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South Korea Wants to Be a Player, Not a Bystander

With elections close, a rising country considers its place in the world.

By , an assistant professor of political science at Kangwon National University in South Korea, and , SK-Korea Foundation chair and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor of politics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
A man looks at posters ahead of South Korea's presidential election.
A man looks at posters ahead of South Korea's presidential election.
A man looks at posters of South Korea's presidential candidates in Seoul on March 6. Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images

With South Korea’s March 9 presidential election just around the corner, the two leading candidates, Lee Jae-myung of the progressive Democratic Party of Korea and Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative People Power Party, have proposed contrasting foreign policies aligned with their respective domestic political bases. For instance, Lee mentioned U.S. culpability behind Japan’s forced annexation of Korea in 1905 during his meeting with U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, thus pleasing progressives less enamored by the United States. Meanwhile, Yoon spewed anti-China statements, thus pandering to conservative supporters. However, a foreign policy aimed at satisfying one’s political base will ultimately fall flat. The next South Korean president must instead establish a long-term vision built around core values that will help the nation navigate the vicissitudes of great-power competition and, in the process, enhance South Korea’s international standing by actively contributing to a rules-based order.

South Korean foreign policy is often described as a choice between alliance-shared values and economic interests. In South Korea, this choice is often framed as “the United States for security and China for economy.” This dichotomy has become much less useful in a world where security and economics are intertwined and where values intersect with strategic priorities and economic realities.

South Korea’s diplomatic posture of strategic ambiguity—its reticence in taking sides during great-power rivalries—has become increasingly untenable in an era of intensifying geopolitical rivalry. Moreover, the practice of strategic ambiguity, especially within the rules-based order, does not align well with South Korean national interests and identity as a democratic, cosmopolitan nation. Indeed, the Moon administration’s unwillingness to speak out more forcefully against Chinese economic coercion, human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and unlawful sovereignty claims in the South China Sea has given the appearance that South Korea wants to stay playing a balancing role in Northeast Asia. But this is a recipe for irrelevance: South Korea’s foreign policy will remain limited and unpersuasive without clear values.

With South Korea’s March 9 presidential election just around the corner, the two leading candidates, Lee Jae-myung of the progressive Democratic Party of Korea and Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative People Power Party, have proposed contrasting foreign policies aligned with their respective domestic political bases. For instance, Lee mentioned U.S. culpability behind Japan’s forced annexation of Korea in 1905 during his meeting with U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, thus pleasing progressives less enamored by the United States. Meanwhile, Yoon spewed anti-China statements, thus pandering to conservative supporters. However, a foreign policy aimed at satisfying one’s political base will ultimately fall flat. The next South Korean president must instead establish a long-term vision built around core values that will help the nation navigate the vicissitudes of great-power competition and, in the process, enhance South Korea’s international standing by actively contributing to a rules-based order.

South Korean foreign policy is often described as a choice between alliance-shared values and economic interests. In South Korea, this choice is often framed as “the United States for security and China for economy.” This dichotomy has become much less useful in a world where security and economics are intertwined and where values intersect with strategic priorities and economic realities.

South Korea’s diplomatic posture of strategic ambiguity—its reticence in taking sides during great-power rivalries—has become increasingly untenable in an era of intensifying geopolitical rivalry. Moreover, the practice of strategic ambiguity, especially within the rules-based order, does not align well with South Korean national interests and identity as a democratic, cosmopolitan nation. Indeed, the Moon administration’s unwillingness to speak out more forcefully against Chinese economic coercion, human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and unlawful sovereignty claims in the South China Sea has given the appearance that South Korea wants to stay playing a balancing role in Northeast Asia. But this is a recipe for irrelevance: South Korea’s foreign policy will remain limited and unpersuasive without clear values.

Drawing on its identity as a democratic middle power, South Korea can enhance its credibility on the global stage by approaching both domestic and international issues with support for democracy and support for a rules-based order. Diplomatic initiatives that respect values can offer strategic clarity and lead to new opportunities that enhance South Korea’s interests.

Support for a values-based diplomacy also aligns with the Biden administration’s recently released Indo-Pacific Strategy, which stresses the need for democratic deterrence among regional allies and partners to counter threats to democracy. Russian aggression in Ukraine is another push for like-minded democratic countries to show solidarity to secure rules-based order. The United States, South Korea, and other allies can help shape new rules and standards that govern supply chains, digital governance, and emerging technologies. In the absence of U.S. leadership and investment, regional actors may veer toward alternative models that come with strings attached, undermine privacy rights and data security, or enable social repression.

Part of this should be the expansion of multilateral measures. South Korea has lagged behind other regional actors in utilizing multilateralism to enhance its own strategic interests. Although strengthened ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and India under the New Southern Policy was a step in the right direction, South Korea adopted a relatively passive approach to multilateral security cooperation. A focus on inter-Korea relations and fears of antagonizing China have steered South Korean diplomats away from developing multilateral ties with “like-minded” partners.

The Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy opens the door for the next South Korean president to strengthen the region’s security architecture. In the case of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and AUKUS, the United States is trying to utilize multilateral cooperation to contend with changes taking place within the Indo-Pacific region. As a supplier of global public goods in the nontraditional security and development space, South Korea can cooperate with the United States and other like-minded partners to address transnational issues. This includes tackling current and future pandemics by working together with other Quad countries to expand vaccine manufacturing capacity in the region and possibly making South Korea a vaccine hub in Asia. On climate change, South Korea and the United States support several climate resilience and adaptation projects in the Pacific islands, an area of growing strategic significance for the United States and its partners.

States within and outside the Indo-Pacific region openly participate in multilateral cooperation in ways that help secure their national interests. A number of bilateral and trilateral relations forged among democratic countries do not involve the United States, highlighting the voluntary nature of regional coalition-building. The Australia-Japan-India, India-France-Australia, and Australia-India-Indonesia trilaterals are but a few recent examples.

These emerging democratic coalitions can enhance the resiliency of members against economic coercion by revisionist powers and strengthen deterrence to deal with threats that destabilize the region such as North Korea’s missile provocations and Chinese gray-zone tactics. The crisis in Ukraine has added a further twist to Indo-Pacific affairs, creating ripple effects that will recast China-Russia relations, further disrupt supply chains, and require the United States’ allies and partners to reassess their own defense postures. South Korea must navigate these global challenges in concert with democratic allies and partners and actively participate in multilateral coalitions to expand a regional order favorable to its own values and interests.

U.S.-China competition is ultimately a contest over the future direction of the international order. Rather than remain on the sidelines or languish in between U.S.-Sino rivalry, the next president must contribute to shaping a rules-based order consistent with South Korea’s values and interests.

Kuyoun Chung is an assistant professor of political science at Kangwon National University in South Korea.

Andrew Yeo is SK-Korea Foundation chair and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor of politics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

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