How South Korea’s Foreign Policy Could Change Under the New President

In Brief

How South Korea’s Foreign Policy Could Change Under the New President

President-Elect Yoon Suk-yeol has pledged to strengthen ties with the United States and take a more hard-line approach toward China and North Korea than his predecessor.

South Korean voters elected the opposition People Power Party’s Yoon Suk-yeol as their next president by a margin of less than 1 percent. A political neophyte with no prior foreign policy experience, Yoon will have to cooperate with political rivals to effectively implement both his domestic and foreign policies.

How could South Korea’s foreign policy change under Yoon?

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United States. Yoon’s foreign policy platform emphasizes closer alignment with the United States through a “comprehensive strategic alliance.” He indicated that his first priority as president will be to strengthen the alliance with the United States by visiting Washington. He received his first congratulatory call following the election from U.S. President Joe Biden and he will likely send his personal envoy to Washington during the transition to begin close coordination of policies. 

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North Korea. He has pushed for strengthening defense and deterrence to achieve North Korea’s denuclearization while keeping the door open to dialogue. North Korea’s abandonment of self-restraint in pursuit of military development is contributing to renewed peninsular tensions, and North Korean provocations have served as early tests for previous presidents-elect.

China. Yoon has said he will work to build a bilateral relationship based on mutual respect. But Beijing is likely to object to Seoul’s conservative tilt toward Washington, as well as Yoon’s interest in securing batteries to expand the coverage of a U.S.-installed anti-ballistic missile defense system, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), in response to North Korea’s missile development.

Japan. Yoon has pledged to restore relations with Tokyo. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida congratulated Yoon and said that he hopes they can work together to improve Japan-South Korea ties. But Yoon will have to find a solution that overcomes obstacles resulting from South Korean legal judgments on so-called comfort women, who were forced into sexual slavery in the lead-up to and during World War II, and forced labor.

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Global leadership. In a February article for Foreign Affairs, Yoon pledged to expand the scope of South Korean foreign policy beyond peninsular preoccupations to make the country a “global pivotal state” that “advances freedom, peace, and prosperity through liberal democratic values and substantial cooperation.” Many leading democracies will welcome Yoon’s desire to step up to international leadership, but it is possible that China and North Korea could work to pull Yoon’s focus back to his immediate neighborhood.

What are Yoon’s priorities?

Yoon stated during his inaugural press conference that his government will be grounded on South Korea’s identity as a liberal democracy and market economy.

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His top priority will be overcoming political polarization. He will have to convince the Korean public that he is devoted to national interests rather than to party or personal interests. And he will have to cooperate with a National Assembly controlled by the rival Democratic Party to appoint a prime minister and cabinet.

President-Elect Yoon pumps his fist and smiles.
South Korean President-Elect Yoon Suk-yeol celebrates his election victory. Song Kyung-seok/Reuters

Yoon inherits deepening divisions within South Korean society around income and gender inequality. His platform promises to address these issues through deregulation and market-led policies, in contrast to the outgoing administration of President Moon Jae-in and his main campaign rival, Lee Jae-myung, who advocated government-led solutions to these problems. The Yoon campaign also alienated young women and politicized preexisting gender divides, which could become points of vulnerability for his administration.

Election exit polls show that almost 30 percent of voters identified economic growth and job creation as the highest priority for the new administration, while another 22 percent put housing prices at the top. About one-third of people who voted for Yoon said fairness and justice should be the most important values for the next administration, over aims such as growth, stability, and welfare.

What does Yoon’s victory mean for South Korean democracy?

The election revealed South Korea’s deep political polarization, which could be a significant problem for the Yoon administration. The public’s relatively high trust in government, which enabled the country to successfully navigate the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been increasingly challenged by disinformation and conspiracy theories resulting in part from political polarization.

Still, South Korea’s independent and nonpartisan National Election Commission successfully ran a very close presidential election. The results were uncontested despite missteps in organizing separate voting hours for COVID-19 patients and some reports of mishandled ballots. Lee’s concession without controversy and Moon’s congratulatory call to Yoon both indicate the health of South Korean democracy.

Another looming challenge is the presidential transition. A pattern has emerged of new administrations investigating corruption allegations that are often politically motivated to punish the party that is no longer in power. Yoon is a former prosecutor who has publicly pledged to examine the excesses of his predecessor, but he has an opportunity here to show restraint and break the cycle by strictly keeping a distance from the prosecution and insisting on a high evidentiary standard for cases deemed to be political. It would be a step forward for South Korean politics to stop an unsavory tradition by which former presidents usually spend time in jail.

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