yongsan, Seoul, during his interview with Reuters on April 18. (Reuters/Yonhap)

Things aren’t looking good for the upcoming South Korea-US summit, thanks in part to President Yoon Suk-yeol revealing the heart of the current administration’s “value-based” diplomacy in an interview with Reuters.

Yoon’s pointed statements aimed at China and Russia during intensifying US-China and US-Russia conflicts were a far cry from the “strategic ambiguity” that he had maintained thus far.

There is nothing wrong with clarity. Ambiguity is a privilege reserved for the powerful in an unforgiving international order. Some things are deeply concerning, though. China and Russia are sure to react strongly. Is Korea prepared to follow up?

“Strategic ambiguity” remains despite pro-US rhetoric

Foreign diplomacy and national security experts say there are four key issues at stake in Wednesday’s South Korea-US summit to be held in Washington

First, there are the allegations that US intelligence agencies spied on the South Korean presidential office. While the US tip-toed around giving a direct answer, the South Korean administration jumped to argue that the allegations “couldn’t be true.”

The claim that the alleged spying would constitute a violation of sovereignty, and the rebuttal that such spying is routine procedure for every intelligence agency in the world aside, it will be interesting to see how the US will respond to this issue at the summit.

Second, there is the follow-up response to the US’ protectionist legislation, such as the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act. The key to this issue lies in how hard the Yoon administration will try to minimize the damage to South Korean companies, and the extent to which this will be met with a good-faith response from the US.

While expectations were not very high to begin with, a list of electric vehicles eligible for tax credits that consisted of only American models put out by the US Treasury and Department of Commerce didn’t help. There is a growing expectation that the US’ response will amount to talking nice while saying its hands are tied by Congress.

Third, there is the question of further action in response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. As with the Moon Jae-in administration, there is no disagreement between South Korea and the US on this issue. The North Korean threat is South Korea’s most pressing security issue.

While in South Korea public opinion has gone so far as to argue for independent nuclear armament, the realistic alternative is to strengthen what’s known as “extended deterrence.” In this regard, there is not much more that the US can do.

The level of military pressure on North Korea by the US and South Korea has already reached its limit. The only cards left in the US’ hand are the deployment of strategic military assets on a full-time basis and the revitalization of bilateral consultative meetings at all levels.

If the first three issues require a “response” from the US to South Korea, the fourth concerns the “bill” the US will stick South Korea with regarding those issues. While Yoon has been overtly pro-US since his inauguration, he has maintained the same “strategic ambiguity” in his policies on Russia and China, much like his predecessor. This is because there are vital national interests at stake, both economic (China) and national security (Russia) related.

This is why Yoon’s interview with Reuters came as such a shock.

“We’ll provide North Korea with our latest new weapons”

The issue comes down to three key points. In the context of the North Korean threat and inter-Korean relations, Yoon’s remarks reveal his perception of South Korea providing lethal weapons aid to Ukraine and cross-strait relations.

First, Yoon’s remarks on North Korea policy reiterated the position he’s built over the past year. On the issue of expanding trilateral cooperation (South Korea-US-Japan) in regard to extended deterrence, Yoon did provide an opinion — one of de facto agreement. This is merely an extension of the policies he’s put out there so far. The problem has to do with the other two key issues.

“If there is a situation the international community cannot condone, such as any large-scale attack on civilians, massacre or serious violation of the laws of war, it might be difficult for us to insist only on humanitarian or financial support,” Yoon said in response to a question about the possibility of providing lethal weapons to Ukraine.

\"I believe there won\'t be limitations to the extent of the support to defend and restore a country that\'s been illegally invaded both under international and domestic law. However, considering our relationship with the parties engaged in the war and developments in the battlefield, we will take the most appropriate measures,” he added.

Reuters pointed out that Yoon’s government is “exploring how to help defend and rebuild Ukraine, just as South Korea received international assistance during the 1950-53 Korean War,” and that this “was the first time that Seoul suggested a willingness to provide weapons to Ukraine, more than a year after ruling out the possibility of lethal aid.”

During the 2003 Iraq War, conservatives also cited “participation in post-war reconstruction and recovery” as rationale for deployment.

Russia responded quickly and strongly, with TASS reporting on Wednesday that spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that “any weapons supplies would imply a certain involvement in this conflict,” referring to the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Dmitry Medvedev, a close confidant of Vladimir Putin, who served as acting president from 2008 to 2012 when Putin was unable to run due to term limits, wrote on his Telegram account that “new parties” had emerged to “help our enemies.”

