Yoon puts pedal to metal on “values diplomacy,” leaving questions about ties with China

Posted on : 2023-05-23 16:55 KST Modified on : 2023-05-23 16:55 KST
The shift from Korea’s strategic ambiguity goes counter to the recent trend of “de-risking” with China
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea (right) speaks with President Joe Biden of the US and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan on May 21 on the sidelines of the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea (right) speaks with President Joe Biden of the US and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan on May 21 on the sidelines of the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima. (Yonhap)

South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol used his participation in the recent Group of Seven summit to advance his “values diplomacy” initiative. Through several bilateral meetings and a trilateral summit with the leaders of the United States and Japan, Yoon stressed the importance of liberal democracy, putting South Korea closer to the US.

At the same time, the South Korean president also seemed to increase the distance between his administration and China, prompting speculation as to whether he\'s deviating from the international trend of “de-risking” — as opposed to “decoupling” — from China.

The presidential office highlighted the “new level” of cooperation pledged during the trilateral summit with US and Japanese leaders held on Sunday.

“This was an invitation to qualitatively enhance the level of security cooperation among the three nations and to advance previously overlooked cooperation agendas, such as economic supply chains and cultural exchanges,” Kim Tae-hyo, the first deputy director of national security, told South Korean news outlet YTN on Monday. As per US President Joe Biden\'s suggestion, the three leaders plan to reconvene in Washington to further discuss concrete measures to bolster trilateral cooperation.

However, this process has led to a widening gap in South Korea\'s relationship with China.

Although Yoon did not directly mention China at any point during the G7 summit, he indirectly targeted the country by expressing opposition to any alteration of the status quo by force and by emphasizing the necessity to strengthen strategies for the Indo-Pacific region. This marks a departure from the strategic ambiguity that South Korea has traditionally maintained between the US and China.

This shift is somewhat at odds with the recent trend among European Union member states, such as France and Germany, who are moving toward “de-risking” rather than “decoupling” from China.

Professor Kim Jung from the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, a specialist in comparative politics, informed Hankyoreh that “the greatest cost that may arise from setting South Korea’s course toward increased cooperation with the US and Japan is the issue of how to define relations with China.”

He added, “While there has been a policy shift, the ability of the South Korean government to navigate obstacles along this path will now be put to the test.”

In essence, South Korea needs to formulate a strategy for its relations with China, a nation whose cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue is critical and on which South Korea has significant trade dependence, although this dependence has recently been diminishing.

Nonetheless, the Yoon’s office insists there are no issues in South Korea’s relations with China, emphasizing the close communication shared by the two countries.

In his interview with YTN, Kim Tae-hyo pointed out that South Korea and China “are maintaining an active exchange of personnel and proposing subjects for discussion.” He also predicted that “an opportune time to discuss a potential trilateral summit between South Korea, China, and Japan may arise if the pending bilateral issues between these countries are more proactively addressed.”

Furthermore, diplomatic officials from South Korea and China convened for a director general-level meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul on Monday.

Meanwhile, some critics assert that Yoon is sidestepping his duties regarding South Korea’s relationship with Japan due to his emphasis on trilateral cooperation.

In a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Sunday, Yoon neglected once more to address the historical disputes between the two nations, as well as the issue of Japan dumping radioactively contaminated water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Kim Joon-hyung, a professor of international politics at Handong University, criticized this, saying, “Trilateral cooperation between South Korea, the US, and Japan is solidifying into an identity.”

“In light of South Korea’s diplomatic strategy toward Japan, which overlooks critical matters like the forced labor issue or ‘comfort women’ agreement issue, this summit has reaffirmed the unequal playing field [between the two sides],” he said.

Also on Monday, Yoon convened a meeting at the presidential office in Seoul with Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, and Charles Michel, president of the European Council. In the joint press conference that followed, Yoon emphasized, “Over the past 60 years, South Korea and the European Union have nurtured an essential partnership, expanding their collaboration across various fields such as politics, economics, and the global agenda, as partners who share a dedication to universal values of freedom, human rights, and the rule of law.”

The president subsequently announced several initiatives, which included enhancing partnerships in the green technology, health, and digital sectors; initiating a new ministerial-level strategic dialogue; fostering cooperation on regional and international issues; promoting economic security through cooperation on building supply chains; and expanding the foundation for exchanges in science and technology.

By Kim Mi-na, staff reporter

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

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