On June 26, 2023, the Council on Foreign Relations’ program on U.S.-Korea Policy held a virtual workshop on U.S.-South Korean policy coordination toward China on democratic values and human rights. This workshop was made possible by a generous grant from the Smith Richardson Foundation.
During the 2022 South Korean presidential election cycle, then-candidate Yoon Suk Yeol outlined his foreign policy vision for South Korea: become a global pivotal state that upholds and strengthens freedom, peace, and prosperity through the rules-based international order and shared democratic values. As president, Yoon has pursued a values-based approach toward foreign policy to signal South Korea’s commitment to advocating for democratic values and assume a leadership role in upholding international liberal norms.
Strengthening South Korea-U.S. normative and values-based cooperation will allow the two democratic allies to safeguard an increasingly precarious rules-based order and serve as a channel through which South Korea can assume an expanded global role that contributes to resiliency and prosperity.
Rhetorical Shifts in the Yoon Administration
Most South Korean presidents, regardless of their political affiliations, have pledged support for upholding the rules-based international order. However, the Yoon administration has introduced a series of rhetorical changes. Since his inauguration, Yoon has consistently signaled his administration’s dedication to advancing freedom, human rights, and the rule of law. In particular, Yoon’s emphasis on the need to uphold and advance freedom departs from the rhetoric of previous presidents. While prior presidents have emphasized the importance of freedom in the context of social, communal, and national rights, Yoon has pivoted to stress individual freedoms and South Korea’s global responsibilities.
When compared to the Moon Jae-in administration, the greatest differences lie in Yoon’s approach toward Japan, which frames Japan as a valuable partner upholding shared values in the Indo-Pacific region, and in his expanded support for the rules-based order beyond Asia, which can be seen in Yoon’s support for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia. Additionally, while the Yoon administration’s rhetoric holds similarities to the Lee Myung-bak administration’s Global Korea approach, Yoon has placed greater emphasis on universal values and upgraded Lee’s middle-power diplomacy to pursue global diplomacy.
Recently, South Korea’s National Security Strategy introduced giyeo oegyo, or contributive diplomacy, harkening back to its usage during the Lee administration. By increasing its official development assistance (ODA) worldwide, the Yoon administration aims to expand its global contributive diplomacy by supporting humanitarian values, food security efforts, global health contributions, digital infrastructure aid, and climate change initiatives. Some participants noted that contributive diplomacy could resonate better with the South Korean public rather than values diplomacy.
Those rhetorical shifts within the Yoon administration indicate an intention to strengthen South Korean capacity to support U.S. human rights and humanitarian efforts in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world. The Yoon government’s rhetorical emphasis on supporting universal values and norms could also elevate South Korea’s value as a partner and ally of the United States in countering the growing challenges posed by authoritarian regimes.
- The Yoon administration should work to ensure broad public support for normative initiatives promoting democracy and human rights so as to prevent values-based diplomacy from becoming a partisan and politicized issue among the South Korean public.
- South Korea should establish a democracy foundation in Seoul for deepening public understanding of the importance of democracy and human rights and the benefits of pursuing values-based diplomacy.
- The United States should maintain support for South Korea’s leadership on normative and democratic issues to ensure the success of South Korean regional and global activities.
Policy Shifts in the Yoon Administration
Two recent policy reports released by the Yoon administration—the Indo-Pacific Strategy and the National Security Strategy—indicate the centrality that the South Korean government places on universal values in its foreign policy. The two documents also indicate the administration’s emphasis on the complementary relationship between upholding universal values and supporting national interests through common goods such as peace and prosperity. South Korea’s Presidential Office and Ministry of Foreign Affairs have both underscored the synergy between values-based diplomacy and South Korean national interests. Participants thus agreed that the South Korean government likely believes that pursuing values-based diplomacy and cooperating with the United States in upholding democratic values offers a pathway for South Korea to heighten its global status and bolster its role in multilateral venues, thereby achieving its aspirations for status as a global pivotal state.
In order to ensure the durability of this shift in South Korea’s policy, the Yoon administration will need a messaging formulation for the South Korean public that highlights both the importance of enhanced normative leadership and its concrete benefits to national interest. Durability and continued South Korean commitment will then support U.S. democracy and human rights initiatives regionally and globally.
- South Korea should strengthen its values-based cooperation with other Western democracies in addition to the United States, such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, to expand South Korea’s normative global profile.
- The Yoon administration should emphasize the benefits of normative alignment with the United States to South Korean national interests. Educating the South Korean public on the tangible returns from enhanced normative cooperation, as well as the global necessity of such alignment with the United States, would facilitate the public support necessary for the continued success of the Yoon administration’s efforts.
