Behind Yoon's risky diplomacy are advisors more concerned with ideology than national interest

Posted on : 2023-06-04 09:24 KST Modified on : 2023-06-04 11:44 KST
Yoon’s background makes him a layperson when it comes to diplomacy — making his advisors in Kim Tae-hyo and Lee Sang-woo all the more influential
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea heads to his seat for the summit with Japan held at the Seoul presidential office on May 7. Behind him are Cho Tae-yong, national security advisor; Kim Tae-hyo, the principal deputy national security advisor; and Choi Sang-mok, presidential secretary for economic affairs. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea heads to his seat for the summit with Japan held at the Seoul presidential office on May 7. Behind him are Cho Tae-yong, national security advisor; Kim Tae-hyo, the principal deputy national security advisor; and Choi Sang-mok, presidential secretary for economic affairs. (Yonhap)

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s job approval rating has been climbing. The trend in recent findings from opinion surveys on his performance has been a rise in positive ratings and a decrease in negative ones.

While the negative ratings remain high, the shift in popular sentiments seems to be infusing Yoon with newfound confidence.

This was palpable in the opening remarks he made at a Cabinet meeting on May 23, which were broadcast live. While his voice was hoarse and he repeatedly had to clear his throat, he appeared confident through and through as he boasted of the achievements released at the recent Group of Seven summit.

When asked for their reasons for positively rating the president’s job performance, respondents have overwhelmingly cited his foreign affairs activities. At the same time, foreign affairs have also been the predominant factor for those rating his performance negatively.

What’s going on here? The reason has to do with how fully Yoon has committed himself to foreign affairs.

It makes sense that a president would focus their energies on diplomatic activities. While the economy is an area where the private sector plays a large role, foreign affairs are an area where the president can call the shots more or less completely.

With the election of Yoon as president from an ostensibly conservative political party, it was expected early on that South Korea was in for a major change in the course of its foreign affairs policies. It’s understandable that he would work actively to strengthen the alliance with the US and improve ties with Japan.

Yoon’s diplomatic focus: “Freedom and the rule of law”

At the same time, there is also a fatal flaw in Yoon’s perspective on foreign affairs. While foreign affairs policies are an area that should be approached entirely from a pragmatic perspective focusing on the national interest, Yoon seems to be approaching it instead from an excessively far-right ideological point-of-view.

Indeed, he has gone so far as to insist that his right-wing ideological perspective in fact represents “universal values” and “international norms.” That problem was fully evident in his opening remarks from the May 23 Cabinet meeting:

“All the foreign affairs activities that we pursue should be rooted in the universal values and international norms of freedom and the rule of law and grounded in the spirit of the Republic of Korea’s Constitution.”

“There are certain tasks that must be pursued for a global South Korea to stand tall within a fast-changing global order. To begin with, we need to reestablish liberal democracy and the rule of law, while reorganizing all aspects of our society to normalize the state system from its state of collapse.”

“It will be difficult to overcome the current polycrisis of geopolitical conflict, uncertainty in the global economy, disruptions to supply chains and the climate and environmental crisis through anti-market policies buried in ideology.”

Can you parse what this means? Personally, I have no idea. In particular, I’m having trouble wrapping my head around the claim that liberty and the rule of law are universal values and international norms. If one must talk of universal values and international norms, it should be about ideas such as human life, human rights, peace and democracy.

The freedom and rule of law that Yoon speaks of are extremely ideological words. Former Presidents Rhee Syngman, Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan spent decades suppressing democracy and wielding dictatorship in the name of liberty and the rule of law. These are also the two terms most frequently used by the far right today.

The fact that Yoon treats freedom and the rule of law as fundamental values is understandable to some degree. He was heavily influenced by John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” during his school days, and has lived his entire life as an officer of the law after graduating from law school.

But what could be the reason behind suddenly extending the concepts of liberty and the rule of law to the stage of international politics? Does it not seem a little strange? After spending his entire life as a prosecutor, Yoon is naturally a layperson in the fields of diplomacy and national security.

There are two people who can account for this. The first is within the current Korean administration, while the other is outside, and they are deeply connected with one another.

The first is Kim Tae-hyo, 56, who serves as first deputy minister of the Office of National Security and secretary general of the National Security Council. Kim is one of Yoon’s key influences in the fields of diplomacy and national security. This is the view consistently reported by presidential office staff, People Power Party lawmakers, and civil servants from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Unification and Ministry of National Defense.

Kim Tae-hyo, the principal deputy national security advisor, gives a briefing ahead of Yoon’s state visit to the US at the presidential office in Seoul on April 20. (Yonhap)
Kim Tae-hyo, the principal deputy national security advisor, gives a briefing ahead of Yoon’s state visit to the US at the presidential office in Seoul on April 20. (Yonhap)

A former professor at Sungkyunkwan University, Kim served as Blue House secretary of national security strategy and external strategy planning aide, a senior position, for four years and five months during the Lee Myung-bak administration. He was heavily influential in diplomacy and national security. Kim is also believed to have formulated Lee’s “Denuclearization, Opening and 3000” policy on North Korea.

