Yoon’s Strong Start in Foreign Policy

Despite domestic setbacks, the new South Korean president’s diplomacy has been a success.

By , director of the Asia Program and the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Wilson Center.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol waves a national flag during a celebration of the 77th National Liberation Day in Seoul on Aug. 15.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol waves a national flag during a celebration of the 77th National Liberation Day in Seoul on Aug. 15.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol waves a national flag during a celebration of the 77th National Liberation Day in Seoul on Aug. 15. Ahn Young-Joon - Pool/Getty Images

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, a conservative who was elected in March, has just passed his 100th day in office. In that time, the new leader’s popularity has plummeted. In a Gallup Korea poll conducted in early August, only 24 percent of respondents approved of Yoon’s leadership—while 66 percent disapproved. His predecessor, Moon Jae-in, had a 45 percent approval rating when he left office in May.

Yoon’s low approval rating is largely due to domestic setbacks. His troubles include high energy prices, high inflation, and a record rainfall in early August that killed 11 people across the country. The public has also not been happy with Yoon’s appointment of former prosecutors to office, and his People Power Party has been tainted by various scandals. The party’s leader, Lee Jun-seok, for example, was handed a six-month suspension last month over allegations he accepted sexual favors as bribes on two instances in 2013. The latest hit to Yoon’s popularity came from a proposal to lower the school entry age by one year—from age 6 to age 5—to compel people to complete their education earlier and thereby expand the work force. This proposal proved so unpopular that Yoon’s education minister was forced to resign.

But, while South Koreans have been focused on domestic policy controversies, Yoon has quietly racked up an array of foreign-policy accomplishments that have strengthened the U.S.-South Korean alliance and elevated South Korea’s standing in the world, which were two of his major campaign promises. In a departure from the previous administration—which pursued a policy of hedging between the United States and China—Yoon and his aides said during the campaign that South Korea’s relationship with China needed to be built on greater mutual respect, and they promised to draw closer to the United States.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, a conservative who was elected in March, has just passed his 100th day in office. In that time, the new leader’s popularity has plummeted. In a Gallup Korea poll conducted in early August, only 24 percent of respondents approved of Yoon’s leadership—while 66 percent disapproved. His predecessor, Moon Jae-in, had a 45 percent approval rating when he left office in May.

Yoon’s low approval rating is largely due to domestic setbacks. His troubles include high energy prices, high inflation, and a record rainfall in early August that killed 11 people across the country. The public has also not been happy with Yoon’s appointment of former prosecutors to office, and his People Power Party has been tainted by various scandals. The party’s leader, Lee Jun-seok, for example, was handed a six-month suspension last month over allegations he accepted sexual favors as bribes on two instances in 2013. The latest hit to Yoon’s popularity came from a proposal to lower the school entry age by one year—from age 6 to age 5—to compel people to complete their education earlier and thereby expand the work force. This proposal proved so unpopular that Yoon’s education minister was forced to resign.

But, while South Koreans have been focused on domestic policy controversies, Yoon has quietly racked up an array of foreign-policy accomplishments that have strengthened the U.S.-South Korean alliance and elevated South Korea’s standing in the world, which were two of his major campaign promises. In a departure from the previous administration—which pursued a policy of hedging between the United States and China—Yoon and his aides said during the campaign that South Korea’s relationship with China needed to be built on greater mutual respect, and they promised to draw closer to the United States.

On May 21, Yoon had a successful summit with U.S. President Joe Biden in Seoul, where the two men reportedly established a good interpersonal rapport as they bonded over their pets and families. Yoon also announced during the meeting that South Korea would take part in the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and later agreed to attend preliminary talks to set up an alliance known as “Chip 4” with the United States, Japan, and Taiwan to ensure the security of semiconductor supply chains, despite initial reservations that doing so could anger China. Yoon said South Korea will ultimately decide whether to participate in Chip 4 after the preliminary meeting.

