[ANALYSIS] How will Yoon deal with China?
“I will rebuild the Korea-U.S. alliance that has gone to shambles during the reign of the liberal Democratic Party,” Yoon said about his foreign policy objectives in January, flanked by foreign policy advisers Park Jin and Kim Sung-han, now his nominees for foreign minister and national security adviser.
While going on at length about the alliance with Washington forged through blood in the 1950-53 Korean War, Yoon kept his comments on China comparatively short.
“Our relations with China will be based on mutual respect,” he said.
Some experts voiced concerns about his attitude toward Beijing, Seoul's biggest economic partner and a linchpin in its policy toward Pyongyang.
Their concerns were not entirely ungrounded. The preliminary line-up of Yoon’s foreign policy team show quite a few faces from the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration, which was openly pro-U.S., hawkish on the North, and chillier with China.
In this special report, the Korea JoongAng Daily takes a closer look who the key foreign policymakers of Yoon government may be and their track records to see how Korea may navigate the geopolitical challenges of the region over the next five years.
Kim Sung-han, the brains behind Yoon’s foreign policy
Yoon was on the phone with Joe Biden just a few hours after he accepted his election victory on March 10, perhaps the shortest time it’s taken for a Korean president-elect to be greeted on the phone by his or her counterpart in Washington.
The call was rescheduled at the last minute, evident in the photograph of the moment. Yoon was seen speaking on a cellphone, not a landline, which is the usual option for security purposes.
The phone belonged to Kim, a former vice foreign minister and professor of international relations at Korea University, who has been nominated as Yoon's national security adviser.
Yoon’s friend for some 50 years since they attended the same elementary school in Seoul, Kim was the brains behind Yoon’s foreign policy strategies, having steered his foreign policy teams during the election and in the presidential transition.
The duo held phone conversations regularly on foreign policy in the year leading up to the election, which explains why a lot of what Yoon said on the campaign trail echoes Kim’s statements from the past.
“The core of Yoon’s foreign policy is to center on the alliance with the United States, and to make diplomatic overtures from it, including those with China, a relation that must be managed through mutual respect,” Kim said during a forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and JoongAng Ilbo in Seoul last December.
Having earned his Ph.D. in political science at University of Texas at Austin, Kim taught at the Institute for Foreign Affairs and National Security (IFANS) before he was tapped as a foreign policy adviser to Lee during his election campaign in 2007. Following Lee’s victory, Kim served on presidential committees for defense and security in 2010 and as a vice foreign minister in 2012.
Kim witnessed North Korea’s escalating provocations from 2010 to February 2013, when it conducted its third nuclear test, and the heydays of U.S.-Korea defense cooperation.
Following the North’s sinking of the Cheonan warship and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, Washington and Seoul held their largest joint military exercises ever in the Yellow Sea in November of that year.
“For the past five years, we have seen zero joint military action,” Kim told the press, standing beside Yoon at a press conference on Jan. 24. “This will change, and we will bring forth a new frontier in our partnership with the U.S., cooperating beyond the military and security issues.”
Regular joint military exercises have been scaled down repeatedly since 2018 as the Moon administration tried to assuage Pyongyang, and were reduced to computer simulations since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.
Others in the Yoon government have hinted at restoring U.S.-Korea defense cooperation to pre-Covid and pre-Moon levels.
Park Jin, extended deterrence from U.S.
Park, the nominee for foreign minister, is a former four-term lawmaker known for his ties to Washington.
He has stressed that the so-called “peace process” of the Moon government and its approach to North Korea will not be followed by the incoming government.
“The current appeasement policy alone cannot prevent North Korea from continuing provocations,” he told the press in front of his interim office as the foreign minister nominee in central Seoul on April 18. “We have hit a point when practical policy changes on North Korea are necessary.”
North Korea launched a submarine-launched ballistic missile on Saturday, the 15th test in 2022 alone. There were four tests in 2020 and eight in 2021.
