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The Peninsula

A More Proactive South Korean Foreign Policy?

Published March 19, 2021
Author: Korea View

What Happened

  • The Moon administration released a statement on March 9 explaining that it may join the U.S.-led Quad+ alliance in the Indo-Pacific in an effort to gain U.S. support on North Korea policy.
  • On March 8, the United States and South Korea reached an agreement for the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) negotiations on cost-sharing for U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, which will increase Seoul’s contribution by 13.9 percent.
  • The statement on potentially joining the Quad+ and the conclusion of SMA negotiations come just a week before the U.S. Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense’s visit to Seoul.

Implications: South Korea may see participation in U.S. administration’s push for multilateral cooperation in the Asia-Pacific as a means to achieving its own foreign policy aims vis-à-vis North Korea. On March 9, a member of the ROK Presidential Commission on Policy Planning explained that the decision to consider joining the Quad+ was done to gain leverage on the United States for support on the North Korea issue. Taken with South Korea’s agreement to increase its contributions by 13.9 percent instead of its final offer of 13 percent last spring, Seoul may be shoring up as much U.S. support as possible as the United States is still engaged in its North Korea policy review. Alignment with the Biden administration may be further emphasized during Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit Seoul and Tokyo this week.

Context: The Trump administration’s use of the Quad alliance as a vehicle for China-containment policy elicited an ambiguous response from the Moon administration on whether or not South Korea would join, as South Korea has prioritized maintaining relations with both China and the United States. Under the Biden administration, however, the rhetoric on the Quad alliance has focused on bringing together democratic institutions in the Asia-Pacific and countering China’s rise through promoting democracy. This shift has given South Korea more leeway in joining the initiative under the Biden administration in exchange for U.S. support on North Korea. Up for renegotiation in 2019, the Special Measures Agreement talks were also complicated by the Trump administration, which originally asked for an 18 percent increase in South Korean burden-sharing and rejected South Korea’s offer of a 13 percent increase in April. However, under the Biden administration, the negotiations were concluded less than two months after Biden took office, and Seoul agreed to a 13.9 percent increase, .9 percent higher than U.S. officials thought they would go. This is the biggest increase in South Korean cost-sharing since 2002.

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Melissa Cho and Alexandra Langford. Creative Commons image from Flickr account of the U.S. Pacific Fleet

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