“I wonder what the inhabitants of this country will say when they see the latest samples of Russian weapons from their closest neighbors — our partners from the DPRK [Democratic People\'s Republic of Korea]?” he went on in a blatant warning to Seoul.

The day after that received no coverage

\"After all, these tensions occurred because of the attempts to change the status quo by force, and we together with the international community absolutely oppose such a change.\"

Yoon’s statement regarding South Korea’s diplomatic policy with China was qualitatively different from his previous statements. In the joint statement with the US produced by the May 2022 summit, it was stated that the two presidents “reiterate[d] the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait as an essential element in security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.”

President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks with President Joe Biden of the US on Nov. 12, 2022, on the sidelines of the ASEAN Plus Three summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (courtesy of the presidential office)
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks with President Joe Biden of the US on Nov. 12, 2022, on the sidelines of the ASEAN Plus Three summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (courtesy of the presidential office)

In the May 2021 summit between Moon Jae-in and Biden, the statement was phrased as follows: “President Biden and President Moon emphasize the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

In 2021, China did employ harsh wording — such as “playing with fire” — to criticize the two countries, but did not resort to diplomatic means to retaliate. In 2022, China “lodged solemn representations” — that is, it formally protested. The difference between the two statements is in the inclusion of the phrase “key to the security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Yoon has now taken one step further, calling the question of Taiwan “not simply an issue between China and Taiwan” but “a global issue,\" comparing it with the issue of North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. What China sees as an “internal issue,” Yoon regards as “international.” This has given the US and other neighboring countries leeway to intervene.

China did not respond immediately. The day of the Reuters report, China’s state media did not cover the issue. This is extremely unusual, given that the Taiwan issue is one of the most sensitive issues in Chinese foreign policy. The next afternoon, on Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin made a belated official statement at a regular briefing.

“There is but one China in the world and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory,” Wang said. “The Taiwan question is purely an internal affair at the core of China’s core interests. Its resolution is a matter for the Chinese, who do not need to be told what should or should not be done.”

“The tensions in recent years in the Taiwan Strait are fundamentally caused by ‘Taiwan independence’ separatists in Taiwan who are engaged in separatist activities with the support and connivance of foreign forces,” the spokesperson said. “To keep the Taiwan Strait and the rest of the region peaceful and stable, it is essential to unequivocally oppose ‘Taiwan independence’ and foreign interference.”

Wang followed up that statement by saying, “The DPRK and the ROK [Republic of Korea] are both sovereign countries with UN membership. The issue of the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan question are completely different in nature, cause and history and cannot be mentioned in the same breath.”

“We hope the ROK side will follow the spirit of the China-ROK Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations, stay committed to the one-China principle, and prudently handle matters related to the Taiwan question,” he went on.

Wang appeared to be adjusting the tenor of response with a reiteration of Beijing’s basic stance on Taiwan. Conversely, China’s response appears certain to shift if the same content is included in the joint statement to be announced Wednesday by the South Korean and US leaders.

Relations with China and Russia secondary to alliance diplomacy

There is no way of knowing whether Yoon’s remarks in his Reuters interview were off the cuff or prepared in advance. The important question is what he actually thinks. If the remarks do reflect his views, that makes them his policy orientation.

This raises the question: With such a high-level political event coming up in the upcoming summit, was it really necessary to make remarks that gave the impression of accepting all the other side’s demands ahead of time, even if that meant facing objections from the other countries involved?

“The formation of ‘blocs’ has reached a degree where people are talking about a ‘new Cold War,’” said one foreign affairs and national security expert and career diplomat.

“We need to walk a proverbial tightrope, acting in a prudent and sophisticated way. It may also be inevitable in a sense that we would lean the US’ way as the North Korean nuclear and missile threats mount,” they continued.

“But we can’t afford to treat our diplomacy with China and Russia as something to be addressed secondarily after our alliance diplomacy. We can’t achieve any of South Korea’s diplomatic objectives — peace and stability on the peninsula, denuclearization and prosperity, or reunification — without the participation and support of China and Russia,” they explained.

“Even if we remain closely tied to the US, we need to establish bearings and an orientation that are integrated and coordinated with our China and Russia policies. There’s been no sign of that so far in the Yoon Suk-yeol administration.”

By Jung In-hwan, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to []

Related stories

Most viewed articles