Yoon is expanding South Korea’s alliance with the United States beyond the security realm and into geopolitically charged economic terrain. He seeks expanded cooperation on issues including artificial intelligence, big data, quantum data computing, 5G, and aerospace—a “technological alliance” in part to reduce South Korea’s dependence on China. During Biden’s visit to South Korea, Samsung and Hyundai announced substantial investments in the United States. Two months later, during a visit to the White House, SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won unveiled a $22 billion investment in the United States to expand operations in the fields of semiconductors, green energy, and bioscience. This is expected to create tens of thousands of new jobs in the United States and lessen the reliance of both America and South Korea on semiconductor plants in embattled Taiwan, which lives under the constant threat of Chinese attack.

In June, Yoon flew to Madrid, where he became the first South Korean president to attend a NATO summit. There, NATO leaders dubbed Russia a “direct threat” and China a “systemic challenge.” Even though Yoon did not sign the NATO statement, his presence signaled that South Korea was aligning with the West. Yoon also held a brief meeting with Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on the sidelines to improve Seoul’s bilateral relations with Tokyo, which have been at a low point in recent years.

Following the NATO summit, the two countries’ foreign ministers have met several times, and, at a July 18 meeting, they agreed to coordinate on their North Korea policy and find a resolution to the thorny issue of forced Korean labor during World War II, which has strained bilateral relations in the recent years. On Monday, Yoon pledged to improve ties with Japan based on a 1998 declaration signed by both countries’ leaders to advance South Korean-Japanese relations through political, security, economic, and cultural exchanges.

While there are limits to how far Yoon can go in confronting China, which remains South Korea’s leading trade partner, he has made it known—much to Beijing’s displeasure—that he will not abide by his predecessor’s “three noes” policy: no additional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment, no participation in the U.S. missile defense network, and no trilateral military alliance with the United States and Japan. Yoon has described THAAD deployments as a means of self-defense, vital to South Korean security and “not negotiable” with China. Further improving their missile defenses, South Korean forces took part in missile tracking and warning exercises with U.S. and Japanese forces off the coast of Hawaii from Aug. 8 to 14.

Meanwhile, Yoon has not allowed pressure from China and North Korea to prevent the resumption of full-scale military exercises between the United States and South Korea, which then-U.S. President Donald Trump had suspended after his Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2018. The biggest such military exercise in years—Ulchi Freedom Shield—will begin in and around Seoul on Aug. 22 involving large numbers of U.S. and South Korean aircraft, warships, tanks, and troops.

Applying further pressure on North Korea, Yoon has also appointed a special ambassador for North Korean human rights for the first time in five years, even as the Biden administration has left its own North Korea human rights envoy position vacant despite vowing to fill it. The Moon administration, by contrast, left the North Korean human rights issue on the back burner for fear of jeopardizing inter-Korea relations—even passing legislation that formally prohibited civilians from flying anti-North Korea leaflets by balloon toward North Korea.

Yoon’s one misstep in foreign affairs so far came when he snubbed U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi during her visit to Seoul from Aug. 3 to 4. Although Yoon held a 40-minute phone call with Pelosi, he did not see her in person or send an official delegation to greet her when she landed in Seoul. Some ascribed Yoon’s decision to his desire to avoid offending China, as Pelosi had just come from her controversial and high-profile visit to Taiwan. Yoon maintains he was simply intent on sticking with his staycation in Seoul, away from official business.

Even if Yoon did not intend to snub Pelosi, this was still a tone-deaf move. The South Korean president risked offending one of the most powerful figures in U.S. politics while giving the impression that, after promising to be tougher on China, he was bending over backward not to offend Beijing.

The Pelosi incident aside, Yoon is still taking steps to toward fulfilling his promise to expand South Korea’s role in the Indo-Pacific and deepening the trilateral relationship among South Korea, the United States, and Japan. Yoon’s first 100 days may have seen turmoil on the domestic front, but his foreign policy is moving in the right direction.

Sue Mi Terry is director of the Asia Program and the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Wilson Center. Twitter: @SueMiTerry

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