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SOUTH KOREA: On regional foreign policy, Seoul approaches a fork in the road

Table of Contents

  • Kim Jong-un's recent overtures are designed to drive wedges between South Korea and the US and between progressives and conservatives domestically; they speak to the real choice emerging in terms of Seoul's regional foreign policy ahead of the March presidential election.
  • While Moon Jae-in's ruling progressive Democratic Party (DP) continues to say the right things on the South Korea-US Alliance, it favors increased strategic autonomy from the US, minimal engagement with the Quad or Japan, and a hedging policy towards China.
  • The opposition conservative People Power Party (PPP) would offer greater engagement with the US and the Quad, an olive branch to Japan, and a tougher line on China.

The most optimistic interpretation of the recent flurry of events around the peninsula is perhaps through the Latin adage si vis pacem, para bellum – “if you want peace, prepare for war.” With its conventional force capabilities increasingly outdated, Pyongyang continues to test both cruise and ballistic missile technologies to develop a nuclear missile capacity that would enhance survivability and increase the sophistication of its overall nuclear forces. Seoul, meanwhile, has been augmenting its own conventional missile arsenal with a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and reportedly a land- launched short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) that can carry warheads of six to eight tons.

These September fireworks provided the unlikely backdrop for Pyongyang's apparent October olive branches, including a statement about holding a bilateral summit to formally end the Korean War, the restoration of North- South hotlines suspended since the summer, and a North Korean defense exhibition and “invincible military” speech in which Kim promised that the build-up was aimed not at the allies but the prevention of war. However, this outreach is simply the latest instance of a time-honored tactic intended to drive a wedge between South Korea and its US ally. It plays to frustration in South Korea at the outgoing Moon Jae-in administration's failure to build bridges across the 38th parallel since 2017, and Moon's own interest in achieving some sort of legacy before exiting the Blue House in March. To Seoul's frustration, and despite official pronouncements otherwise, Washington remains skeptical about a new dialogue, with President Biden's Korea team full of veterans of Barack Obama's ill-starred 2012 deal with Kim. The outreach also serves to influence the presidential race by forcing the hawkish PPP to admit that they are not entirely opposed to North-South engagement, and hence bolsters the more dovish DP.

But while such domestic policy differences on North Korea are not new, for the first time in recent memory a genuine divergence is emerging between progressives and conservatives in terms of foreign policy proposals towards the broader region, which could be of real consequence going forward. Though they continue to say the right things on the alliance with the US, the progressive Democratic Party (DP) is pushing hard for a more independent defense stance, via the “opcon transition” to give Seoul full control of its armed forces in wartime, higher defense spending for more autonomous capabilities, and less trilateralism operationally with the US and Japan. The conservative People Power Party (PPP), by contrast, continues to place strong emphasis on the Alliance, and seeks to build further capabilities in concert with the United States.

The situation is the same in regard to the Quad, and the broader Quad Plus forum that South Korea, New Zealand, and Vietnam participated in last spring. Such forums hold little attraction for the DP, who think that Seoul's greatest security concern lies within the peninsula and that external engagement in regional security initiatives would represent a distraction from that or a dilution of US interest in moves towards peninsular denuclearization. Conversely, the PPP has promised deeper engagement with Quad working groups, and their front-running candidate for presidential nominee, Yoon Seok-youl, has even floated the possibility of joining the core group in the future.

On China, progressives propose continuing the policy of hedging towards the South's most important trade partner, having previously suffered Beijing's ire over the THAAD missile deployment controversy that started in 2017, which had significant negative impacts on the tourism, entertainment, and cosmetics sectors, among others. The September visit of Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Seoul was seen as a signal that China wants greater engagement with the South, and Beijing is pushing for a “freeze-for-freeze” plan that would see Pyongyang cease missile tests in exchange for Seoul and Washington suspending joint military exercises. China would inevitably be the key interlocutor in this or any other diplomatic undertakings with the North. Conservatives would adopt a harder line towards China indirectly by seeking to deepen coordination with the US and other partners on agendas that compete directly with Chinese interests, such as supply chain security, 5G technologies, developmental assistance, and the Blue Dot Network for certifying infrastructure projects.

The policy divergence is evident too with regard to Japan. Despite new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's past role as the foreign minister who successfully secured the “final and irreversible” bilateral accord on the comfort women issue in 2015, progressives have little expectation of or appetite for an improvement in relations that have been in ever-deeper freeze since Moon abrogated that agreement in 2017. Subsequently, the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese firms to compensate relatives of colonial-era forced labor victims in 2018, to which Japan responded with restrictions on exports of key technologies like semiconductors across the Tsushima Strait in 2019.

The formerly dovish Kishida's recent tack to the hawkish right has not gone unnoticed in South Korea, and the appointment to senior cabinet posts of Shinzo Abe allies like Cabinet Chief Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno and Economy and Trade Minister Koichi Hagiuda is being interpreted as a sign of Kishida's imprimatur for their hardline nationalist views on contentious historical disputes between the two countries. The first telephone call between Kishida and Moon produced no outcomes of note, and there are no plans for an in-person meeting. The DP's presidential nominee Lee Jae-myung is seen in Japan as a hardliner, though the party has recently said that he will seek to improve bilateral ties. Conservatives, meanwhile, have advocated for improved, “forward-looking” relations with Japan as a neighbor with shared values in liberal democracy and a market economy, and underscored the importance of the GSOMIA agreement for sharing military intelligence trilaterally. They also favor the establishment of “two-plus-two” meetings of foreign and defense ministers. Mending relations with Tokyo would be a likely prerequisite if South Korea wished to join the CPTPP, given that unanimous agreement is required to admit new members.

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SOUTH KOREA: On regional foreign policy, Seoul approaches a fork in the road

Kim Jong-un’s recent overtures are designed to drive wedges between South Korea and the US and between progressives and conservatives domestically; they speak to