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Scaling-up Seoul’s Game in the Indo-Pacific

Dr Titli Basu is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • March 14, 2022

    As President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol steps into the Blue House on 10 May, a pertinent question would be, how will he situate South Korea in the Indo-Pacific game? Instead of just being consumed by competing geopolitics in the Peninsula and the end state, Seoul must carve out a greater role for itself in the Indo-Pacific.  

    While the world is shaken up with Moscow upending the Euro-Atlantic strategic calculations, East Asian theatre remains volatile. Pyongyang’s rammed up ballistic missile launches and US–China strategic competition pose hard choices for middle powers that will test Yoon’s metal. Additionally, how the China–Russia alignment shores up, both key stakeholders in Northeast Asian security, will affect Seoul’s policy conversations. Sitting on the fence with its measured “strategic ambiguity”1 may not serve national interest.

    Amid a fierce race to power between the progressives and conservatives, democracy thrived and South Korea witnessed an impressive 77 per cent voter turnout on 9 March elections despite a surge in COVID-19 cases. Battle for the Blue House between liberal Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative People Power Party (PPP) remained tight till the finish line with less than one percentage point difference between the two, though the journey was marred by political slander, allegations of fraud and corruption. The close numbers, however, underscore sharp fault lines within the electorate across regions, generations and gender dynamics.  

    The resurgence of the conservatives’ has been an uphill task following the erosion of public trust with former presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye’s fall from grace. In the Korean ideological mosaic of the progressives, moderates and conservatives, PPP may have gained from some moderate swing who are disillusioned with the performance deficit of the progressives. Signs of constructive gains surfaced in last April’s mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan2.

    President Moon Jae-in’s mismanagement of economy, unemployment, housing prices and land speculation scandals on domestic front and his North Korea gambit and China strategy on regional front considerably eroded public confidence. Meanwhile, the impact of Russia–Ukraine conflict on material input for semiconductor production and the tech-industry will be a colossal challenge for the new president. Also, Moscow’s listing of South Korea as an "unfriendly" nation following sanctions will add to the existing woes.

    As President Moon makes way, what promise does Yoon Suk-yeol hold for the Indo-Pacific? How can Seoul scale-up as a “responsible and respected” power in international politics?

    President-elect Yoon’s position on key verticals: US–China strategic competition, US–South Korea alliance, North Korea, South Korea–Japan and the Quad mark a stark departure from Moon Jae-in’s vision.  In his article in Foreign Affairs, he envisages South Korea as a “global pivotal state” anchored on liberal values and a rules-based order.

    As a beneficiary of the US-led order, Yoon advocates much deeper investment in US–South Korea alliance to maintain a favourable defence posture in the Peninsula. Alliance managers will be preoccupied with transfer of wartime operational authority to South Korean military, and integrating command-and-control systems into a unified structure.

    Besides firming up Seoul’s air and missile defences, Yoon argues for buttressing the alliance with regular US–South Korea table-top exercises. Doubling down on ‘Extended Deterrence Strategy’ is likely. This aligns well with Biden’s Indo-Pacific Strategy that argues for modernising alliances.

    Yoon’s initial message on Seoul’s role in advancing a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific is a positive one. He supports engaging with Quad working groups; perhaps working closely on 5G, semiconductors, critical minerals, and infrastructure will help in delivering global public goods. Five Eyes could be yet another strategic opportunity.

    However, balancing Seoul’s interest in the US–China–South Korea triangle is a litmus test. Yoon may refuse to take a submissive posture towards Beijing drawing from the prevailing public sentiments towards China. He remained an ardent critique of President Moon’s “overly accommodating gestures meant to placate China” with reference to THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) deployments and the “Three Nos” undercutting national interests3 .

    Certainly, cooperation with China is important given its economic opportunity and leverage vis-à-vis Pyongyang, but coercive economic tactics employed by Beijing should not dissuade Seoul from pursuing a “principled position”. Yoon signalled a bolder approach, back-pedalling Moon’s amenable policy stance which may have emboldened Beijing.  

    Dealing with a belligerent Pyongyang will be the most pressing challenge. Yoon is guided by a conservative approach prioritising denuclearisation, anchored on corresponding measures and reciprocity. In debates, Yoon has underscored the option of pre-emptive strike of the kill chain. He remains open to the option of additional THAAD deployments if it is deemed necessary for national security. While he would build on the gains of inter-Korea dialogues, He is unlikely to pursue end-of-war declaration prior to denuclearisation.

    There may be a breath of fresh air for Seoul–Tokyo relations. Yoon realises the strategic significance of Japan and is willing to bridge the trust-deficit between the two critical US allies. This will be a force multiplier for Biden’s larger regional security strategy to manage threats emanating from Pyongyang through US–South Korea–Japan trilateral framework. But the conversation on sensitive issues, from emotive history to export controls, may take place on a slippery slope.

    Sharpening Seoul’s global leadership in overseas development assistance; stepping up on the frontline of climate change and global health will be a net positive. Remaining a frontrunner in high-tech innovation is imperative. Deepening cooperation with democracies on critical supply chains including semiconductors, batteries, and setting standards for digital governance, cyber, strategic technologies and space will be the priority. As Yoon’s foreign policy objective is to secure the rules-based order together with other democracies, India and ASEAN will continue to get priority as it did in Moon’s New Southern Policy, but maybe under a different name.

    Yoon’s journey from prosecutor general to the highest office navigated the precarious path of Korean politics. As he takes charge amid global disorder and deep domestic divide, his legacy will be defined by how well he succeeds in effectively walking the talk of positioning Seoul front and centre in shaping a rules-based order in Indo-Pacific.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.