In mid-May, President Yoon Suk Yeol became the fourth Korean president to participate in a Group of Seven summit. Korea was among the eight states invited to observe the gathering hosted by Japan in the city of Hiroshima. Over the course of three days, President Yoon met with both other world leaders as well as Korean residents in Japan. Despite not being an official member of the G7, the president’s trip made progress in realizing his foreign policy vision of Korea as the “global pivotal state.”
President Yoon engaged with his counterparts in several different formats in Hiroshima. Ahead of the summit, Principal Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Tae-hyo told reporters that Korea saw the gathering as “an opportunity to confirm our status as a global partner for defending the rules-based international order and responding to global challenges.” In addition to delivering remarks to all participants of the G7 summit, he held separate meetings with leaders ranging from Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to Indonesian President Joko Widodo. He also met with Comorian President Azali Assoumani, the current head of the African Union, to discuss both Korea’s cooperation with the continent, as well as support for the AU’s participation in the Group of 20.
While in Japan, President Yoon also announced ways Korea would step up its contributions to fighting global issues. These include an increase in funding for the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, cooperation with the ASEAN Plus Three Emergency Rice Reserve, and the G7’s Climate Club. While extensive, experts say the president should continue participating in these types of multilateral diplomatic engagements in order to realize his foreign policy goals. “If Yoon wants South Korea to truly become the global pivotal state, Seoul may need to step up more in participating in some of the high-stakes activities the U.S. and the international community is looking for more support in,” said Dr. Soo Kim, Policy Practice Area Lead at LMI Consulting.
Of the many leaders President Yoon met in Japan, there were three that gathered significant attention. The first was Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, the host of the summit. In addition to their summit to discuss bilateral relations, President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida also paid their respects to a memorial for 50,000 Korean victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It was the first time a Korean leader had visited the cenotaph, located since 1999 within the Peace Memorial Park near the epicenter of the explosion. Experts say the visit underlined the commitment by both leaders to deal with the history problems that have so often upturned bilateral relations. Professor Brad Glosserman of Tama University pointed out how the experience of the atomic bomb has been influential in shaping postwar Japanese identity. “Having the two men at the memorial shows that Japan views them as both being victimized, showing their common humanity and suffering,” he said. “It shows at a deep emotional level that Japan shares its feelings and history with South Korea.”
The second leader was American President Joe Biden, whose larger tour of the region was derailed by the debt ceiling crisis in Washington. While in Hiroshima, he was able to meet with both President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida and discussed how to continue trilateral cooperation, which has been expanding in recent years. While this meeting on the sidelines of the G7 may not have been long, it may set the stage for a trilateral U.S.-Japan-Korea summit. Reuters reported that the suggestion was made by President Biden, and a Korean presidential official told Yonhap that the trilateral summit could be held as early as this summer in DC. “Over the long term, this could develop into a form of shuttle diplomacy between the leaders of South Korea, the U.S. and Japan,” the source told the agency. If this trilateral summit were realized, it would be the first time the three leaders had met independently of a larger multilateral setting.
The third leader was Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who attended the G7 summit to ask for support repelling the Russian invasion. During the half hour long meeting, President Yoon told President Zelenskyy that Korea would continue to provide humanitarian support for Ukraine. According to the presidential office, this includes supplies of things like medicine and power generators, as well as medical evacuation vehicles. Korea has been circumspect about getting involved in the conflict, despite direct overtures from Ukraine in addition to other liberal democratic states. “Seoul has not been willing to take this step forward,” said Dr. Kim. “It’s clear, however, that Seoul’s security goals and interests overlap extensively with those of the U.S. and the international community.” She added that Korea should stop its ambiguous approach to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “Seoul’s dragging its heels to commit draws greater attention to its readiness to punch at the weight of a truly global pivotal state,” said Dr. Kim.
President Yoon’s participation in the G7 summit so far seems to have received a positive domestic response. The Hankyoreh newspaper said that Korea did not sign onto any statements coming out of the G7 summit, as it is not a member, and that cooperation with the United States and Japan was necessary. But an editorial by the newspaper said that “it is very concerning that Yoon is focusing his diplomatic efforts on ‘values diplomacy’ centered on the US, Japan, and South Korea, leaving diplomacy with China to fall by the wayside.” Indeed, Beijing lodged an official protest with the Japanese embassy after the conclusion of the summit, saying that the joint declarations from the G7 “grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs.” But public polling suggests Koreans view the summit somewhat differently. According to Realmeter, President Yoon continued his four week upward trend in public support, with an approval rating of 39%. Dr. Glosserman said that it’s not unusual for politicians to see a boost after conducting diplomacy abroad. “It suggests that the ROK public appreciates their president’s efforts to raise his country’s – and his – profile,” he said.
Although not a member of the G7, it is still important that Korea was invited to participate. Broadly, it indicates confirmation that Seoul is a major player in international affairs. Dr. Kim added that the invitation also means that the G7 also expects middle powers like Korea “to step in even more into committed, front-facing responsibilities to help the international community address some of its greatest security challenges, including the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war and the increasingly polarizing US-China relationship.”
More narrowly, it also indicates a willingness on the part of Tokyo to find a constructive way forward in that bilateral relationship. Dr. Glosserman says it is extremely telling that the Kishida government extended the invitation to President Yoon. “Attendance is important, even as a guest; It means that the country is an important constituency to be represented,” he said. “That seems like a very important signal.”
While President Yoon has finished the first year of his presidency, he will hopefully continue to build on these positive developments in foreign affairs. The Hiroshima summit underlined Korea’s growing stature in the international community and strengthened its ties with both large and small states. It was also a positive episode in Korea-Japan relations, not just for continuing diplomacy but also for acknowledging Korean victims of the atomic bombing. Korea should continue to look for opportunities in multilateral meetings and institutions to continue growing its diplomatic heft.
Terrence Matsuo is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo by Kim Yong Wii from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.