Working Paper

Working Paper

[EAI Working Paper] Between Economic Interdependence and National Security: New Frontiers for ROK-US Trade Cooperation

  • 2020-12-07
  • Yul Sohn

ISBN  979-11-6617-066-9 95340

Editor's Note

On November 13, 2020, the EAI and Brookings institution jointly held the 2nd online seminar of the <After Trump> series titled "Prospects for U.S.-South Korea Cooperation in an Era of U.S.-China Strategic Competition". In session 2: economy, energy, and environment, Yul Sohn addressed that in contrast to the Unites States that can leverage its power to increase its strategic and economic counterbalance to China, South Korea is forced to play a more complex game. Given its deep yet asymmetric economic interdependence with China as well as demands for Chinese cooperation with regard to North Korean threats, South Korea needs to accommodate China while at the same time courting US engagement both economically and militarily. In that sense, two countries need strategic consultation and coordination over complex interdependence in the following three areas. 1) A recent development in weaponized trade and interdependence invoking national security boils down to the question of how we can restrain the abuse of a broader definition of security, namely over-securitization, and strike a right balance of national security and economic interdependence. South Korea underwent THAAD retaliation by China, US countervailing duties on steel and aluminum under Section 232, and Japan’s tightening of export controls over chemical components crucial to South Korea’s semiconductor industry. 2) Second question comes down to the China challenge, where the world is struggling to seek a collective approach against China’s disruptive mercantilist behaviors.  3) Last area of concern is the compelling need for a rules-based economic order in the region, which would restrain Chinese predation, America’s protectionism, increase middle power space, and sustain liberal norms.



Quotes from the Paper



For most of the period since the signing of the ROK-US alliance treaty in 1953, relations between South Korea and the United States have been characterized by bilateralism: primarily dyadic links have been developed in economic as well as political- security relationships. In the area of international trade and investment, the KOR-US FTA is a culmination point of bilateralism: by far, the largest bilateral FTA for each other.


Rising Tide of Aggressive Unilateralism

By the late-2010s, great powers tended to treat interdependence as a means that would pursue exclusive economic and strategic interests. They put a greater focus on relative economic gains and increased concern over security risks posed by interdependence while ostensibly upholding the tenets of the liberal international order. This trend posed a considerable dilemma for South Korea, which depends on military alliance with the US but economically with China. If economics and security are decoupled, South Korea will find no difficulty. The reality is the opposite: that South Korea has suffered three major trade shocks as economics and security were coupled negatively. All three came as a form of trade retaliations that invoked national security issue.


Beyond Bilateralism

Throughout the current co-project, there is a set of agreements (among the EAI scholars) including that either US nor China will win primacy in Asia; there is certainly no choice to thwart China rising; and these dichotomies are destructive for South Korea; and the decay of the US-led rules based order is undesirable. South Korea needs to restore an open, rules-based order that binds great powers to the rules.



Author’s Biography

Yul Sohn is the president of EAI and a professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies. He received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago. He previously served as the dean of Yonsei University GSIS, president of the Korean Association of International Studies, and president of the Korean Studies of Contemporary Japan. His research focuses on the Japanese and international political economy, East Asian regionalism, and public diplomacy. His recent publications include Japan and Asia's Contested Order (2018, with T.J. Pempel), and Understanding Public Diplomacy in East Asia (2016, with Jan Melissen).