Modern Diplomacy
Between Washington and Beijing: South Korea’s Diplomacy at a Crossroads

A country cannot move. North Korea remains like a time bomb on its head, China is emerging as a hegemonic power, and Russia is engaged in a decisive battle with the US for the initiative in world order; these remain Seoul’s neighbours. Then, there is no reason to sacrifice ties with China and Russia for an alliance with the US, Sung-Hoon Jeh writes.

Contrary to South Korea’s expectations, the Korea-China summit expected to take place at the APEC summit in San Francisco on November 15-17, 2023 did not happen. President Xi Jinping held summits with the leaders of the US and Japan as well as several other countries, but he only shook hands and had a brief conversation with President Yoon Suk Yeol. Why did China turn a blind eye to the summit with South Korea?

The answer can be found in Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s remarks a few days later. At the Korea-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held in Busan on November 26, Wang Yi expressed dissatisfaction with South Korea’s participation in the “supply chain reorganization” that the US is pushing with its allies to keep China in check, mentioning that “both sides should jointly resist the tendency to politicize economic issues, instrumentalize scientific and technological issues, and securitize economic and trade issues.” At the following foreign ministers’ meeting between South Korea, China and Japan he criticized the strengthening of cooperation between South Korea, the US, and Japan, stressing, “We should promote cooperation in East Asia through trilateral cooperation, adhere to open regionalism, oppose ideological division, and resist the formation of regional cooperation into camps.” As the joint press conference was cancelled due to the Chinese side, South Korea, which had tried to balance the US and China by drawing up a specific schedule for the Korea-China-Japan summit, faced a difficult situation. 

South Korea’s “Diplomatic Dilemma”

During the Cold War, South Korea was only able to achieve security and economic development by cooperating with the US, Japan and other capitalist countries, but it had to be satisfied with its very limited diplomatic autonomy. Despite sending troops to the Vietnam War, South Korea was unable to form an equal alliance with the US. Additionally, despite being enraged by the distortion of the past, it was unable to demand Japan’s fair compensation for colonial rule. However, the post-Cold War era, which began in the late 1980s, provided South Korea with an opportunity to diversify its foreign relations. New momentum for economic growth was secured as a result of the establishment of diplomatic ties with socialist countries, including the Soviet Union and China, and the expansion of exchanges and cooperation with them. Furthermore, North Korea’s security threats were dramatically reduced when Seoul developed friendly relations with these countries, which had been North Korea’s allies during the Cold War. Of course, these changes gave the isolated North Korea the opportunity to begin developing nuclear weapons for its survival, and paradoxically resulted in the escalation of North Korea’s security threats to a new level. However, stable friendly and cooperative relations between neighbouring powers, the so-called “four powers,” served as the basis for ensuring the security and prosperity of South Korea after the Cold War.

As a result, South Korea became an advanced country in terms of economic and military power, but its diplomatic autonomy remained limited. First, as the confrontation with North Korea, which has become a nuclear weapons state, continued, security dependence on US deterrence was maintained, and second, as economic cooperation with China intensified, economic dependence on the Chinese market increased. Thus, over the past 30 years, South Korea’s diplomacy has focused on resolving issues on the Korean Peninsula, including the North Korean nuclear issue, while maintaining an alliance with the US and developing a “strategic partnership” with China. In this process, South Korea has also sought to enhance diplomatic autonomy and diversify economic cooperation by expanding political and economic cooperation with Russia, one of the countries involved in the Korean Peninsula issue and the only country with enormous energy resources and trans-Eurasian transportation and logistics networks. If the relationship between neighbouring powers is friendly and cooperative, South Korea’s diplomacy does not have a major problem. However, if relations between the neighbouring powers cooled or deteriorated, it could face a “diplomatic dilemma” in which strengthening relations with one country were perceived as an act of hostility towards the other. Competition between the US and China, which began in earnest after the Global Financial Crisis, and the conflict between the US and Russia following the Ukraine Crisis made it impossible for South Korea to maintain its existing diplomacy anymore. 

