South Korean Foreign Policy under President Yoon Suk-yeol: Prospects and Challenges

► South Korea cannot escape its history or geography, but a forward-looking foreign policy can help liberate it from the peninsula and achieve new heights abroad.  

► In Northeast Asia, President Yoon Suk-yeol can retain the strategic advantage over North Korea, rebuff revisionist powers, and reset relations with Japan to advance South Korean interests. 

► Though challenges are numerous, the Yoon administration can engage a wide range of security, economic, and political institutions and informal arrangements to make the Indo-Pacific region freer and more open and buttress a peaceful rules-based world order.



If President Yoon Suk-yeol has his way over the next five years, South Korea will be known for its domestic achievements and global contributions rather than for concessions to wayward brothers in North Korea or deference to powerful neighbors in China or Japan.    


This optimistic vision will require creating a more favorable balance of power in Northeast Asia and a strategic step-up in South Korea’s contributions to a free and open Indo-Pacific region and stable global order.



A Balanced Northeast Asia


Kim Jong Un never shared President Moon Jae-in’s dream of inter-Korean harmony. For Kim, peace centers on regime survival through nuclear weapons and, aspirationally, strategic dominance of the Korean peninsula through political warfare. The Yoon administration can broaden the aperture, doing enough to manage North Korea but investing more time and effort to achieving foreign policy goals regionally and globally. In short, President Yoon should do more to deter North Korea’s rapid development of strategic and tactical systems, do less to reward Pyongyang’s bad behavior, work on the foundations of South Korean strength, and forge stronger ties with Japan and other like-minded countries. 


Success in achieving this recalibration of South Korean foreign policy will depend on wielding power carefully. The new president must persuade South Koreans to remain unflinching despite North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations. Even if Kim fields new hypersonic and nuclear-armed missiles, South Korea can deter them by ensuring it possesses the means to strike back even harder. 


President Yoon must also fortify the country to remain steadfast when confronted by China’s coercive power as Beijing pushes to control its periphery and establish its centrality in regional affairs. Not rushing ahead to deploy additional THAAD (terminal high altitude area defense) missile defense systems is prudent until a comprehensive alliance needs assessment is conducted. Still, sooner or later, Beijing will exert maximum pressure on Seoul to desist from a policy Xi Jinping deems inimical to his interests.


Similarly, Russia’s exercise of disruptive power will continue to raise costs internationally and in Northeast Asia. President Yoon can ensure that South Korea remains aligned with leading democracies worldwide in ensuring that Vladimir Putin’s unlawful and unprovoked brutal attack on Ukraine does not erode deterrence elsewhere around the world.


Finally, the Yoon administration must seize the opportunity to nudge forward mutually beneficial cooperation with Tokyo. By emphasizing what shared interests can be accomplished for the prosperity and safety of both societies, South Korea can elevate the enlightened self-interest of both countries over the understandable but ultimately nonproductive grievance politics locked in a past era that cannot be altered. 


Achieving a favorable and stable balance of power in Northeast Asia for South Korea will require new means of deterring North Korea’s taunts and threatening weapons from escalating into blackmail or the lethal use of force. Kim has resumed testing ICBM technology, begun restoring the Punggye-ri nuclear test site and vowed to strengthen the “quality and scale” of North Korea’s nuclear forces. Getting ahead of North Korea’s desire to acquire tactical nuclear weapons and field an array of systems designed to thwart layered missile defense systems compels South Korea to deploy more powerful counterstrike weapons and strengthen America’s security guarantees. These goals can be advanced by three steps: a quick but rigorous review of potential new offensive and defensive systems that Seoul needs to deal with a changing security environment; a concerted alliance process to ensure a common strategy and strengthen extended deterrence; and routinized trilateral strategic dialogue with Tokyo and Washington about counterstrike weapons and the maintenance of peace and stability throughout East Asia.


Managing an increasingly assertive China will require firmness, reciprocity, and transparency. Modernized South Korean defenses are congruent with Beijing’s interest in avoiding conflict on its border, even if Chinese officials protest such moves. The problem is Beijing’s double standard regarding regional military developments: China says it opposes any action that creates tension, but China opposes efforts that make South Korea, Japan, and the United States more capable of self-defense and gives North Korea wide latitude to keep building toward a Pakistan-level nuclear arsenal. 


Beyond North Korea, South Korean foreign policy in Northeast Asia will need to pursue new means of leveraging South Koreans’ extraordinary human potential, economic growth, and technological innovation. These goals can be advanced through various means, but informal but focused multilateral cooperation with other regional actors might make the most significant gains.



