► The Yoon administration’s new Indo-Pacific strategy liberates the Republic of Korea from a slavish devotion to North Korea policy. By pivoting from the peninsula to the Indo-Pacific, South Korea stakes a powerful claim as a global pivotal state.
► While Seoul is among the last of America’s allies to publish an Indo-Pacific vision, there is a great deal to admire in South Korea’s inaugural regional plan.
► The fact that this South Korean rebalance policy is generated more by hope than fear is also welcome. After all, the leap from the peninsula to the region is possible not just because South Koreans are confident about their successes but also because they refuse to be bullied by their northern neighbors.
► South Korea has announced its intention to play a more influential role in supporting a free, secure, and prosperous Indo-Pacific. In so doing, it will find tremendous support from the United States and like-minded states.
The Yoon administration’s new Indo-Pacific strategy liberates the Republic of Korea from a slavish devotion to North Korea policy. By pivoting from the peninsula to the Indo-Pacific, South Korea stakes a powerful claim as a global pivotal state.
More than six years after Japan spelled out its vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, the United States, India, ASEAN, the European Union, France, Britain, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, among others, have issued regional strategies adopting the Indo-Pacific as a policy framework. While Seoul is among the last of America’s allies to publish an Indo-Pacific vision, there is a great deal to admire in South Korea’s inaugural regional plan.
One agreeable aspect of the strategy is its parsimony. Government authors pack a lot into 16 pages.
The strategy begins by explaining the significance of the Indo-Pacific region for the Korean people. The vast swath of earth comprising two-thirds of the world’s population accounts for 62% of the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and half of the international maritime transit routes and trade. Further, the Indo-Pacific is a hub of strategic industries and innovation that will determine wealth and power throughout the twenty-first century. These are salient facts for a country such as South Korea, which derives about 85% of its GDP from foreign exchange.
Next, the strategy briefly outlines a simple vision predicated on commonsense principles of enlightened behavior: freedom, peace, and prosperity hinge on ensuring inclusiveness, building trust, and insisting on reciprocity. This tidy preamble sets the reader up for the document's main course: where and how the ROK government intends to advance such a harmonious outlook.
About a quarter of the document scopes out six Indo-Pacific subregions, with a seventh section dedicated to regional cooperation with European and Latin American states. And a full half of the strategy document is devoted to enumerating nine core lines of effort, with a promise of a future implementation plan.
Understating the Challenge
As briefly described below, the description of the Indo-Pacific and Seoul’s lines of effort echoes others’ attempts at crafting written regional strategies. But the tone and essential optimism of the document will no doubt be seized upon by critics across the political spectrum. The fundamental issue is the characterization of China. On the surface, casual readers might be misled by South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy’s rare reference to China as a partner rather than a pacing threat, chief menace, disruptive actor, or systemic rival. By this reckoning, the South Koreans make the Canadians look like hardened realists in comparison.
The document’s subtext suggests a less benign interpretation of China and one very much in keeping with strategic thinking in Washington, Tokyo, Canberra, Delhi, Ottawa, and most European capitals. Without hyping the threat, Seoul makes it clear that it is concerned with “rising geopolitical competition,” a “deepening arms race” with a lack of transparency, challenges to a free and fair economic order and stable supply chain, and infringements on fundamental freedoms, the rule of law and human rights. North Korea and, at one point, Russia is singled out for malign behavior. Still, the reader is left to connect the dots between the rising sources of disorder and the particular actor that is most worrisome. South Korea did not become the world’s tenth-largest economy by alienating major trading partners. The document reiterates current policy: Seoul seeks a mature relationship with China based on respect and reciprocity.
Even if South Korea had directly called out China as a principal challenge to regional and global order, the strategy document would remain a unique narrative that some Americans might liken to a Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story. Indeed, the document states that “The ROK is the only country to rise up from the world’s poorest country to become an OECD donor country.” Throughout the paper, South Korea is declared “an Indo-Pacific nation,” a “strong” and “model” democracy, an “IT power that is leading the digital transformation,” a “global leader in science and technology innovation,” and at least five times, a “global pivotal state.”
By allowing South Korean foreign policy to soar beyond the North Korean problem, the strategy expands “the geographical scope and breadth of cooperation.” It culminates in a declaration of newfound purpose: “As a Global Pivotal State, the ROK is willing and able to contribute more and take on a bigger role.” Washington should applaud that commitment to burden- and power-sharing. The fact that this South Korean rebalance policy is generated more by hope than fear is also welcome. After all, the leap from the peninsula to the region is possible not just because South Koreans are confident about their successes but also because they refuse to be bullied by their northern neighbors. To borrow the title of Victor Cha’s classic study, North Korea is an “impossible state,” and it does little good waiting for it to act like a responsible one. Indeed, 2022 would suggest as much: an unprecedented year-long campaign of missile tests and aggressive artillery and drone activity. The strategy is clear-eyed about North Korea’s mounting nuclear and missile capabilities but refuses to become paralyzed by them.
The geographical roadmap for South Korea’s strategy begins with the North Pacific subregion. The ROK-US alliance, the linchpin of peace and security for 70 years, is the appropriate starting point for projecting a broader regional strategy. Seoul also seeks forward-looking cooperation with Japan while expanding ties with Canada to protect supply chains and Mongolia for minerals. And while the document tries to balance growing trilateral US-ROK-Japan ties with improving ROK-China-Japan relations, the former trilateral relationship is repeatedly singled out in the document as a policy priority.
