On March 9, Yoon Suk-Yeol won the South Korean presidency. Along with domestic social movements and housing policies, foreign policy existed as a central voting consideration in the presidential election. Most notably, South Korea’s role in the international sphere is shaped by its complex relationship with the United States, its only treaty ally, and China, its largest trading partner. Yoon, a former graft prosecutor with limited political experience, inherits the responsibility of a nation tasked with juggling these opposing forces.
President-elect Yoon shared in an April 14 interview with The Washington Post that he will bring the country to closer relations with democratic allies, such as the United States and the European Union. Yoon’s perspective is in line with a growing number of countries taking a firmer stance to counter China, particularly in the face of increasing Chinese aggression.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the QUAD, is one such of these alliances among the United States, Japan, Australia and India. The security group operates under a broad agenda to further technology and security, facilitate vaccine production and mitigate climate change.
Sung-Yoon Lee, Kim Koo-Korea Foundation professor in Korean studies and assistant professor at the Fletcher School, explained South Korea’s stance on the QUAD during President Moon Jae-in’s term.
“Under the [outgoing] administration, South Korea has been very reluctant to participate in any QUAD meetings, let alone join, because the Moon administration viewed reaching out to North Korea and not offending China to be a high priority,” Sung-Yoon Lee said. “Whereas the incoming Yoon administration … did say that … South Korea would be more than amenable to joining the QUAD [and] … would work with the U.S. and Australia and Japan on less sensitive issues like technology, environmental policy and so forth.”
Michael Beckley, an associate professor of political science, highlighted the undertones of QUAD.
“Even just a few years ago, I don’t think the United States could really count on some of these other countries really getting behind and joining forces with the United States in the same way,” Beckley said. “When I step back and look, it just seems like the QUAD is a manifestation of this broader push ... of just creating these ad hoc groupings to compete with China, because people have just been scared and exasperated by China’s behavior over the last decade.”
On top of that, South Korea’s response to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine warrepresents a critical foreign policy challenge, according to Sung-Yoon Lee. Overall, he criticized South Korea’slukewarm stance on the ongoing Ukrainian crisis under the current Moon administration.
“South Korea seems to be overly cautious of Russia … and really far less empathetic toward the tremendous suffering of the people of Ukraine than … most other democracies in the world,” Sung-Yoon Lee said. “The politicians, they remain indifferent … I think it’s a shame, because South Korea is such a global power.”
Contrary to Moon, however, Yoon is committed to a wider responsibility within the international community. In an April 14 interview with The Washington Post, Yoon stated that there should be increased South Korean aid to Ukraine.
Yoon is a member of the conservative People Power Party. His foreign policy agenda stands in stark contrast to that of Yoon’sprogressive predecessor, President Moon. The Moon administration has been largely characterized by a desire to increase dialogue with North Korea as well as a fear of antagonizing China, according to Sung-Yoon Lee.
For many, though, Moon’s stance was translated into deference to North Korea and China, as well as restricted freedom of expression according to a U.N. Human Rights report.
Beckley elaborated on how Moon’s foreign policy was received in the United States.
“South Korea is a very interesting case, because … a few years ago, a lot of policymakers in D.C. were actually worried about the collapse of the U.S.-South Korea Alliance and they saw, under the Moon administration, a regime that was so concerned about being friendly with North Korea and, by extension, China, that they weren't going to be a reliable ally going forward,” Beckley said.
Echoing Beckley’s sentiment, Sung-Yoon Lee drew attention to the Moon administration’s reluctance to deploy THAAD, an American anti-ballistic missile defense system in 2017. The deployment of THAAD was a security strategy for South Korea to defend against the North Korean missile threat.
To mitigate the economic strain from Chinese sanctions, the Moon administration made the following concessions to China, according to Sung-Yoon Lee: no additional deployment of THAAD, no joining of any U.S.-led missile system in the region and no security alliances with the United States and Japan.
“Critics say that South Korea did not even act like a sovereign state and completely caved to Chinese pressure,” Sung-Yoon Lee said.
Sung-Yoon Lee added that the Moon administration failed to counter North Korea’s violation of human rights, in his view, particularly those of North Korean defectors.
“In June 2020, Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, issued a written statement calling on South Korea to come up with a law to criminalize … sending across the border, into North Korea, leaflets that criticize her government [and] her brother,” Sung-Yoon Lee said. “The South Korean government said ‘okay,’ and came up with a law that bans not only sending leaflets but everything under the sun, anything that has any minimum exchange value.”
Overall, Sung-Yoon Lee shared his evaluation of the Moon administration.
“Many argue that human rights and democracy have regressed [and] taken a step back under [Moon’s] administration. The U.S. State Department every year issues a human rights report,” Sung-Yoon Lee said. “The latest … came out just a couple of days ago, and it does mention [that] freedom of expression [and] speech in South Korea has taken a step back.”
Leo Lee, a senior from Seoul, South Korea, who voted for Yoon in the presidential election, similarly expressed his discontent with the Moon administration.
“They’ve made it almost too obvious that they’re holding back on the criticism … There are a lot of people who say, ‘Oh, Moon is just cozying up to his overlords in China and in Beijing and Pyongyang,’” Lee said.
Despite Yoon’s victory, though, the opposing philosophies of both the incumbent president and his successor reveal a deep partisan split among the Korean people. Yoon won by an extremely thin margin, according to The New York Times.
Ryunsu Sung, a junior from South Korea, provided the context behind this year’s contested election.
“I personally disliked both candidates. I think it was one of the hardest [elections] ever … basically, there was just two versions of Trump from different parties. That’s what it felt like,” Sung said.
Moving forward, Beckley highlighted the uncertainty surrounding the current trajectory of South’s Korea’s foreign relations and its future.
“Things could swing back the other direction, and probably will, at some point. … It’s kind of like a pendulum going back and forth. But at least for right now, I think South Korea is a really key example of this broader phenomenon of countries, turning against China,”Beckley said.
As Yoon is expected to take office May 10, though, Lee shared his hopes for Yoon’s presidency, especially in light of his previous career as a prosecutor.
“We need to change our approach, which is why part of me is glad that the president is not a politician himself. Because I feel like this man [has spent] his life ... identifying enemies and allies and achieving a goal at all costs. That’s what prosecutors do,” Lee said. “I think at least you can trust his gut feeling. This is a person … at least, we can trust to be honest with us.”