The Strategy Behind South Korea’s Bold Diplomatic Realignment
from Asia Unbound and Asia Program

The Strategy Behind South Korea’s Bold Diplomatic Realignment

To achieve its goal of being a “global pivotal state,” South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol must maintain domestic political support by managing sensitive bilateral issues with Japan and the United States. 
U.S. President Joe Biden attends a trilateral meeting with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on November 13, 2022.
U.S. President Joe Biden attends a trilateral meeting with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on November 13, 2022. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

South Korean efforts to realign its foreign policy to achieve its goal of being a “global pivotal state” are gaining momentum this spring through President Yoon Suk-yeol’s diplomatic efforts to consolidate relations with Japan and the United States. Through the establishment of a stable Japan-South Korea relationship and closer alignment with the United States, the Yoon administration intends to lay the foundation for South Korea’s continued inclusion in meetings of the Group of Seven (G7) and strengthen relations with the United States to enhance South Korea’s position in managing relations with China as well as to elevate international perceptions of South Korea as a consequential global player. To achieve these objectives, however, Yoon must maintain domestic political support in South Korea through astute management of sensitive bilateral sticking points with both Japan and the United States.

The Yoon administration launched its effort to strengthen South Korea’s diplomatic position by directly addressing the forced labor issue that has paralyzed Japan-South Korea relations since 2018. In early March, Foreign Minister Park Jin announced a plan whereby South Korean private companies would form a private consortium that would directly compensate South Korean victims of Japanese forced labor in lieu of forced liquidation of Japanese corporate assets that had been ordered by South Korea’s Supreme Court. The Yoon administration’s support for this solution aligns South Korea’s compensation plan with the Japanese government’s position that the October 2018 South Korean Supreme Court judgment contravened the 1965 Japan-South Korean normalization treaty and claims agreement while affirming the court’s judgment that the victims deserve compensation. The Yoon administration’s announcement garnered praise from the Joe Biden administration for Yoon’s act of statesmanship, but it incurred South Korean domestic criticism as constituting a “unilateral surrender” to Japan.

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The South Korean announcement of the compensation plan enabled Yoon to take a step toward normalizing diplomatic relations with Japan by holding the first summit in over a decade with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio in mid-March. Through that summit meeting, both countries took steps to unwind the negative spiral in the relationship that had taken place following the 2018 court judgment. Japan lifted export controls on three chemicals critical to the production of South Korean semiconductors, South Korea dropped its complaint regarding Japan’s unfair trade measures at the World Trade Organization, and South Korea pledged to fully normalize the operation of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) during Yoon’s visit. Yoon invited Kishida to resume summit shuttle diplomacy with a visit to South Korea, and Kishida invited Yoon to attend the G7 summit meeting scheduled for May in Hiroshima, Japan.

Despite Yoon’s courageous effort to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough, the aftermath of the Yoon-Kishida summit in both countries has demonstrated the degree to which the Japan-South Korea relationship faces domestic political impediments in both countries. A Gallup Korea poll revealed that 59 percent of South Koreans opposed Yoon’s proposal to provide private compensation from South Korean firms to victims of forced labor, and opposition Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung excoriated Yoon’s diplomacy with Japan as the “most humiliating moment” in South Korea’s diplomatic history. Progressive columnists characterized Yoon’s proposal as a “grand giveaway” and were particularly critical of Yoon’s failure to extract any gesture of reciprocation from Japan, either in the form of voluntary Japanese corporate contributions to the private fund for forced labor victims or any additional expressions of apology from Kishida, who instead issued a blanket acknowledgment and adherence to all prior statements on the issue from the Japanese government.

On the Japanese side, Kishida’s reluctance to acknowledge Yoon’s efforts provides ample indication of the domestic political constraints he faces in advance of Japanese by-elections and local elections in April. Further evidence of Kishida’s political constraints on Korea-related issues came in the form of a series of Japanese media stories following the summit regarding conversations between Kishida and Yoon on sensitive issues including the status of the 2015 “comfort women” agreement and the ongoing dispute over contested sovereignty claims over Dokdo/Takeshima island that required South Korean official responses. Yoon reiterated South Korea’s position opposing the resumption of purchases of marine products from Fukushima due to health concerns. Shortly following the summit, Japan released textbooks that generated South Korean protest over watered-down descriptions of forced labor and continuing claims to Dokdo/Takeshima.

Despite the backlash to the summit, proponents of improved Japan-South Korea relations can point to the fact that the summit provided Kishida with a domestic political boost in public approval prior to local elections and that the Hiroshima G7 summit and the likelihood of an accompanying trilateral Biden-Kishida-Yoon meeting are additional payoffs that may generate positive political dividends for Yoon.

South Korean officials are hoping that the quick processing of payouts to forced labor victims will weaken opposition to the agreement while also convincing as many victims as possible to accept the method of claim settlement. Reports suggest that at least ten of the victims should be willing to accept payment from the fund. Funds designated for victims who do not initially accept the payment will be held in escrow until they are prepared to receive the payment. Implementation of a rapid payout from the private fund may convince more victims to come forward and accept the settlement, thereby consolidating the process and reducing the momentum of protestors in opposition to the settlement. By reducing the momentum of protests, the Yoon administration also hopes to dissuade efforts by families of additional forced labor victims who have not sought redress to file collective action suits.