Norms and Values
The US — South Korea — Japan Triangle in the Biden Doctrine
Igor Istomin
The apparent convergence in the Washington-Seoul-Tokyo triangle creates challenges for the new logistics routes currently being built with much difficulty, including through the Sea of Japan, writes Valdai Club expert Igor Istomin.

Pro-US Policy of the Yoon Suk Yeol Administration

The Yoon Suk Yeol administration is actively participating in the US-led initiative to link Euro-Atlantic security and Indo-Pacific security and in particular the Korea-US-Japan alliance to keep China in check, unlike previous administrations that tried to strike a balance between the US and China despite pressure from the US. In the “Phnom Penh Statement”, issued on November 13, 2022, the leaders of South Korea, the US, and Japan “strongly opposed any unilateral attempt to change the status quo in the waters of the Indo-Pacific” and “reiterated the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”. Subsequently, the leaders of South Korea, the US, and Japan agreed to “enhance strategic coordination between the US-Japan and US-ROK (Republic of Korea) alliances and bring trilateral security cooperation to new heights”, while adopting the “The Spirit of Camp David: Joint Statement of Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United States” on August 18, 2023. In addition, the three leaders reaffirmed “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” and called for the “peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues”. Along with this, Korea-US-Japan joint military exercises have also been carried out on the Korean Peninsula. On September 30, 2022, the three countries’ maritime forces, including the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, conducted the joint anti-submarine drill for the first time in about five years. Subsequently, the joint anti-submarine drill and search and rescue drill were carried out on April 3-4, 2023. The Yoon Suk Yeol administration chose a clear pro-US policy in support of the US global security initiative, which was inevitably perceived as an act of hostility by China. 

Changes in the Discursive Terrain in South Korea

Changes in the discursive terrain in South Korea are behind the Yoon Suk Yeol administration’s choice of pro-US policy. First, the suspension of US-North Korea talks revived the discourse of “hardline policy toward North Korea”. Conservatives, which opposed the Moon Jae In administration’s policy but lost ground due to the Trump administration’s negotiations with North Korea, began to advocate for “peace by force” based on US deterrence after Biden took office. Second, with the start of the special military operation in Ukraine, the “strengthening alliance” discourse has taken on an overwhelming advantage. As the majority of the people found the cause of the Ukrainian crisis in the absence of a clear alliance, the “balanced diplomacy” discourse was criticized as a naive idea that neglected reality. Third, due to the “rumours of invasion of Taiwan”, the so-called “China threat theory” spread, which even developed into “aversion to China”. Conservatives recognized China’s attempt to expand its influence as a geopolitical ambition to destroy the regional balance of power, and liberals began to criticize China’s democracy and human rights issues in earnest, especially after President Xi Jinping’s third consecutive term was confirmed. In addition, the spread of nationalism in China stimulated the nationalist sentiment of the Korean people, who had directly experienced Chinese influence for hundreds of years. 

South Korea’s diplomacy, where to go?

The Yoon Suk Yeol administration’s diplomacy is based on the conviction that the US-led world order will not change and imperativeness that it should. But the world order is not unchanged. The world order has changed three times in the last 100 years or so. It is worth recalling that South Korea quickly read the changes in the world order in the late 1980s and implemented the “Northern Policy” to expand foreign relations dramatically. A country cannot move. North Korea remains like a time bomb on its head, China is emerging as a hegemonic power, and Russia is engaged in a decisive battle with the US for the initiative in world order; these remain Seoul’s neighbours. Then, there is no reason to sacrifice ties with China and Russia for an alliance with the US. Allied relations do not necessarily impose obligations to align with all of the allies’ policies. Making more friends, not more enemies, is the key to security and prosperity.

Modern Diplomacy
Ukraine Crisis and South Korea
Sung-Hoon Jeh
The Ukraine crisis is a confrontation between the US and Russia to take the initiative in the world order. In other words, it is a military conflict between the US, which is trying to prevent the emergence of a hegemonic state in the post-Soviet region in order to maintain a unipolar system at the global level, and Russia, which is trying to become a hegemonic state in the post-Soviet region in order to help establish a multipolar system at the global level.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.