A Freer and More Open Indo-Pacific


The new administration's foreign policy can discover new vistas for creativity among several incipient multilateral partnerships in the broader Indo-Pacific region. High priority should be given not only to trilateral engagement with Tokyo and Washington but also to supporting the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), the Australia-UK-US defense partnership (AUKUS), and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. 


The Quad involves Japan, India, Australia, and the United States. It seeks to deliver regional public goods by addressing real-world challenges such as the Covid pandemic, climate change, and vital infrastructure needs. South Korea can participate in Quad working groups on these issues regardless of whether it becomes a full-fledged member of the loose mini-lateral arrangement.


Similarly, the tripartite defense partnership known as AUKUS is open to other advanced, like-minded states like South Korea participating in efforts to support advanced technologies, entirely separate from the centerpiece deal to help Canberra with nuclear propulsion for future submarines. 


But the incipient Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, designed to help create secure supply chains, ensure trusted telecommunications, and craft fair rules and norms for the advanced digital economy, is particularly well poised for South Korea to take on a leading part. Of course, the rule-making implicit in a new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework needs to be made more global. It offers a pathway for the Yoon administration to realize the aspiration of a pivotal worldwide impact in the years ahead.



A Global Pivotal Korea


In the international arena, foreign policy can lift South Korea as the ‘pivotal global power’ envisioned by President Yoon during his victorious campaign. South Korea can fortify a global rules-based system by joining existing and proven institutions by flexing its economic, technological, and rule-making muscle.


South Korea needs to be part of an expanded G7 constellation of countries shaping standards and steering the ship of the global economy into an advanced digital era. Adding South Korea’s full weight to an emerging Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is a great start. But as one of the world’s leading economies, South Korea should play a regular part among developed economies in setting economic and technological rules of the road. Now that South Korea’s economy surpasses Russia’s, what better time to rethink a G8 or larger grouping?


South Korea recently became the first Asian member of NATO’s cyber defense center. Seoul brings tremendous knowledge in cyber security and particular knowledge about cyber threats from North Korea and China. Recent revelations about a record-setting cryptocurrency heist suggest North Korea’s global cyber prowess is an ascending problem. Meanwhile, as Beijing gives cover to Russian aggression against Ukraine through disinformation and possible economic support, a group of government hackers known as Mustang Panda has been busy conducting expanded espionage on three continents. South Korea can significantly contribute to attenuating cyber threats while demonstrating that security is indeed indivisible at both ends of Eurasia. The Yoon administration should also support the Biden administration’s declaration on an open internet and oppose digital authoritarianism and those governments that would butcher the truth. 


Russia’s brutal military invasion of Ukraine has prompted competing narratives around the concept of “indivisible security.” One is Xi Jinping’s “Global Security Initiative,” which conjures up the image of an “indivisible security community” but glosses over Moscow’s aggression and a shared scheme to undermine the existing postwar order. The other narrative is centered on seeing threats in Europe and Asia as part of a common problem. Hence, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida sees “indivisible security” as drawing a clear line from Russian aggression in Europe to the potential erosion of deterrence in East Asia. President Yoon should embrace the Biden administration’s view of this latter concept of indivisible security. 


Cyber cooperation can help punch South Korea’s ticket into an enlarged Five Eyes intelligence cooperation scheme. Members of Congress have proposed such an expansion, or perhaps an adjunct intelligence-sharing arrangement that allows like-minded countries to pool their resources about emerging threats to peace and security in the Indo-Pacific. Japan and New Zealand have already struck up talks for improved intelligence sharing. Adding Korea and perhaps India or some European such as Germany or France could significantly improve intelligence sharing about the indivisible security problems on either end of Eurasia.


Attaining bold foreign policy objectives will hinge on how a president without governmental experience leads a team of many seasoned officials and experts. Expert delegations dispatched to Washington and Tokyo before the inauguration should reap dividends in the coming months.

Still, governing is harder than campaigning. Challenges abound, beginning at home with a divided society and National Assembly. ‘Grand Marshal’ Kim has relied chiefly on missile tests to disrupt a smooth transition in government. Xi will make it clear when he dislikes new policies emanating from Seoul. President Yoon also must tread carefully as he tries to deepen ties with Japan and the United States; there are domestic political pitfalls in each of the three democracies. 


While the challenges are massive, they are surpassed by the prospects. The fact that President Joe Biden’s first visit to Asia since coming to office will be to Seoul is a testament to American confidence in South Korea and enthusiasm for President Yoon’s foreign policy agenda. Unlike waiting on North Korea to compromise, dealing with allies and partners to advance cooperation offers real promise.


Patrick M. Cronin is the Asia-Pacific Security Chair at Hudson Institute. Dr. Cronin’s research program analyzes the challenges and opportunities confronting the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, including China’s total competition campaign, the future of the Korean peninsula, and strengthening U.S. alliances and partnerships.