On June 7, 2023, the Council on Foreign Relations’ program on U.S.-Korea Policy held a virtual workshop on U.S.-South Korean policy coordination toward the Indo-Pacific region. This workshop was made possible by a generous grant from the Smith Richardson Foundation.
The Yoon Suk-yeol administration unveiled its Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region on December 28, 2022. The Indo-Pacific strategy emphasizes South Korea’s national interests as directly linked to the region’s peace, prosperity, and stability and serves as South Korea’s foreign policy blueprint for becoming a “global pivotal state.” Expanding and deepening its bilateral partnerships in the region based on shared interests and values are central components to this strategy.
As the United States continues to forge a network of like-minded allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region that would bolster the regional-security architecture and advance collective resiliency and prosperity, it will be important for the United States and South Korea to enhance their policy coordination in the region. Such coordination will play a crucial role in strengthening the reliability of South Korea as a regional partner and its leadership capabilities.
Different Levels of Expectations Regarding China Between the United States and South Korea
The greatest challenge to enhanced U.S.-South Korea cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region involves their differing expectations for policy toward China. During the May 2023 Group of Seven (G7) meeting in Japan, U.S. President Joe Biden and leaders of the other G7 countries announced a strategy of de-risking but not de-coupling from China, which has received support from European countries and was received well by the South Korean public.
As indicated in its Indo-Pacific strategy, South Korea is pursuing cooperation with China based on the principles of inclusiveness, trust, and reciprocity, as China remains South Korea’s largest economic partner. Meanwhile, the United States increasingly views China as a peer competitor and “pacing challenge.” Participants agreed that the United States and South Korea have yet to fully close the gap on how to respond to China’s growing threat as a global power.
Thus, the management of different expectations between the United States and South Korea, albeit pursued within the context of complementary approaches, serves as a challenge to deepening regional cooperation between the two allies. This challenge is particularly felt in hot-spot issues such as a potential Taiwan contingency: the United States has strengthened its rhetoric and deepened support for defending Taiwan while South Korea has exhibited greater caution in speaking out.
- Minimize the gaps in understanding between the United States and South Korea regarding the domains for cooperation, competition, and conflict regarding China.
- Ensure an understanding among U.S. policymakers that South Korea’s policy toward China could differ due to the country’s specific history and past experiences with China.
- Remove ambiguity within South Korea’s policy toward China so as to clarify South Korea-China relations based on mutual benefit and respect.
Different Levels of Expectation Regarding North Korea Between the United States and South Korea
A second challenge facing U.S.-South Korea regional cooperation is the different priority level attached to managing relations with North Korea relative to broader Indo-Pacific concerns. While South Korea’s new Indo-Pacific strategy emphasizes the North Korean issue as an Indo-Pacific issue, South Korea has in the past been hesitant to step up its contributions to broader Indo-Pacific needs because of the threat posed by North Korea. However, South Korea is currently viewed as more willing to pursue proactive measures toward North Korea, such as strengthening extended deterrence. South Korea’s focus on addressing the North Korean issue could conflict with the perception that the United States is deprioritizing North Korea and focusing instead on broader regional issues to counter China, leading to differing capacities and readiness capabilities.
In strengthening U.S.-South Korea extended deterrence efforts on North Korea, participants noted the significance of the Washington Declaration and the creation of the Nuclear Consultative Group. The Washington Declaration, announced on April 26, 2023, between Presidents Joe Biden and Yoon Suk Yeol, deepens alliance-based planning and decision-making on U.S. nuclear deterrence through enhanced dialogue and information sharing, strengthens South Korean conventional support for U.S. nuclear operations, and creates a new interagency table-top simulation for nuclear contingencies. Establishing a mechanism to build greater South Korean assurance to make U.S. security pledges more credible should also help South Korea contribute more to Indo-Pacific security.
- Establish a standing institution for implementing the Washington Declaration, similar to NATO headquarters in Brussels, which ensures a consultation and coordination mechanism between the United States and South Korea.
Domestic Polarization as an Obstacle for Strengthening U.S. and South Korean Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific
Domestic political polarization in South Korea has emerged as a potentially significant obstacle to South Korea realizing the goals outlined in its Indo-Pacific strategy. Participants agreed on the need for the Yoon administration to communicate more diligently to the South Korean public on the importance of an enhanced South Korean foreign policy profile in the region. As the prevalent sentiment among the South Korean public questions the country’s alignment with U.S. regional efforts, which was reinforced by the Donald Trump administration’s America First approach toward foreign policy, the Yoon administration should make a stronger case to the South Korean public on the benefits and importance of South Korean support of the rules-based international order.
- Educate the South Korean public on the benefits of enhanced U.S.-South Korean cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region and South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
- Ensure the durability of South Korean commitment in the Indo-Pacific region across changes in government.
- Pursue internal consensus-building measures to gain support on polarizing foreign policy issues so that South Korean efforts in the Indo-Pacific region are not constrained by domestic polarization and politicization.
Diversifying South Korea’s Regional Network Through Minilateral and Multilateral Cooperation
South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy identifies six regions for expanding the country’s geographical scope of strategic cooperation: (1) the North Pacific, (2) Southeast Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), (3) South Asia, (4) Oceania, (5) the African Coast of the Indian Ocean, and (6) Europe and Latin America. Participants welcomed the focus on Australia and India in South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy as well as in the recently unveiled National Security Strategy. Some participants noted that while Australia and India are important players in the Indo-Pacific region, South Korea’s bilateral relations with those countries remain underdeveloped. Other participants noted that the South Korea-India relationship is the weakest bilateral link for South Korea among the Quad (the informal security dialogue among the United States, Australia, India, and Japan) countries.
As South Korea pivots from a narrow focus on the Korean Peninsula to a broader regional strategy toward the Indo-Pacific region, it will be important that South Korea expand its partnerships in the region.
- Explore new avenues of cooperation through expanded formats such as trilateral and minilateral coalitions that synergize the efforts of multiple countries.
- Consider additional forums and partnerships in addressing the North Korean threat, especially since North Korea poses a global challenge on which the UN Security Council remains divided.
- Strengthen South Korea’s involvement with the Quad working groups on economic security and emerging technology as South Korean membership into the Quad remains unlikely in the near-term future.
- Enhance South Korea’s defense-industrial cooperation within the region and garner support from neighboring countries through the use of soft power.