May 16, 2022
► If South Korea is likely to face pressure from China again, it must do so with firm backing from the United States to avoid this becoming a wedge issue in the alliance.
► President Yoon has expressed a desire to “take part in trilateral security coordination with the United States and Japan.” There would be no better venue or signal to North Korea, China, and Russia than establishing a trilateral working group on extended deterrence.
► Finding niche areas where Seoul can lead is a better alternative than trying to pry open institutions whose doors appear closed.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has put forward an ambitious foreign policy agenda. In his inaugural address, President Yoon stated: “It is incumbent upon us to take on a greater role befitting our stature as a global leader… The international community expects us to do so. We must answer that call.” President Yoon’s commitments to support freedom, tighten the alliance with the United States, and speak more candidly about China are all welcome pledges.
But as South Korean leaders execute this vision, they will have to prepare for three fundamental challenges: Chinese economic pressure, North Korean distractions, and institutional constraints. To address these tensions, I argue that the Yoon administration should: 1) establish an economic 2+2 dialogue with the United States, 2) form a trilateral working group on extended deterrence, and 3) play a leading role in building a global technology coalition.
China: Countering Economic Coercion
Tensions between South Korea and China are only natural given their respective geostrategic positions and governance approaches. Indeed, this pressure is probably unavoidable if South Korea follows President Yoon’s pledge that “a deeper alliance with Washington should be the central axis of Seoul’s foreign policy.” But the more the Yoon administration talks openly and candidly about China, the greater the risk that Beijing will apply coercive economic pressure on South Korea. Given its reaction to recent criticism from other democratic countries, China should not be expected to sit quietly if South Korea tightens the alliance with the United States and emphasizes the importance of values in its foreign policy.
Seoul must be proactive in preparing for pressure from Beijing. Yet, this is a challenge for which South Korea—and its U.S. ally—are still not prepared. Back in 2016, when China applied economic pressure on South Korea over the THAAD deployment, cracks emerged between Seoul and Washington. At the time, the United States had few mechanisms to support an ally facing economic coercion. Under sustained pressure, South Korea eventually agreed to the “Three Nos.” If South Korea is likely to face pressure from China again, it must do so with firm backing from the United States to avoid this becoming a wedge issue in the alliance.
Preparing for economic coercion should therefore be at the top of the agenda when President Yoon meets Joe Biden in Seoul. Unfortunately, the two governments do not have the institutional mechanisms needed to support this type of conversation. South Korea should therefore follow Japan’s lead in establishing a ministerial-level 2+2 dialogue with the United States that includes both diplomatic and economic leaders. Without this, the two governments will once again be caught flat footed by China’s economic coercion and find themselves unable to demonstrate alliance solidarity and insulate critical sectors and supply chains against disruption.
North Korea: Strengthening Extended Deterrence
A second challenge for the Yoon administration relates to North Korea. President Yoon has made clear that “South Korea should no longer be confined to the Korean Peninsula but rise to the challenge of being… a ‘global pivotal state’.” This is a wise objective but will prove difficult if North Korea tests additional long-range missiles and/or nuclear weapons, as many expect. This raises the question: how can South Korea address the challenge from the North without being overly distracted?
A first step is to acknowledge that it is unlikely the Yoon administration will be able to make any substantial headway with North Korea. Despite frequent promises to work toward the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” these words are increasingly empty. North Korea has dozens of nuclear weapons and no incentive to give them up. South Korea and the United States (and Japan) will therefore have to content themselves with a strategy of containment and deterrence, at least for the time being. As a result, the allies need to have more serious discussions about extended deterrence in the years ahead.
President Yoon has committed to “establishing a more concrete agenda for the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group that Washington and Seoul established in 2016.” With South Korea surrounded by three nuclear powers conducting major nuclear modernizations—China, Russia, and North Korea—this is only natural. Amidst calls from some U.S. allies in Asia to discuss the role of nuclear weapons in extended deterrence, Washington and Seoul should address this issue directly and openly. President Yoon has expressed a desire to “take part in trilateral security coordination with the United States and Japan.” There would be no better venue or signal to North Korea, China, and Russia than establishing a trilateral working group on extended deterrence.
Institutions: Leading from Outside
Finally, President Yoon wants South Korea to act on a larger global stage, but Seoul currently lacks the institutional memberships required to properly play that role. He has noted that “Seoul should willingly participate in Quadrilateral Security Dialogue working groups” and “consider joining multilateral regional cooperative initiatives in phases.” Yet, as this statement acknowledges, South Korea is not a formal member of the key economic, geostrategic, or intelligence-sharing coalitions today: the G7, the Quad, or the Five Eyes network.
It will be tempting for leaders in South Korea to invest substantial effort into entering these groups. But the recent signs have been discouraging. The United Kingdom’s attempt to include South Korea in the G7 by expanding it to the D10 have floundered. Seoul is engaging the Quad through the Quad-plus working groups, but formal membership does not appear to be on the horizon. And the Five Eyes grouping shows no signs of being open to expansion. South Korea is therefore at risk of trying to take on a larger global role without the institutional memberships needed to do so. How can South Korea play act globally if it stands outside these core institutions?
Finding niche areas where Seoul can lead is a better alternative than trying to pry open institutions whose doors appear closed. One option is to look for areas that are still in need of institutionalization. For example, President Yoon has noted that “today’s alliances involve complex networks of cooperation on a diverse set of issues, including privacy, supply chains, and public health.” South Korea could look to play a leading role on technology, where it is a key innovator on everything from advanced networking to semiconductors to biotechnology. Indeed, President Yoon has noted that “as a high-tech powerhouse with strong democratic fundamentals, South Korea will continue to champion an open and secure cyberspace.” Technology, an area in which South Korea has deep expertise yet global institutions are under-developed, is a perfect area for the Yoon administration to focus on in the years ahead.