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The Peninsula

South Korea’s Interpretation of U.S. Multilateralism

Published March 4, 2021
Author: Korea View

What Happened

  • There is speculation in South Korea that the Biden administration will strengthen ties between democratic countries to affect U.S. engagement with China.
  • While Seoul has been hesitant to make any moves that might provoke China, former ROK ambassador to the United States Yang Sung-chul noted that the forum can be a means to advance South Korea’s own foreign policy goals.
  • Wi Sung-lac, former South Korean ambassador to Russia, also argued that Seoul should bolster ties with Australia, the European Union, and other democracies to hedge U.S.-China friction.

Implications: Many South Korean voices see the new multilateral institutions advanced by the Biden administration as a vehicle to advance Seoul’s national interests. In particular, the U.S. proposal for a new forum of 10 democratic governments (D10) attracted the attention of prominent voices on foreign policy. They saw the deepening relationship between Seoul and other member states of the D10 as a way to advance Korea’s foreign policy goals when turning to either Beijing or Washington might be complicated by the growing U.S.-China rivalry. In addition to former ambassadors, media voices added that the D10 not only represents a larger share of the global economy than China, but also represents a new forum to address engagement with North Korea.

Context: Both Ambassadors Wi and Yang were active participants and observers of Korea’s foreign policymaking in the late 1980s and early 1990s. During that period, Seoul actively engaged in rapprochement with communist nations in a bid to expand Korea’s diplomatic stature on the global stage. Ambassador Wi was part of the diplomatic team that participated in negotiations that led to the Soviet Union’s formal recognition of the Republic of Korea. While this may be seen as Seoul charting new foreign policy aims that went beyond the narrow scope of Cold War rivalries, the diplomatic isolation of North Korea remained the central aim of these engagements. This focus on using Seoul’s broader foreign policy ties to address immediate concerns on the peninsula is still echoed in discussions around participation in the D10.

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. Image from UNC – CFC – USFK’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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