Although he was pushed out during the controversy over closed-room negotiations on the General Security of Military Information Agreement with Japan in 2012, Kim returned to the center of the government after a 10-year hiatus as a member of the Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s transition team. Kim was a neighbor of Yoon’s when the president lived in the Acro Vista apartment complex in the Seocho neighborhood of Seoul.

A rumor even circulated during the early stages of Yoon’s term that Kim Tae-hyo was responsible for all diplomacy and national security appointments. This came about due to the fact that Minister of Defense Lee Jong-sup, Ambassador to the US Cho Hyun-dong, Second Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Lee Do-hoon and Second Vice Minister of the Office of National Security Lim Jong-deuk all had prior experience working alongside Kim as Blue House administrative officers under the Lee Myung-bak presidency.

The second influential figure is Lee Sang-woo, 85, president of the New Asia Research Institute. Lee is a veteran who has worked as a professor at Sogang University and president of Hallym University, serving as an academic advisor to numerous conservative politicians in the fields of diplomacy and national security. Lee chaired the Ministry of Defense’s military reform committee under President Lee Myung-bak, and became chairperson of the commission for national security review that directly advised the president after the ROKS Cheonan sinking.

The New Asia Research Institute is a body corporate established in 1993. In the academic world it is known by the abbreviation NARI. The director of NARI is Hyun In-taek, who served as minister of unification under the Park Geun-hye administration, while the vice-director is Kim Tae-hyo.

Kim studied under Lee Sang-woo at Sogang University, and the pair have maintained a lifelong special relationship to the extent that those who know them intimately claim “both academically and ideologically, Kim is Lee’s star pupil.”

A greeting by Lee on NARI’s official website states, “NARI is a gathering of people interested in the work of building a new order in Asia, which will establish itself with a new look in the new century. This is the place for building a new era of peace in Asia that guarantees the survival and prosperity of Korea.”

Have any clue what this means? I certainly don’t. Thankfully, the October 2022 issue of Monthly Chosun featured an interview with Lee. The headline reads “Ideology and Systems are the Core of the 21st-century Cold War.” After belatedly coming across this article, I was shocked to discover that it appears to be the source of a significant portion of the “values-based diplomacy” that Yoon has emphasized.

“More than military strength, ideology and systems make up the core of the 21st-century Cold War. [It is the issue of] whether this force seeks to consolidate, as a universal value, a liberal democratic republic which treats the guarantee of human rights and liberty as supreme values. In other words, ideology will become the alliance’s standard rather than national interest in a narrow sense.”

“Some say Korea should try to play both sides while keeping one eye on China, but that would be suicide. The way forward is to make our identity clear as a liberal democracy.”

“We should seek a relationship of strategic cooperation with China, or in other words, relations in which we only work together to the extent necessary when we need each other. However, we should draw a sharp line to make it clear we side with the US because our system is different from that of China.”

“Diplomacy is a tool for preserving a nation’s identity. To abandon our identity for the sake of diplomacy would be putting the cart before the horse. Preserving the Republic of Korea as a liberal democracy is our national goal and a constitutional value. Everything else should be adjusted in order to uphold this. In diplomacy, we should highlight the KORUS alliance and clearly demonstrate the fact that we are a liberal democracy. There is no room for choice.”

Lee’s opinion is almost word-for-word the rhetoric coming from Yoon in recent times. And that’s not all. Lee came out with a book titled “Heroes Who Built and Nurtured the Republic of Korea” in August last year, which included Kim Kwan-jin, the former hard-line minister of national defense. Yoon recently appointed Kim as a member of the Defense Innovation Board. Is this not somewhat uncanny?

Reflecting on all this, we can conjecture that Lee’s thoughts on diplomacy and international politics may have been conveyed verbatim to Yoon through Kim, or at least had a very strong influence.

“Values diplomacy” looks increasingly worrisome

This is concerning. Lee’s views are misguided. I believe the entire premise of viewing the 21st century as another Cold War era is wrong. Viewing diplomacy as a tool for preserving a nation’s identity also appears to be a kind of sophistry.

Lee’s assertion shares a remarkable likeness to the confrontational logic of America’s “neocons” — the figures who dubbed Iraq, Iran, and North Korea the “axis of evil” and started the Iraq War under the pretext of eradicating weapons of mass destruction. If Yoon continues to follow Lee’s radical line, there’s a chance he’ll put Korea and its people in grave danger.

What are we to do in this situation? Recently, even some of Korea’s more conservative newspapers have begun to run pieces expressing concerns about the president’s “values diplomacy,” which leans heavily in favor of the US and Japan.

On May 24, the Joongang Ilbo ran an editorial titled “Managing the China risk,” in which it argued that dealing with liabilities in Korea’s relationship with China should be Yoon’s next move after tightening trilateral security with the US and Japan. The piece even ran with the subheads: “G7 is critical of China but chooses ‘de-risking’ not ‘decoupling,’” and “Yoon should seek dialogue with China as he did with the US, Japan.” These are all spot-on.

I’d like to see Yoon strike a nice balance without being swayed by the likes of Lee or Kim. That’s the only path for Korea and its people to be safe, after all, don’t you think?

By Seong Han-yong, senior editorial writer

Please direct questions or comments to []

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles