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How COVID-19 Has Affected the Geopolitics of Korea
Published July 30, 2021
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COVID-19 has not gone away, and observers are now discussing possible long-term effects of the pandemic, including on geopolitics. A report by the European Parliament discussed five COVID-generated factors that could impact the geopolitical environment, i.e., supply chains, health multilateralism, digital diplomacy, climate change, and democratic activism. It predicted a reshuffling of value chains, where cooperation within the same “bloc” would be strengthened, while states continue their reshoring efforts, consequently shifting the current geopolitical environment. The report pointed out that the pandemic necessitated
thorough scientific cooperation and information sharing beyond the level that the WHO had initially offered, suggesting changes in patterns of behavior, as in adapting to digital platforms while opening opportunities for nations to counter climate change and strengthen their geopolitical positions. Moreover, it also looked at the number of protests resulting from the pandemic and its economic effects and suggested that such pressure would encourage governments to mollify inequality. Missing is optimism that countries will be stirred to pursue common interests. Missing too is the geopolitical fallout from acutely worsening Sino-U.S. relations, as in South Korea, which stands at the forefront of states facing pressure from both sides.

With the unforeseen disruption in both global and domestic economies, much attention has been paid to the effect of COVID-19 on the economic side rather than the political side, perhaps because many did not expect that the pandemic would last this long. However, recent disruptions are clearly rife with serious political implications, both domestically and globally. Above all, as seen from Seoul, their impact on the relationship between Beijing and Washington demonstrated how much the economic forces could spill into geopolitics. Koreans follow this impact attentively, realizing that worsening Sino-U.S. ties
may reverberate on one or both powers, increasing pressure on Seoul’s efforts to sustain a precarious balance for the sake of its North Korean policy and its hope for regional stability.

Many nations in the Indo-Pacific have recently struggled between the United States and China, trying to find the most advantageous equilibrium between security and economy. South Korea has uniquely stood on the frontlines, as in 2016-17 when it bowed to the U.S. and deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense targeting North Korea, which was met with strong Chinese pressure—strict economic sanctions through unofficial channels and demands to promise the “three noes” that restricted further missile defense deployment to deescalate the tension. President Biden’s new measures to bridge security and economy through multilateralism call for Seoul to choose between acceding to U.S. requests or risking China’s threats to respond aggressively—even as some anti-THAAD sanctions remain in place. President Xi Jinping’s warnings point to China’s harsh response.

South Korean concerns have grown because of the relationship between the current global supply chains and geopolitics, which is a preoccupation of the Biden administration. Situated at the juncture of supply networks centering around China, South Korea’s economy is almost certain to be heavily hit. Furthermore, the pandemic brought ongoing pressures for de-globalization and de-dollarization to the forefront with major ramifications for Seoul. Much of the anxiety has focused on the geopolitics of deteriorating relations between Beijing and Washington. The former is warning Seoul against joining the Quad, agreeing to trilateralism with Japan and the U.S., and tilting the balance away from China in the Sino-U.S.-ROK triangle. Meanwhile, the Biden administration, even before it clarifies its regional strategy, is nudging Seoul in precisely the opposite direction. The year 2020 raised challenging issues for Seoul, which loom in 2021 as more severe geopolitical tests for the Moon administration.

To properly gauge the effect of COVID-19 on South Korea’s geopolitics, it is crucial to understand the world before the pandemic. Has COVID-19 functioned as an independent variable in South Korean geopolitics? If there is a discernable difference, we have to see whether that difference was caused by COVID-19. This paper proceeds in four parts: 1) outlining the pre-pandemic status quo up until 2020; 2) assessing how COVID-19 affected international geopolitics; 3) examining how it influenced South Korea’s supply chain and geopolitics; and 4) analyzing ongoing discourse on South Korea’s strategic choice amid the U.S.-China rivalry. These sections are followed by brief conclusions on implications for policy choices.

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