Concrete Actions of the Yoon Administration
Participants discussed the various concrete actions that signified the Yoon administration’s commitment to upholding the liberal international order. First, South Korea voted in favor of a draft decision at the UN Human Rights Council to debate the human rights situation in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region in October 2022. The decision to vote against China showed South Korea’s solidarity with democratic countries in speaking out against human rights violations. Second, South Korea hosted the Indo-Pacific Regional Meeting of the second Summit for Democracy in March 2023 under the theme of anti-corruption. During the meeting, Yoon pledged $100 million to developmental and democracy projects, allowing South Korea to pursue ODA pledges without budgetary restraints. Third, some participants noted that South Korea’s forthcoming non-permanent membership on the UN Security Council could serve as a potential opportunity to cooperate with the United States on China-related issues, but other participants argued that the United Nations would not be the ideal forum for the two allies to adopt resolutions against Chinese human rights violations, as China remains a permanent Security Council member. Rather, minilateral and democratic coalitions in the Indo-Pacific region were viewed as more suitable arenas for an enhanced South Korean role. The Democracy 10 initiative was referenced as an opportunity for South Korea to engage on normative issues. Participants also noted South Korea’s participation in the Group of Seven and Group of Twenty.
South Korea’s responses to immediate security challenges, which have implications for the stability of the rules-based order, provoked more mixed evaluations. Regarding tensions surrounding the South China Sea, South Korea has expressed support for freedom of navigation due to the repercussions for South Korea’s energy security. However, while South Korea supports and aligns with Taiwan as a fellow democratic country in the region, a potential Taiwan contingency poses a security dilemma for South Korea as assistance in a cross-strait conflict could affect security on the Korean Peninsula. Due to this concern, consecutive South Korean governments have remained cautious when publicly commenting on a potential cross-strait conflict or independence aspirations in Taiwan because there remain anxieties among South Koreans that North Korea could take advantage of diverted U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) soldiers during a Taiwan contingency. South Korean statements that support peace and the status quo in the Taiwan Strait have been met with criticism from China. In contrast, South Korea continues to offer rhetorical and material support for Ukraine in its war efforts. Yoon has committed both humanitarian and reconstruction aid, as well as indirect military equipment through third countries.
- South Korea should institutionalize the normative relationship with the United States by establishing an endowed foundation for democracy promotion in South Korea or by creating an institutional body to expand democratic assistance beyond ODA.
- Democratic countries in the Indo-Pacific region should consider the creation of a democracy organizational platform in the region with sufficient funding mechanisms to bolster collaboration among regional countries to support democratic advocacy.
Challenges to Enhanced South Korea-U.S. Normative Alignment
There are several challenges facing strengthened South Korean normative alignment and cooperation with the United States. The main obstacle lies in South Korea’s bilateral relations with China. As seen in recent diplomatic tensions between the two countries, the South Korea-China relationship has faced various hurdles as the Yoon administration strengthens its alliance with the United States and enhances non-security trilateral cooperation with the United States and Japan in the Indo-Pacific region. In addition, Yoon’s values diplomacy has faced domestic criticism as opposition parties and portions of the South Korean public criticize the Yoon administration for taking a side in the sensitive and complicated ideological rivalry between the United States and China. Critics have noted the increasing trade deficit with China and mounting economic losses in the Chinese market by South Korean businesses. Furthermore, the upcoming 2024 U.S. presidential election and a potential change in presidential leadership could pose a challenge if the next U.S. administration were to abandon the normative or democratic components of U.S. foreign policy. In this sense, the pursuit of transactional foreign policy by the next U.S. administration could discourage South Korea’s values-based diplomacy and instill greater doubt within both the South Korean public and government regarding normative alignment with the United States.
Participants also questioned whether South Korea and the United States define universal values differently. Some noted that Yoon and his administration do not delineate the specific rights within universal values. For example, Yoon’s speech to the UN General Assembly highlighted the need to defend functional and development-oriented freedoms, but neglected to mention broader values such as freedom from discrimination for minority groups or the freedom of the press. On the other hand, universal values as defined by the United States prioritize human rights and possess an anti-Chinese leaning.
Thus, South Korea and the United States face obstacles to further normative alignment that require close cooperation and clear understanding to ensure the two allies are promoting universal and shared values in a united and coordinated manner.
- The U.S. and South Korean governments should find a common understanding of universal values to manage expectations about differing interpretations and perspectives.
- The South Korean government’s upholding of universal values should include all democratic norms and apply the promotion of human rights to all countries, including China.
- U.S. policymakers should acknowledge that South Korean alignment with the United States is not solely due to ideological support or complete support for liberal norms, but also contains elements of nationalism and considerations of national sovereignty.
- The United States and South Korea should strengthen ties between their diplomats and nongovernmental organizations focused on democracy to strengthen their countries’ commitments to human rights regardless of which political party is in power.