Southeast Asia is the next regional priority, which is not surprising given that ASEAN members are South Korea’s second-largest trade partner (reaching about $176 billion in 2021). The Korea-ASEAN Solidarity Initiative links the new Indo-Pacific strategy to the 2019 ASEAN Outlook for the Indo-Pacific. It hints at growing security cooperation in the South China Sea and maritime and economic security issues.
The third regional priority is South Asia. Seoul eyes a subregion with nearly a quarter of the global population and sees a vast potential for growth potential. Cutting-edge IT, activity in space, and other strategic interests pull South Korea and India closer together. Not only is the ROK-India comprehensive economic partnership likely to be expanded, but South Korea also makes it clear that it intends to increasingly cooperate with the four Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) countries of India, the United States, Japan, and Australia. While the document does not go so far as to suggest the same with the Australia-UK-US defense partnership (AUKUS), the discussion on the Oceania subregion highlights South Korea-Australia defense and defense industry as areas ripe for advancement. It also seeks more trilateral ROK-Australia-New Zealand cooperation to step up its game among Pacific Island nations. Similarly, the strategy notes the significance of Africa’s coast and the Indian Ocean, touting everything from Seoul’s development assistance and support for UN sustainable development goals to an Africa-Korea summit slated for 2024 and ongoing Gulf of Aden maritime safety patrols.
Finally, in a nod to the linkages between Asian and European security made impossible to ignore by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the strategy seeks to strengthen cooperation regarding rules of the road and security with NATO, the EU, the UK, France, and Germany.
Ambitious Lines of Effort
The nine lines of effort—one fewer than in the US Indo-Pacific strategy released earlier in 2022—conceal some enormous challenges and some ready opportunities.
Building regional order is a generational challenge. By listing order-building as the first line of effort, the Yoon administration demonstrates South Korea’s political will to play a more significant role in the region’s future. By revitalizing issue-specific minilateral cooperation and enhanced engagement with NATO and the UN General Assembly, Seoul intends to be instrumental in finding ways to manage complex challenges such as cyber security, stable supply chains, climate change, and conflict prevention.
The second line of effort reiterates the administration’s determination to speak out in favor of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. As with issues of regional order, freedom and the rule of law are perpetual challenges, with nations having to choose their battles wisely. But at least South Korea is more willing to defend a liberal world order rather than sit idly by while revisionist powers and other forces strive to undermine it.
Strengthening nonproliferation and counterterrorism is the third line of effort. The strategy argues that the complete denuclearization of North Korea is critical for peace on the peninsula, in East Asia, and worldwide. Although Seoul knows that goal is a nonstarter with North Korea, the document stresses that it is essential that the international community be more determined to promote nonproliferation than North Korea is determined to pursue an expansive set of weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, the strategy is more realistic when it suggests it will continue robust military modernization and alliance cooperation to deter North Korea. And perhaps most intriguingly, the plan calls for exploring “a regional crisis management system.”
The fourth line of effort is equally broad: expand comprehensive security cooperation. But at least in this priority area, the strategy specifies a couple of new directions in which South Korean policy will head: more maritime collaboration and deeper issue-specific cooperation with the Quad nations. Seoul is committed to supporting the freedom of navigation and overflight in maritime Asia, including maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. The strategy suggests further data sharing and cooperation over maritime domain awareness and supporting sea lines of communication and logistics for ASEAN members. Cooperation with Quad countries will ramp up gradually, beginning with combatting disease and climate change and working on emerging technology, but expanding over time. Finally, the strategy hints at working with the East Asia Summit to build a long-term multilateral security mechanism for the Indo-Pacific.
The fifth and sixth lines of effort underscore South Korea's regional strategy's primarily economic and technological center of gravity. The former focuses on building economic security networks. While there is no overt reference to decoupling from China, the plan calls for diversifying economic ties and ensuring stable supply chains—i.e., reducing over-reliance on Beijing. Seoul is well-placed to expand trade with RCEP and the CPTPP regional groupings. Still, it also intends to double down on working with the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework to help lead a new regional economic and trade order. ASEAN institutions remain central, but so does working with the World Trade Organization on e-commerce, seeking membership in the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA), and hosting APEC in 2025.
The related sixth priority concentrates on strengthening cooperation in critical domains and science and technology. Strategy is seldom directly embraced in this document, but this sentence comes close to revealing Seoul’s urgent policy priorities: “Technologies determine a nation’s security and competitiveness in the future.” The document announces that South Korea will work with like-minded states in North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific, with a particular emphasis on semiconductors, artificial intelligence, quantum science, synthetic biology, 5G and 6G telecommunications, information technology, space, and closing the regional digital divide.
The last three lines of effort are exciting but require further explanation. South Korea hopes to lead regional cooperation on climate change and energy—easier said than done. The strategy also declares Seoul’s intention to engage in more “contributive diplomacy,” which means more and new kinds (e.g., “green”) tailored development partnerships with ASEAN, Pacific Island, and other nations. The ninth line of effort underscores promoting cultural exchanges (reaching regional youth with K-culture) and public diplomacy (expanding South Korea’s digital reach into the metaverse and OTT).
By the end of this document, one can see how small North Korea seems compared to global and regional challenges and what strong states like South Korea can bring to the table. However ambitious this strategic outline, South Korea has announced its intention to play a more influential role in supporting a free, secure, and prosperous Indo-Pacific. In so doing, it will find tremendous support from the United States and like-minded states.