US and Japanese officials will breathe a sigh of relief behind closed doors at the victory of conservative Yoon Suk-yeol in the South Korean presidential election.
On the campaign trail, and in articles and interviews with senior aides, Yoon pledged to pursue all the policies that Washington and Tokyo are looking for in the next Korean administration: A tough line toward North Korea; a readiness to take on regional and global roles in coordination with the U.S. and its allies, even at the expense of ties to China; and a desire to drag Korea-Japan relations out of the deep hole they have sunk into.
But welcome as these words may be, the new Korean president will find it much harder to carry this out in practice.
Yoon will inherit an extremely challenging domestic political environment. Even by the normal standards of Korea’s rough and tumble politics, this election campaign was particularly nasty and neither the progressive nor the conservative candidates could overcome negative perceptions.
The extremely narrow election result, with the two candidates separated by less than one percent of the vote, demonstrated how deeply divided Koreans have become, not only by traditional factors such as regional identity, ideology, and class but now also by gender and generation.
The National Assembly will remain under progressive control for the next two years plus, facing off against a Korean president who has enormous constitutional powers. And Yoon, a former prosecutor, and outsider, will also face challenges, as was already clear in the campaign, from within the conservative party.
“Yoon will be better at managing the international community than domestic politics,” predicts Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations. “He could turn out to be exactly what we want to hear, but weak.”
Unfortunately for the new South Korean president, the international situation is particularly problematic. The geostrategic and global economic environment is now fundamentally changed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. No matter what the outcome on the battlefield, we are now plunged into a highly militarized and deeply split world, one where Korea will find it increasingly difficult to avoid hard choices.
South Korean foreign policy, under both conservative and progressive leaders, has always tried to walk a delicate line between the great powers that surround it. While relying on the security alliance with the U.S., the Koreans have cultivated close economic ties to China, and reached out to Russia as well. In large part, that was driven by the goal of using China and Russia to put pressure on North Korea.
In an essay in Foreign Affairs, the leading American policy journal, published in early February, Yoon rejected the focus of the Moon Jae-in government on engagement with North Korea, at the expense of a broader global role. He embraced a strategic alignment with the U.S. that goes beyond dealing with Pyongyang, even advocating some participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad).
While favoring ongoing cooperation with China, Yoon was notably critical of the Moon administration’s eagerness to yield to Chinese pressure. His views reflect growing anti-Chinese feeling in South Korea, showing up in polling results. The shift in public opinion, while perhaps not permanent, may have marginally impacted the election results, argued Stanford’s Gi-Wook Shin.
“The divided electorate is partly the result of Korea’s location, having to take into account China, Japan, Russia and the U.S.,” observes former senior State Department Korea hand David Straub. “The deep and angry division makes, and will continue to make, it very difficult for South Korea to forge a viable and sustainable policy toward the great powers.”
The Ukraine crisis has sharpened those policy choices. While Japan moved surprisingly quickly to join the U.S. and EU sanctions regime against Russia, the Moon administration hesitated at first. Publicly the Biden administration praises Korea for its decision to join forces – the President pointedly gave credit to Korea, along with Japan and other countries, in his State of the Union address. But privately senior officials admit that South Korea was shamed into it.
Relations with China pose a particular conundrum for the traditional Korean policy of ‘The United States for security, China for the economy.’ Yoon has pledged a “comprehensive strategic alliance with Washington,” one that includes coordination on multilateral issues in the Indo-Pacific and on issues like supply chain resilience and trade.
But, warns Snyder, “Yoon hasn’t grappled in public with the likelihood that South Korean relations with China will be impacted by enhanced alignment with the U.S.”
China’s decision to back Russia’s aggression is already leading to threats to impose additional sanctions against Chinese firms that supply Russia with semiconductors and other key technologies. Korea, and Japan, will be pressed to join in those moves.
The North Korea question
Ukraine may also significantly undermine the stated goal of shifting focus away from North Korea. Up until now, the Biden administration has been content to maintain the status quo with Pyongyang.
It has gone out of its way to accommodate the Moon administration’s desire to restart diplomatic engagement with the North, mostly confident that Kim Jong Un is not really interested in talks. The new administration in Seoul would seem to be even more ready to move in step with Washington, as Yoon as made it clear he is not interested in easing pressure on the North.
But Ukraine may shape North Korea’s own readiness to break free from the status quo, well beyond the latest increased tempo of missile testing. The just issued annual threat assessment report of the U.S. intelligence community states that in January, “North Korea began laying the ground for an increase in tensions that could include ICBM or possibly a nuclear test this year.” Satellite photos show evidence of early steps to repair the nuclear test site.
Bruce Klingner, a former U.S. intelligence analyst on Korea, sees hints of preparations for something to coincide with the celebration of the 110th anniversary of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung’s birthday on April 15. Some kind of major escalatory test is coming, he believes, “it’s just a question of when.”
While the testing plans have their own internal rationale and timetable, the North Koreans must be carefully watching Russia’s war and its use of nuclear threats to ward off U.S. intervention.
“The longer-term and more consequential impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine lies with whether Russia’s attempt to erase an international border might stand as a precedent for North Korea, which harbors its own revisionist aspirations regarding the erasure of the armistice line dividing the Korean peninsula,” Scott Snyder wrote this week in Council on Foreign Relations blog post.
The Japan-Korea question
The thorniest issue for a Yoon administration’s foreign policy may be relations with Japan. During the election campaign, Yoon and his aides repeatedly criticized the Moon administration for its mishandling of relations with Japan.
He called for a “rethink” of relations with Tokyo, harkening back to the spirit of the joint declaration issued in 1998 between South Korean leader Kim Dae Jung and Japanese Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo.
The Biden administration has been pounding away at both Seoul and Tokyo to improve relations and to tighten trilateral security coordination. Senior State Department officials express some hope that the advent of the new government in Seoul could provide a window of opportunity to break through the current impasse in ties.
They point to the small progress represented by the recent meeting of Japanese and Korean foreign ministers in Hawaii, under the watchful aegis of the U.S.
Privately, however, U.S. officials express some frustration not only with Korean insistence on dealing with the history issues but also with Japan’s continued actions that have only worsened ties.
The Hawaii meeting, they say, was undermined by Japan’s decision to seek UNESCO status for the Sado Island mines without any admission of the role played by Korean forced labor in those mines.
The idea that trilateral relations can be improved without confronting the problems of wartime history simply ignores the role as well of Korean public opinion, and of Japanese domestic politics.
“With Japan, there is a better chance that relations could be improved under Yoon,” says Klingner, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, “but any Korean is going to set a high bar for Japan to improve relations. Yoon is more likely to focus on current threats but there will always be conditions that Japan will have to fulfill.”
And this puts pressure on Prime Minister Kishida Fumio who seems to be unwilling to break free from more hardline conservatives in the ruling party. Ironically, having a conservative government in power in Seoul, ready to engage, may pose even more of a problem for Japan.
“The Japanese will get a South Korean counterpart but one that also looks like it wants to do a lot more with Japan then the traffic seems to be willing to bear on the Japanese side,” says Snyder. The issues of forced labor and comfort women are not going to go away, he says.
The Biden administration will be watching this closely, especially if the President goes ahead with plans to hold a Quad summit in Japan in late May. There will be a crucial period between the election and the inauguration of the new President on May 10 when American officials will be exploring these issues with Yoon. He will likely send a transition team to Washington led by the next foreign minister and senior officials in the Biden administration are already preparing an agenda for those talks.
Whatever celebration is going on behind closed doors in Washington and Tokyo is not likely to last for very long. The hard work awaits.