Nearly two years into the presidency of Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea has made a geopolitical pivot of potentially historic proportions.
The Yoon admіnistration has firmly rejected the prioritisation of engagement with North Korea that was a foundation of the previous president Moon Jae-in’s progressive government, embarking on an increasingly confrontational approach to the Pyongyang regime. In a similarly significant reversal, the current government has successfully pursued a rapprochement with neighbouring Japan. Seoul has eschewed a focus on wartime history issues in favour of normalisation and a growing trilateral partnership on regional and global policy with Japan and the United States. Yoon has also taken a less accommodating approach to China, even leaning toward joining steps to contain its rise.
These moves have been set on a foundation of a strengthened security alliance with the United States, embodied in steps by the US to provide greater assurance of extended deterrence and in South Korea’s willingness to align itself with US strategic interests.
While the pivot in South Korean foreign and security policy is clearly a product of the change in political leadership in 2022, it does reflect to some degree a shift in public opinion. A trio of recent polls conducted by the East Asia Institute (EAI) confirm that support for the South Korea–US alliance remains deep, with almost three-quarters of South Koreans holding a favourable view of the United States. At the same time, these polls also show growing unfavourable views of China. Improvement of relations with Japan also garners increasing support, though this is mostly seen as a part of building ties to the US.
With North Korea, Yoon has unambiguously tied an improvement in relations to the cessation of its nuclear development program and clear steps toward denuclearisation, in return for which he offered an ‘audacious initiative’ of economic assistance.
In November 2022, Yoon joined US President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio in issuing a Phnom Penh Statement on trilateral partnership in the Indo-Pacific that pledged to ‘align our collective efforts in pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific’, the first time Seoul had embraced that framework. In December 2022, the Yoon admіnistration unveiled an Indo-Pacific strategy that reframed South Korea’s role as a ‘global pivotal state’ with a regional and global approach to its security.
The Indo-Pacific strategy document marked a clear departure from South Korea’s previous security focus on North Korea and resistance to the use of Korean-based forces for regional security goals. Among other things, the statement called for cooperation on maritime security in the region, specifically mentioning the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
But Seoul did try to avoid a confrontational approach toward China and identified it as a key partner, stressing the importance of trilateral cooperation between Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing. There is interest in resuming the trilateral leaders’ summits that have been interrupted since 2019. As the EAI polls made clear, the public, along with the business community, is wary of following the United States into an economic war with China at the cost of South Korea’s own economic growth.
Yoon has relentlessly sought to improve relations with Japan, based on his understanding that a reversal in the downturn in relations with Tokyo was a predicate for the larger goal of solidifying security ties to the United States. In March, Yoon visited Tokyo where he offered a unilateral solution to the forced labour issue, a consequence of the failure to reach a diplomatic agreement with Japan. That decision did lead to the reciprocal visit of Kishida to Korea and Yoon’s participation as a guest at the G7 Summit in Hiroshima in May, but it was hardly popular and it is being challenged in the courts. Japan’s refusal to contribute to a fund for compensation to former forced laborers threatens to undermine the progress already made.
The decision also opened the door to Yoon’s much ballyhooed state visit to the United States in April, crowned by an address to Congress and a rare state dinner at the White House. Yoon and Biden also issued the ‘Washington Declaration’, which crucially dampened talk of a South Korean nuclear option by reaffirming its commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty while strengthening US extended deterrence guarantees.
In response to the heightened pace of North Korean missile testing, the two militaries have stepped up training and contingency planning to respond to possible nuclear use and to deepen counter-missile strategy, including trilateral missile defence exercises with Japan.
All these developments reached a culmination in the convening of the 18 August Camp David summit meeting of Biden, Yoon and Kishida, the first stand-alone trilateral summit among the three leaders. The joint statement, ‘the Spirit of Camp David’, proclaimed the existence of shared stances on geopolitical competition — a thinly veiled reference to China, climate change, the Russian aggression against Ukraine and North Korea’s ‘nuclear provocations’.
While the Camp David meeting fell far short of what the Chinese saw as a new collective security systеm, the three leaders did agree on the creation of a mechanism of trilateral consultation in response to ‘regional challenges, provocations, and threats that affect our collective interests and security’. The statement enumerated many of those threats, from maritime security to cybersecurity but also ranged towards cooperation on trilateral economic security issues such as supply chain resilience, technology security and advanced technology development. Officials from the three countries have also been meeting with growing regularity to implement these commitments.
The permanence of these shifts in South Korean foreign and security policy remains to be proven. But the longer they are in place, the more chance they have to become truly historic in nature.