Since the mid-2000s, successive U.S. and South Korean administrations have touted the transformation of the ROK-U.S. alliance. They often highlight how a once asymmetric, Cold War alliance, rooted in strong military and security ties and shared sacrifice during the Korean War, has grown to encompass shared democratic and free-market values. In effect, U.S. and ROK leaders and policymakers have reconceptualized the relationship, rhetorically fusing aspects of an alliance as conventionally defined – a security relationship based on a shared threat and codified in a mutual defense treaty – with elements of a broader partnership.
As the 2009 Joint Vision for the Alliance and 2013 Joint Declaration stated, the ROK-U.S. alliance evolved into a comprehensive strategic alliance, characterized by deep cooperation extending beyond security to encompass political, economic, cultural, and people-to-people ties on a bilateral, regional and global scale. This is now standard language in the alliance’s formal statements.
Such language was included in the May 2021 U.S.-ROK Leaders’ Joint Statement between Biden and Moon. And, in the May 2022 United States-Republic of Korea Leaders’ Joint Statement, Presidents Joe Biden and Yoon Suk Yeol further upgraded the relationship by calling it a global comprehensive strategic alliance, firmly rooted in the shared values of promoting democracy and rules-based international order. The statement itself directly linked the upgraded status of the alliance to the “ROK’s initiative for a global pivotal state that envisions a heightened role in advancing freedom, peace, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.” With its enhanced capabilities and foreign policy profile, Seoul has adopted a larger role within the alliance and strived for a greater degree of autonomy outside of it.
President Yoon’s National Security Advisor, Kim Sung-han, made this very point back in 2010. A key dynamic of the strategic alliance framework, he argued, is that Seoul takes on a bigger burden, improves relations with major powers other than the United States, and contributes to both U.S. as well as broader multilateral security and economic cooperation, while also limiting Washington’s ability to impose its strategic preferences on South Korea. In this framework, an assertive and more autonomous ROK coexists with and even bolsters the alliance. However, there also is an inherent tension between alliance and autonomy. This was evident surrounding the rollout of Seoul’s recently announced Indo-Pacific strategy.
Rhetorically, the Yoon administration’s announcement marked a more assertive ROK. “Peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region is directly connected to our survival and prosperity,” Yoon said. Although ROK presidents often frame South Korea’s own security and stability on the Korean Peninsula as central to regional peace and stability, Yoon’s remarks signaled a notable inversion of the linkage. The implication is Seoul will adopt a larger role in regional affairs. Bolstering the point, Kim Sung-han said the ROK’s Indo-Pacific strategy “is the country’s first comprehensive regional strategy, and it means our diplomatic perspective has expanded to meet the country’s national dignity and status.” He added: “Strengthening rule-based international order pursuing common values meets our national interest.” Although the strategy is not intended to exclude or condemn other countries that do not share South Korea’s values (read: China) and South Korea will strive to “openly cooperate (with those countries) for common goals of interest, Seoul will “take stern response measures against attempts to harm the common values and rule-based international order,” Kim remarked. What exactly those stern measures are remains to be seen.
While the Yoon administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy is its own, it signals coordination on regional policy within the alliance. Again, before entering office, Yoon envisioned a defense and security policy that included participating in and making greater contributions to the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. This was a deliberate departure from his predecessor, whose administration avoided the language of the Indo-Pacific – a strategic concept originally promoted by Tokyo and adopted by the United States that ties together the Indian and Pacific Oceans and is perceived to contain China’s growing influence and assertiveness in the region – in favor of its own New Southern Policy, a regional strategy centered on ASEAN and India.
Yoon has embraced the Indo-Pacific concept and more forceful language therein, stating that “unilateral change of the status quo by force should never be tolerated.” Furthermore, Yoon’s announcement is consistent with one of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy’s core lines of effort: to expand U.S.-Japan-ROK cooperation and coordinate regional strategies in a trilateral context. Two days after he spoke, Yoon, President Biden, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida released their Phnom Penh Statement on Trilateral Partnership for the Indo-Pacific, pledging to “align our collective efforts in pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific, that is inclusive, resilient, and secure.” In fact, the “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) phrasing marked an additional normative layer to Seoul’s strategy, which by implication excludes countries that do not share the same values, principles, and norms. Moreover, the trilateral statement emphasized the three leaders’ “basic positions on Taiwan remain unchanged” and reiterated “the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as an indispensable element of security and prosperity in the international community.”
To be sure, both Moon and Yoon previously highlighted similar values and norms and mentioned the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait in their respective joint statements with Biden. However, the Yoon-Biden statement added the phrase, “as an essential element in security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.” More importantly, though, Yoon’s reaffirmation of such values and the ROK’s position on Taiwan in a trilateral statement marked a notable departure. Doing so in concert with Tokyo as well as broadening the Taiwan issue to security and prosperity in international community demonstrates Seoul’s willingness to lean more clearly toward the United States in the hardening of geopolitical lines.
