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The Peninsula

2022 in Review: U.S.-ROK Indo-Pacific Cooperation

Published December 21, 2022
Category: South Korea

This is the third piece in a series looking at how the issues identified in KEI’s annual “10 Issues to Watch for on the Korean Peninsula” series and other issues of note developed in 2022. The original “10 Issues” piece can be found here.

Yoon Suk-yeol has aimed to strengthen South Korea’s role as a “global pivotal state” since assuming presidency in May 2022. At the U.S.-South Korea summit the same month, he communicated to Washington that his administration would formulate South Korea’s own Indo-Pacific strategy, a step that was welcomed by Biden.

South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy was unveiled in November at the ASEAN-Korea summit in Cambodia, taking the place of the former Moon administration’s New Southern Policy. It is built on three key visions of freedom, peace, and prosperity, and three cooperation principles of inclusiveness, trust and reciprocity. In addition to supporting the “free, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” the strategy emphasizes South Korea’s role in contributing to regional economic security by promoting supply chain resilience and a more inclusive technological ecosystem.

South Korea’s expansion of its geopolitical focus to the Indo-Pacific signals closer cooperation with the U.S., Japan and other like-minded nations. Before Yoon, South Korea had been more reserved in embracing the terminology due to its relations with China. And Korean policymakers are still concerned about potential backlash from Beijing, especially with Biden’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy specifically targeting regional challenges posed by China. But in the meantime, it is anticipated that Seoul’s increased emphasis on a comprehensive and rules-based order will open up further opportunities for U.S.-ROK cooperation. This includes not only economic and technological collaboration under the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) but also increased partnership on maritime security and other shared values such as freedom and human rights.

What will be the scope of South Korea’s involvement in the Indo-Pacific? Seoul’s role as a “global pivotal state” will be defined more in detail in a formal report to be released by Yoon’s presidential office in the coming month(s). But it will take even more time for South Korea’s role to be operationalized, especially as other cooperative frameworks such as the IPEF are also in their initial stages. With these considerations, it is hoped that the U.S. and South Korea will continue to engage closely as Seoul’s “Indo-Pacific strategy” takes further shape.

Sea Young (Sarah) Kim is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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