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Although Yoon has consistently signaled his intent and urgency to improve relations with Japan since his presidential campaign, the main catalyst for Yoon’s decision to move forward with the announcement of his plan to establish a private fund for forced labor compensations was the desire to show progress in relations with Japan in advance of his April 26 state visit to the United States. Since its inception, the Biden administration has prioritized the regularization of trilateral policy coordination with Japan and South Korea on foreign policy, national defense, and intelligence-related issues as part of its broader effort to revitalize alliances and present a united front among like-minded nations for responding to China as the “pacing challenge” driving U.S. national security concerns. In this respect, the Yoon administration has absorbed and responded to the overall direction of U.S. policy, both through Yoon’s willingness to join a robust U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral leaders’ statement in Phnom Penh and through his subsequent efforts to stabilize the Japan-South Korea relationship. In this context, Yoon will accrue diplomatic credit for his effort to improve relations with Japan both from Japan and from the United States, and the Biden administration has already offered some rewards through its early statement of support for Yoon’s initiative.

Thus, Yoon’s efforts to improve relations with Japan are enhancing the Biden administration’s appreciation for the Yoon administration in advance of his state visit to observe the seventieth anniversary of the establishment of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. The Biden administration has already signaled its intent to roll out the red carpet by hosting Yoon as the second state visit by a foreign leader following French President Emmanuel Macron in December 2022. In addition, Yoon will likely make the first address by a South Korean president to a joint session of Congress in a decade. Yoon’s state visit will assure wall-to-wall media coverage of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, indirectly highlighting South Korea’s global prominence as a fellow democracy and respected partner of the United States.

The nature of the occasion will provide an opportunity to acknowledge and promote efforts to strengthen comprehensive government-to-government coordination between the two allies. The momentum in support of deepened cooperation is apparent from the extensive detail and new mechanisms for functional cooperation in various non-security areas that have been established in recent years. For instance, at the two prior summits in 2021 and 2022, the United States and South Korea have already pledged to more closely align commercial policies and to enhance cooperation on areas such as international development, public health, cyber, and space. On the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of the alliance, perhaps the most useful and lasting deliverable that the two presidents should seek is a cogent and brief statement outlining the shared values, interests, and perspectives that have undergirded expanded U.S.-South Korean inter-governmental cooperation rather than an extensive laundry list of areas in which the two sides are currently working together. The main message of such a statement should be to shift the dominant narrative of alliance cooperation from one in which the two sides acknowledge the shared bonds created by the Korean War to one that underscores the promise and benefits likely to accrue to both countries from closer integration of the respective technological and industrial bases as a means by which to secure tangible benefits and safeguard shared international liberal values going forward.

While the occasion of the state visit and the seventieth anniversary of the establishment of the U.S.-South Korea alliance will primarily be a cause for celebration as well as a catalyst for more comprehensive cooperation, it will also be an occasion in which outstanding grievances or ongoing concerns are likely to be spotlighted. The two most salient concerns on the South Korean side are the need for stronger evidence of the credibility of U.S. commitments to deter the North Korean nuclear threat and anxieties about whether South Korean firms, which have made extensive investments in the United States, will be fully integrated into the U.S. domestic landscape or become victims of U.S. protectionism. South Korean anxieties regarding the credibility of the U.S. commitment to defend North Korea are reflected in substantial public support for the country to develop its own nuclear weapons. On the economic front, the South Korean media continues to perceive America First-style protectionism in the language of both the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the CHIPS Act.  Both issues fundamentally raise the question of whether the United States will overcome its own domestic political distractions to remain a credible, loyal, and fair-minded partner to South Korea in the future. While there are no adequate tangible deliverables or magic words that Biden can say to fully allay South Korean anxieties on this front, it will be important for the Biden administration to squarely acknowledge South Korean concerns and make credible efforts to address them.

Having brought greater stability to relations with Japan and having reaffirmed the solidity of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, the Yoon administration is likely to feel more confident in its diplomacy with China. In recent months, the Yoon administration has deflected Chinese overtures to enhance diplomatic consultations to ensure that it is approaching China with the ability to utilize leverage gained from its alignments with Japan and the United States, respectively, rather than approaching China on its own. Following his state visit to the United States and his participation in G7-related meetings in Hiroshima, the South Korean government intends to re-engage with China based on the principles of “mutual respect” and seeking mutual benefit, as Yoon himself has emphasized since his campaign. The expectation is that a South Korea aligned with the United States can seek a more reciprocal and mutually beneficial relationship with China based on the platform provided by the U.S.-South Korea alliance rather than South Korea pursuing a zero-sum relationship with China as a member of the U.S. camp.

China has also expressed a desire to pursue a relationship with South Korea based on mutual benefits, while darkly hinting that South Korea needs to maintain a positive relationship with China out of South Korea’s own self-interest. The question of whether South Korea’s strategy of stabilizing relations with Japan while aligning with the United States will generate benefits or setbacks in South Korea’s relations with China will likely play out in the latter half of 2023.

While Yoon has shown statesmanship in his outreach to Japan and commitment to a comprehensive strategic alliance with the United States, his ability to implement foreign policy capably and consistently ultimately requires South Korean domestic public support. While South Korean support for the alliance with the United States crosses party lines, relations with Japan are an increasingly polarized subject of debate between Korea’s conservatives and progressives. Yoon maintains relative freedom to act in the field of foreign policy despite facing an opposition-controlled National Assembly, which will face new national elections in April 2024, but if a progressive candidate succeeds Yoon as president in May of 2027, Yoon’s efforts to improve relations with Japan are at risk of reversal. While foreign policy is not the main variable likely to determine whether Yoon’s party can win a majority in the National Assembly next spring and beyond, it is a factor likely to influence Yoon’s ability to consolidate South Korea’s position as a global pivotal state, an aspiration that requires South Korean public support for the spending commitments and budget necessary to achieve that objective. 

The article was originally published on the Asan Forum.

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