Yoon suk-yeol took office in May of last year with a lofty vision for his country’s role in the world. He promised to make South Korea an outspoken supporter of freedom and human rights “not just for ourselves, but also for others.” He referred to the country as a “global pivotal state,” promoting liberal ideas in both developing and industrialized countries. Such language was rare in a country that has always viewed itself as a shrimp caught between whales.
It was music to the ears of Americans. President Joe Biden has sought to strengthen America’s position against China (the two behemoths in question) by bolstering its Asian allies. He, too, appeals to their liberal principles, encouraging Japan, South Korea, and the rest of the world to join a “battle between democracy and autocracy.” Nonetheless, almost a year into Mr Yoon’s presidency, there has been no shift in South Korea’s cautious diplomatic position, even as America’s demands on its allies have intensified. Mr Yoon, who will travel in Washington on April 24th for the first state visit by a South Korean leader in almost a decade, has been hesitant to embrace America’s military support for Ukraine. And he has mostly ignored its anti-China trade and technology push. He can expect a less fulsome welcome to the Oval Office than he would like.
His visit coincides with the 70th anniversary of the two countries’ relationship, which was formalized with a mutual defense treaty following the Korean War. Preventing a re-run of the conflict, which killed over 140,000 South Koreans and almost 37,000 American troops, remains the top bilateral priority. America’s 28,500 troops on the peninsula attest to this (despite Donald Trump’s promises to withdraw them). Nonetheless, the two countries’ ties have grown stronger over time. South Korean troops served in the American wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. A free-trade pact inked a decade ago strengthened commercial connections between the two countries. Each has a strong population of citizens from the other country—and is a huge lover of its pop culture.
Mr Yoon has at least added a minor lift to the relationship. He has presided over enlarged joint military exercises with the United States and initiated talks with Japan, the United States’ closest East Asian ally. He agreed to America’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework prior to its publication. His administration even supported America after it was revealed through leaked papers that it had been spying on the South Korean government. The deputy national-security adviser, Kim Tae-hyo, initially claimed that the documents were faked. He later confirmed the snooping, but said it was done with no “malicious intent.”
Mr Yoon’s reluctance to demonstrate the global leadership he pledged is more striking. South Korea, Asia’s second-largest arms exporter after China, has refused to supply Ukraine with lethal weapons despite appeals from the US and NATO. It has also been significantly more hesitant to disassociate itself from China than some other American friends.
Following America’s lead, Japan placed itself in “competition” with China and announced plans to quadruple its defense spending over the next five years to discourage Chinese attack. South Korea, on the other hand, refers to China as a “key partner for achieving prosperity and peace.” It intends to expand defense spending by an average of 7% each year over the next five years, primarily to confront the danger posed by North Korea. It has not followed Japan and the Netherlands in imposing controls on semiconductor technology exports to China.
This is understandable hedging. China is by far South Korea’s greatest trading partner. It does more business with China than with its second- and third-largest trading partners, the United States and Japan combined. Some of South Korea’s most vital industries, such as semiconductors, rely heavily on supply lines from China. In 2021, China will account for approximately 40% of South Korean semiconductor exports.
South Korean corporations are also irritated by some of America’s recent measures to isolate China, such as legislation aimed at steering electric-vehicle and semiconductor companies away from China and toward America. Mr Yoon would complain to Mr Biden about the protectionist nature of such policies, as well as the superpower’s inability to effectively consult its Asian allies before implementing them.
Another reason South Korea is hesitant to anger China is its assistance in stabilizing North Korea, notably food supplies. Despite its worries over Kim Jong Un’s rockets, Japan does not face the same day-to-day security danger from his regime. “There is no “North Japan,” says Victor Cha of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a think group in the United States.
In addition, China has a history of frightening South Korea in order to keep it in line. Following the announcement of intentions to install an American missile defense system in 2016-17, Chinese state media initiated a boycott of South Korean goods and services. However, while such action has frightened South Korea, it has also exacerbated the country’s preference for the West over China on the majority of issues. Pro-China views in South Korean policymaking have been muzzled. According to a Pew Research Centre poll conducted last year, 89% of South Koreans have a favorable view of America, whereas only 19% have the same view of China. Mr Yoon’s remarks on making the country more geopolitically active were in part a reaction to such sentiment.
South Korea’s leader may yet put his words into action. America’s wiretapping revealed that his administration was contemplating supplying Ukraine with lethal weaponry. Mr Yoon told Reuters on April 19th that a “large-scale [Russian] attack on civilians, massacre, or serious violation of the laws of war” would make South Korea’s rejection difficult to maintain. Concerning the Taiwan Strait, Mr Yoon stated in the same interview that South Korea would resist any “forced change to the status quo.” These remarks drew harsh rebukes from Russia and China, respectively.
South Korea is concerned about America’s dependability as an ally. Mr. Trump, or a similarly unilateralist Republican, might return to the White House shortly. And Mr. Kim’s nuclear-missile program has weakened America’s nuclear deterrent to the point where some South Korean leaders want to build their own. Nonetheless, they appreciate that, unlike the Chinese, America is willing to discuss such issues. According to Park Cheol-hee of the Korean National Diplomatic Academy, the Americans “do not accept all of our requests,” but they “try to find a way to find a better solution.”
Finally, the two countries’ shared concern about North Korea is a potent bond. South Korea is well aware of its reliance on America’s security assurance. It is also becoming more willing to follow America’s lead on other issues, particularly against China, albeit cautiously. South Korea is not a global powerhouse. It is not even at a crossroads in terms of the core issue of its high-risk reliance on China. Nonetheless, it is moving in that direction.
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