Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 12 April 2024


A Humbled Yoon Must Future-Proof Seoul’s Alliances

The South Korean president suffered a damaging loss in elections, but it must not lead to more whiplash foreign policy.

Powering ahead.
Powering ahead. Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg


South Korea’s parliamentary elections are not a referendum on the foreign policy of President Yoon Suk Yeol. Indeed, foreign policy barely ranks on the list of voters concerns, which was dominated by familiar themes of inflation, housing and the economy.

The public is well within their rights to give Yoon a black eye, such is dissatisfaction with issues including the handling of the ongoing doctors’ strike — not to mention the aloofness of the first couple that has made green onions and Dior handbags part of the national conversation.

The disastrous defeat suffered by Yoon’s People Power Party will leave him close to a lame duck with most of his five-year term still to go. Keep in mind that he barely squeaked through when elected two years ago, and there has clearly not been popular support for his approach to South Korea’s place in Asia, and the broader world.

Nonetheless, there will be concern in Washington, where President Joe Biden is hosting his counterpart from Tokyo, Fumio Kishida, in the first state visit by a Japanese leader for nine years. With its historic trilateral summit at Camp David last year between the US, Japan and South Korea, the Biden administration has given its full support for Yoon’s outreach to Japan, putting wartime grievances to one side to deepen its alliances with Tokyo.

That flurry of diplomacy surrounding the meeting, and restoring ties with its neighbor without seeking a face-saving fresh round of apologies for the war, was a risky decision — one that has had little upside for Yoon himself. The South Korean public highly rates the US alliance, but it’s warier of increasing closeness with Japan.

However, South Korea need only look to Washington to see which way the wind is blowing. As the US moves away from China, it is speeding inexorably closer to Japan, which is fast becoming perhaps its most important international ally. Japan is not just strategically located in any potential conflict with China, it is also becoming an increasingly vocal presence on the global stage.

At a time when the trilateral relationship needs to be deepened to counter not just China, but a North Korea that has deemed the South its “principal enemy,” the prospect of a weak Yoon presidency is already concerning allies. While his domestic agenda will be hobbled, the president does not need parliamentary approval for foreign-policy initiatives — and must power ahead.

Global partners frequently express concern about the whiplash in South Korea’s foreign policy when the presidency changes hands, as it often does in Seoul. While in part this reflects the health of democracy in the one-time dictatorship, it makes it difficult to build lasting alliances.

Now, the prospect of a potential premiership of Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung in 2027 will have many in Tokyo and Washington worried. The Democratic Party’s fondness for outreach to Pyongyang is one thing; Kishida is also looking for a summit with Kim Jong Un, perhaps keen on a foreign-policy win to boost his popularity. What would be more alarming is a potential return to the divisive policies of Yoon’s predecessor Moon Jae-in, when historical grievances took precedence over potential future conflicts.

Lee, who narrowly lost to Yoon in 2024 and will be in a strong position to succeed him in 2027, has denounced the detente with Japan as “submissive diplomacy.” Previously, he has dragged up old demands for wartime apologies of the sort that have bogged down relations for years. Most shamefully, his remarks on the release of treated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant — which he deemed an act of “terror” and likened to a “second Pacific War” — echo the opportunistic and profoundly unscientific sentiment from Beijing.

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There was perhaps a time and place for South Korea to seek to hew to the US but not Japan. The tinderbox that is East Asia in an era of potential US-China conflict is not it. Seoul must of course balance its ties with Beijing. But it must also double down on the trilateral relationship. Some believe that Beijing sees South Korea as the “weakest link” in the alliance between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington. Joining Japan as a potential Pillar II partner in the Aukus defense pact would be a good start.

Ahead of a potential return of Donald Trump to the White House, leaders of some nations have described the need to make their alliances “Trump-proof.” Seoul must similarly make its partnerships deep enough to survive future political transitions.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Japan and the Koreas. He previously led the breaking news team in North Asia, and was the Tokyo deputy bureau chief.
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