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The Peninsula

Future Proof? Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and Presidential Initiative Longevity

Published January 9, 2023
Category: South Korea

Seoul’s Indo-Pacific Strategy has been broadly welcomed by a number of states in the region who view the platform as further aligning with their strategic outlook. It’s in these states’ interests that the Indo-Pacific Strategy is future proof – it won’t be an easy task.

On 11 November 2022 in Phnom Penh, President Yoon Seok Yul presented an outline of South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy to the region. On 28 December in Seoul, his foreign minister presented the strategy in detail to the diplomatic community, and in turn, the South Korean public. From that point onwards, the Indo-Pacific Strategy became the Yoon Administration’s core foreign policy initiative. This has implications for South Korea’s Indo-Pacific future.

South Korea’s foreign policy balances between continuity and disruption. Like other democratic states, continuity derives from bureaucratic and administrative momentum while disruption derives from political change. However, in the case of South Korea, how these forces are balanced is distinct.

First, South Korea’s foreign policy bureaucracy lacks political influence. Until recently, the foreign ministry was elitist, had no domestic constituency, and saw its role as external to the country. As a result, little effort was put into engaging the public or providing input into political debate. With significant effort put into “borderless” public diplomacy over the past three administrations, this is changing. However, within the wider bureaucracy, the foreign ministry remains relatively weak with little voice.

Second, South Korea’s foreign policy bureaucracy is rarely viewed as a source for ideas or innovation. Ideas flow downwards rather than upwards. A tradition of unquestioning implementation rather than innovation or creation continues to dominate both training and service. This means that when directions are given for impractical or even impossible ideas, they are accepted, and implemented with the bureaucratic nonchalance that within five years the directive will pass.

Third, the power of the presidential office remains paramount. However, very few of South Korea’s recent presidents have held significant experience in foreign policy. This means that power is vested in the small, unelected coterie of advisors. While they vary widely, a typical profile would be an academic, journalist, lawmaker and/or political stalwart with limited practical foreign policy experience. This means policy ideas have all the academic and/or ideological frills, but none of the practical necessities for implementation and longevity.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, there is no “green paper” tradition. In Westminster democracies, it is normal for government strategy papers involving long-term commitments to be released in draft form or as issues papers for public consultation. This ameliorates ideological influence and forces the political opposition to express support or opposition for core elements during the consultation period. This increases bipartisanship and consequently increases longevity of the initiative.

The above means that the Indo-Pacific Strategy will for better or worse be linked to the Yoon administration’s success or failure. This is a feature of South Korea’s political environment – the linking of “grand presidential foreign policy plans” to the rise and fall of a single five-year presidential administration.

All grand presidential foreign policy plans, regardless of their worth or long-term value to the nation, are abandoned and ultimately discarded as the administration winds down. On the ground, at the coal-face of foreign policy implementation the results are almost comical. At sometime in the second half of the administration when it becomes clear that popularity is waning and the grand scheme is making little headway, the small, unelected coterie of advisors starts to transform as those who see the writing on the wall seek to dissociate themselves from failure.

However, grand presidential foreign policy plans never die, they just fade away. The effective components are rebadged in line with the subsequent administration’s nomenclature (Moon’s New Southern Policy subsumed into Yoon’s Indo-Pacific Strategy), and the less effective components – or those too closely aligned with the previous administration (Moon’s “People’s Diplomacy” or “Diplomacy with the People”), are quietly shelved.

At best, the bureaucracy will take on responsibility for the Indo-Pacific Strategy and its connection to the president and the administration will be minimized. The platform will then go on to become a continuing feature of South Korea’s foreign policy outlook in subsequent administrations. At worst, the Indo-Pacific Strategy will be proudly highlighted by the Yoon Administration, touted domestically and internationally as its crowning achievement. The platform will then be wholly disowned as the administration winds down, ridiculed by opponents, and never mentioned again.

Somewhere in between is how the strategy will most likely evolve. The Yoon Administration will be able to transform South Korea’s foreign policy outlook to a more global stance commensurate with its hierarchical ranking, but will not be able to firmly position South Korea within the U.S. Indo-Pacific framework as many currently expect or hope. The former reflects a natural trend in which continuity derives from bureaucratic momentum. The latter reflects an ideological position, in which disruption derives from political change. South Korea’s foreign policy balances between continuity and disruption.

Key indicators to watch for over the next three years will be (1) the degree to which Yoon associates himself and his political future with foreign policy and the Indo-Pacific Strategy; (2) the degree to which the Yoon attempts to engage and bring on-board political opponents; and (3) the willingness of the opposition to view and engage the Indo-Pacific Strategy as a national platform as opposed to a party platform. These indicators currently suggest the Indo-Pacific Strategy will not thrive after the Yoon Administration.

The diplomatic community has only limited opportunity to influence how the domestic politics of the Indo-Pacific Strategy will evolve. But it can seek to influence the Yoon Administration and encourage greater public and political engagement. Future-proofing South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy will not be easy.

Dr. Jeffery Robertson is Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America, an Associate Professor of Diplomatic Studies at Yonsei University, and a Visiting Fellow at the Korea Studies Research Hub, University of Melbourne. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Rico Lee’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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