South Korea’s December 28 release of its Indo-Pacific Strategy received an early endorsement from U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who described the strategy as “a reflection of our shared commitment to the region’s security and growing prosperity.” South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin referred to the strategy as the “de facto foreign policy doctrine” of the Yoon Suk-yeol administration. The strategy clearly reflects the Yoon administration’s themes of alignment with the United States based on shared values, stepping up as a “Global Pivotal State,” and South Korea’s high degree of economic interdependence in the Indo-Pacific. South Korea’s effective implementation of the strategy in practice will depend on how it manages regional relations with China, potential economic contradictions between economic growth and supply chain resiliency, and dual security challenges from China and North Korea.
Sullivan’s early endorsement of the strategy reflects that South Korea, simply by issuing an Indo-Pacific strategy, has joined a growing number of countries including the United States, Japan, India, France, Canada, and ASEAN in issuing strategy documents and statements that adopt the Indo-Pacific as a framing mechanism for describing approaches to regional relations rooted in shared universal values. For South Korea, the issuance of its Indo-Pacific strategy underscores the country’s commitment to a values-based alignment with the United States and other like-minded countries in its efforts to undergird regional security and prosperity. South Korea’s prioritization of the building of a rules-based regional order and promotion of the rule of law and human rights in its Indo-Pacific strategy represent central tenets of this approach.
In addition, South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy further reflects South Korea’s aspiration to step up to regional and global leadership by playing the role of a global pivotal state that “advances freedom, peace, and prosperity through liberal democratic values and substantial cooperation.” South Korea’s commitment to the expansion of comprehensive security cooperation, promotion of science and technology cooperation, leadership on climate change and energy security, tailored development cooperation, and strengthening two-way public diplomacy and person-to-person exchanges reflect South Korea’s aspiration to take leadership as a partner and provider in promoting mutual economic growth. Now that South Korea has reiterated its aspirations for leadership, much will depend on how the Yoon administration resources and manages specific policies to achieve these objectives.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy is its emphasis on the country’s trade dependency as a context for framing its strategic approach. The strategy notes that the Indo-Pacific region represents 78 percent of total exports and 67 percent of total imports to South Korea, two-thirds of South Korea’s foreign investments is directed to the Indo-Pacific, and 64 percent of South Korea’s inbound crude oil and 46 percent of inbound natural gas supplies pass through the South China Sea. These points provide an indirect case for the preservation of geopolitical order in the region that seeks to uphold and maintain inclusiveness, trust, and reciprocity, including with the elephant in the room—China.
But rising geopolitical risks are forcing South Korea to uphold supply chain resiliency and value technological cooperation with like-minded nations rather than continuing to face risks from unfair economic competition and stealth of technology. Despite experiencing such risks at the hands of China, rather than naming China as a “pacing challenge” as the United States does in its 2022 National Defense Strategy or calling out China as “an increasingly destructive, global power” as Canada did in its Indo-Pacific strategy, South Korea appeals to China to “nurture a healthier and more mature relationship as we pursue shared interests based on mutual respect and reciprocity.” Whether it will be possible for the Yoon administration to achieve a positive relationship with China based on the principles of inclusion and reciprocity while maintaining its alignment with the United States in favor of the rule of law and liberal international order will be a major test of Yoon’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
Furthermore, by framing its Indo-Pacific strategy around South Korea’s high degree of export dependency, the Yoon administration has highlighted the stakes and risks the country faces from shifting regional geopolitics. The establishment of cross-regional trade and investment relationships that preserve both South Korean and regional prosperity is a critical means by which South Korea may achieve its regional leadership goals as a global pivotal state. This means knowing when to adapt to changing geopolitical realities created by the rising U.S.-China rivalry and knowing how to build resilient economic relationships with regional partners designed to contain and manage geopolitical risk. South Korea’s cultivation of trade, aid, investment, and people-to-people ties with regional partners in Southeast Asia including but not limited to Vietnam (South Korea’s leading trade and investment partner in the region) and its ability to manage continued trade relations with China in spite of geopolitical headwinds will determine the success or failure of South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
Most significantly, South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy underscores the extent to which South Korea must simultaneously manage both peninsular and regional security risks through the pursuit of a dual strategy that addresses both the North Korea and China threat. South Korea cannot afford to ignore the North Korea threat, but it also can no longer afford to treat North Korea as a threat to South Korea’s security and prosperity to the exclusion of rising dangers to regional security. South Korea’s development of an Indo-Pacific strategy alongside robust U.S.-South Korean policy coordination to deter North Korean aggression has become more important as North Korea seeks to export insecurity regionally and globally through continued missile and nuclear development.
The development of regional coordination mechanisms most recently represented by the robust U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral leaders’ statement issued in November 2022 offers a new platform for simultaneously addressing peninsular and regional threats. In this respect, South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy will enable the country to gain regional help in dealing with North Korea while expanding cooperation with other countries to address challenges to stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.
South Korea’s leadership and regional stature have clearly grown in recent years, as has the scope of South Korean interests and capabilities to contribute more broadly to the promotion of regional security and prosperity. But whether the strategy is worthy of being considered as Yoon’s flagship foreign policy doctrine will depend not only on the issuance of such a strategy but also on its implementation. That is the challenge that the Yoon administration now faces.
The article was originally published on Korea on Point by the Sejong Institute.