Yet it remains a matter of degree. For some, Seoul’s Indo-Pacific strategy appeared hastily devised, put together merely to have something to present at the recent gatherings in Cambodia and Indonesia. One of its core elements, the Korea-ASEAN Solidarity Initiative (KASI), builds directly upon the Moon administration’s work. Some observe that while Yoon’s strategy possesses notable rhetorical additions, it lacks substance and that there is still no actual public document to speak of. Although this not an entirely fair characterization – ROK officials publicly signaled Yoon would present a basic framework or broad outline with a final draft coming around the end of the year – it is not without some justification. The ROK’s Indo-Pacific task force was reportedly launched under the North American Affairs Bureau in the Foreign Ministry. And while the ministry claimed it worked with other bureaus and the presidential office, apparently only two working-level officials oversaw the draft of the strategy. I’ve been told that ROK officials consulted with regional counterparts in place like Canberra and Auckland, but the impression among some in Washington is that Seoul remains too tentative.
For example, Randall Shriver, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs in the Trump administration, recently noted that South Korea needs to begin to change its mindset to see China as a shared problem. “My view is that South Korea shouldn’t say, ‘How we can help you, the U.S., with its problem;’ it should be, ‘how we help ourselves, given the shared problem.” Shriver’s comment highlights the degree to which Seoul’s enhanced efforts are still often seen as a sort of inadequate alliance tradeoff. Nonetheless, there are important, interconnected reasons why Seoul still struggles with balancing between the alliance and autonomy – or if not autonomy – greater assertiveness.
First, from South Korea’s perspective, U.S. end goals remain unclear, and while the two allies share values and certain problems, they do not share vulnerabilities. The United States wants greater burden sharing, yet Seoul wonders about risk sharing. The Yoon administration has joined IPEF and Chip-4 talks, contributes in multiple ways to the Quad, and has offered to provide submarines to the Royal Australian Navy to bridge the capability gap between its current yet aging fleet and the future introduction of a new class of nuclear-powered subs under AUKUS agreement. Yet measures like IPEF are nonbinding and lack tangible incentives. IPEF is a means to keep the U.S. regional economic presence on life support in the wake of Washington’s abdication of previous free trade efforts and amid growing protectionist sentiment at home. Seoul, like others, understands the costs of Chinese economic coercion, but now faces aggressive U.S. protectionist subsidies and export controls that further force the issue.
Some note that South Korean firms will ultimately benefit from some of these U.S. measures, and others that the United States must execute such aggressive moves because prior allied consultation would only soften them and take much longer to implement. However, allied buy-in is critical for effective and sustainable policy. U.S. moves have undermined trust and increased uncertainty in Seoul and the EU and risk retaliatory measures. Moreover, this has occurred under a pro-alliance Biden administration on the verge of facing Donald Trump’s push for reelection.
Second, there is a lack of consensus within South Korea on the proper strategy. On a domestic political level, Yoon’s progressive opponents criticize his strategy as kowtowing to U.S. dictates. To them, rather than assertive or autonomous, Yoon’s approach is indistinguishable from Washington or Tokyo’s. It’s the opposite of autonomy, embraces a bloc mentality, and endangers South Korea’s security by drawing China’s ire and undermining inter-Korean relations. According to Lee Jae Myung, Chairman of the main opposition Democratic Part who Yoon defeated by a narrow electoral margin, increased trilateral cooperation is one more step toward a trilateral military pact and “a time when Japan’s Self-Defense forces could be stationed on the Korean Peninsula and “the Red Sun flag flies on the Korean Peninsula.” The intense politicization of such sentiments, though hardly new, undermines strategic consensus even though surveys show 89% of South Korean have a favorable view of the United States and only 19% who say the same of China – the widest gap observed among 19 countries polled.
The lack of consensus plays out on an inter-agency level as well. There is no illusion within the ROK government regarding the threat that Chinese coercion poses. Within different ministries and agencies there are ongoing and robust discussions about the need to reduce Seoul’s dependence and vulnerability vis-à-vis Beijing, but there is a lack of solid communication and cohesion across them. This is partly due to issues of bureaucratic culture and institutional turf battles common to all countries. But there is also a lack of will to take the initiative for fear of moving too fast or getting out in front of others, especially when the highest levels of government are tentative to set a very clear trajectory. Again, according to reports, this was evident in the process by which Yoon’s Indo-Pacific strategy came about. To be fair, the lack of consensus is also a function of the sheer complexity of the issue involved – where traditional and nontraditional security and economic issues intertwine in convoluted ways – and the lack of clarity regarding U.S. end goals and unilateral measures.
Third, Seoul struggles to balance between alliance and autonomy for the simple, obvious, but often over-looked reason that it has never fully and independently navigated its own national security and foreign policy without a U.S. presence. Of course, this is most vivid in regards the North Korean threat, which is getting worse by the day. However, this dependence reverberates outwardly and inwardly. It is why Yoon, paradoxically, calls for a more robust South Korea in the region and globally “with the South Korea-U.S. relationship as our foundation.” Conservative leaders like Yoon strive to tighten the U.S. hold, as if they trust the U.S. less because they fear abandonment more. On the contrary, ROK progressives, while they do not necessarily trust the U.S., believe South Korea is too important to broader U.S. strategic imperatives and therefore do not fear abandonment. Thus, they are more willing to strive for greater autonomy, challenge Washington, and criticize their conservative counterparts for a failure to do the same.
Given these factors, it is understandable that Seoul only just now released its own Indo-Pacific strategy even though other countries in the region and beyond already have. These same factors also help explain why South Korea’s current strategy is still very much a work in progress, indicating a policy direction rather than an unmistakable course.
Clint Work is a Fellow and Director of Academic Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from UNC-CFC-USFK’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.