[Column] Can Yoon steer diplomacy with Russia, China back on track?

Posted on : 2024-04-30 16:26 KST Modified on : 2024-04-30 16:26 KST
Humbled in his domestic policy by an election defeat, Yoon should use this opportunity to reflect on his administration’s diplomacy as well
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea shakes hands with Chinese leader Xi Jinping ahead of their first summit, held in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov. 15, 2022. (courtesy of the presidential office)
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea shakes hands with Chinese leader Xi Jinping ahead of their first summit, held in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov. 15, 2022. (courtesy of the presidential office)

By Jung E-gil, senior international affairs writer

The Yoon administration has been pushing full steam ahead with a foreign policy strategy of alignment with the US and Japan while taking a hostile stance toward China and Russia. Recently, however, some in the administration seem baffled about what exactly South Korea’s strategic position is.

Japan, for its part, has not only refused to make concessions on historical issues, such as the conscription of Koreans into forced labor, but has also intensified its claims to the legitimacy of its colonial rule over the peninsula. On April 19, the Japanese government approved two far-right history textbooks for middle school students, published by Reiwa Shoseki, which contain biased content about Dokdo and the issue of its wartime “comfort women” system of sexual slavery. Two other far-right history textbooks were also approved in March, bringing the total to four such textbooks out of 10 authorized for use.

Furthermore, in a move not unlike the US demanding that the Chinese company TikTok divest its American operations, Japan has pressured a joint venture between Naver and Yahoo Japan to relinquish its management rights over Line, Japan’s most popular messaging app. This move has cast doubt over whether South Korea and Japan are adversaries or partners. 

South Korea did not receive an invitation to this June's Group of Seven summit in Italy. Although such invitations are Italy's prerogative as the host country, the situation may have been different had the US extended its support. Despite the Yoon administration’s aims to establish South Korea as a “global pivotal state” partner to the G7 through a “G7 plus” diplomatic initiative, and its policy of unwavering alignment with the US and the West, the returns on these foreign policy investments have been lackluster.

The strategic partnership between China and Russia has strengthened amidst the war in Ukraine, and Russia has been taking the lead in elevating its strategic ties with North Korea. A turning point came when South Korea indirectly sent artillery shells to Ukraine via the US. Following this, Russia has been actively disrupting the UN Security Council's monitoring of sanctions against North Korea, such as when it vetoed a resolution to extend the mandate of a panel of experts on sanctions against North Korea on March 28. 

Meanwhile, North Korea is experiencing its most favorable international conditions since the collapse of the socialist bloc in the 1990s. No longer seeking improved relations with the US and Japan, it is boldly conducting tests of various nuclear weapons delivery systems amid heightened strategic ties with China and Russia.

It appears that the gravity of these developments is finally being recognized within the Yoon administration. Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul is currently discussing a potential visit to China ahead of a summit between the leaders of South Korea, China and Japan planned for June. 

The fact that Cho is discussing a potential visit to China, despite the worst Sino-South Korean relations in recent memory — sparked by Yoon's comments on Taiwan and warnings from Chinese Ambassador to South Korea Xing Haiming advising countries not to bet against China — stems from a strategic maneuver by China. 

Following last November's US-China summit in San Francisco, Beijing has been gradually improving its relations with the US’ allies in Europe and Australia in order to counter American containment efforts. Any moves by the Yoon administration to leverage China’s attempts at strategic management would be a welcome development.

Currently, the greatest foreign policy risk for South Korea is Russia. In February, Jung Pak, the US senior official for North Korea, expressed greater concern about the Russo-North Korean relationship potentially creating a new strategic environment than about Pyongyang’s military actions. She emphasized that the relationship between Kim Jong-un and Russia has become extremely significant, affecting not only the Indo-Pacific but the whole world as well.

Shin Won-sik, the minister of national defense, known for his typically hard-line statements, made conciliatory remarks toward Russia at an international press conference on March 18, saying that the Bucha massacre “has yet to be conclusively proven to be a fact,” and claiming that translation of his statement saying that he thought Korea should provide full support to Ukraine was “incorrect,” and claiming that Korea has “never directly provided lethal weapons to Ukraine, and this is still our policy.” 

Yoon visited Bucha while in Ukraine last July, and the presidential office described the “Bucha Massacre” as “a symbol of the atrocities committed by the Russian military.” In other words, Shin's comments awkwardly contradicted Yoon’s visit. Moreover, Shin expressed a negative view regarding the involvement of US Forces Korea or a Korean intervention in any crisis in the Taiwan Strait.

On Saturday, national security adviser Chang Ho-jin also showed a conciliatory attitude toward Russia in an interview with KBS, describing the situation as “a kind of balance of mutual concerns where both sides hold leverage over each other.“ He added that both sides are aware of each other’s red lines and suggested that the “restoration [of relations] could be possible after the Ukraine war.”

However, the war in Ukraine shows no signs of ending as Russia consolidates its control over its occupied territories. The war in Gaza is also expected to drag on until the US presidential elections despite international criticism of US-backed Israel. Meanwhile, Iran's influence in the Middle East is growing. It has become difficult for Washington to focus on the Indo-Pacific region as US military and diplomatic efforts become further tied up in Ukraine and the Middle East.

It is fortunate that the Yoon administration at least appears embarrassed by what it has been doing thus far. South Korea may be called upon to get involved in the Taiwan Strait situation at the upcoming trilateral summit with the United States and Japan scheduled to be held during the July NATO summit in Washington. However, I hope that Yoon, who, following his defeat in the recent general elections, is reportedly pushing for domestic reforms, will attempt to seek balance in his foreign policy as well.

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

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