Park and others in the Yoon government intend to bring back the U.S.-Korea Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG), which has not met since early January 2018.
The EDSCG, established by a U.S.-Korea Foreign and Defense Ministers’ meeting on Oct. 19, 2016, is also called the 2+2 working group and serves as a channel for the allies to hold in-depth discussions on strategic and policy issues regarding extended deterrence against North Korea, including how to better leverage the two countries’ national power, including diplomacy, information, military and economic capabilities.
“We will reactivate the EDSCG at an early stage so that the bilateral extended deterrence cooperation between South Korea and the United States can be systematically continued through a permanent consultation mechanism,” Park said during a confirmation hearing at the Assembly on April 30.
Park passed the foreign service exam in 1977, became a diplomat and joined politics in 2001. He is known for extensive experience in parliamentary diplomacy, including a one-on-one meeting with Biden in Washington in 2008, when Park visited as head of the Korea-U.S. parliamentary diplomacy association.
In April, Park led a delegation on a weeklong trip to Washington to meet with White House and State Department officials and experts at think tanks.
The foreign minister nominee has also vowed to take a stronger stance on North Korean human rights violations. The Moon government stopped co-sponsoring UN resolutions condemning the human rights violations in the North in 2019. Those annual resolutions were co-sponsored by Korea every year from 2008 to 2018.
“South Korea will take the lead in voicing its concerns on the human rights situation in the North, and take necessary measures such as co-sponsoring the UN resolution,” Park said in the hearing on April 30, adding that the appointment of the ambassador on North Korean human rights issue, delayed since a relevant law was enacted in 2017, will be made promptly.
Kim Tae-hyo, CVID and defense alliance with Japan
Taking another detour from the Moon government, Yoon’s foreign policy team has brought back the word CVID, or complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of the North’s nuclear weapons.
The term was avoided in the Moon government in its latter years to prevent riling Pyongyang.
“The principle in our negotiations with the North has not changed once over the years, which is that we would aim for a certain, even if staged, phase-out process [of the North’s nuclear weapons program], which would be difficult to reverse,” said Kim Tae-hyo in a press conference at the headquarters of Yoon’s transition team in central Seoul on May 3. “That principle has not changed even when we don’t spell out CVID all the time in our policy papers.”
Nominated as the first deputy director of the National Security Office, Kim was presidential secretary for national security strategy for Lee from 2008 to 2012.
In addition to his hawkish stance on North Korea, Kim is also known for consistently calling for closer defense cooperation with Tokyo.
Heavily involved in high-level discussions leading to a 2012 defense intelligence-sharing pact between Japan and Korea, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia), Kim has long been open to the idea of allowing Japan to militarily intervene on behalf of South Korea should a war break out on the Peninsula.
“If it were possible for Japan to intervene on the Korean Peninsula in an emergency situation, that would have the effect of increasing deterrence against North Korea in times of normalcy,” Kim wrote in a report while he was teaching at IFANS in 2001.
During the presidential campaign, Yoon did not spell out that he would seek a defense alliance with Tokyo similar to that with Washington, but he did not dismiss the idea.
“In the case that there is a security emergency in the country, one could consider the possibility [of having Japan step in to defend Korea],” Yoon said during a televised debate on Feb. 25.
With the track record of historical disputes between Korea and Japan, however, it remains unclear how such proposed defense overtures could be realized.
Seoul even threatened to scrap the Gsomia after a diplomatic dispute with Japan over the issue of compensation of Korean victims of Japanese wartime sexual slavery and forced labor in the summer of 2019.
“What happened in the Moon government was that historical issues became linked with security issues, and it became a huge mess,” said Choi Eun-mi, an expert on Korea-Japan ties at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a Seoul-based think tank. “It’s expected that the Yoon government will try to approach relations with Japan in a two-track way, and make sure the disputes over history remain separate from the bilateral discussions on security.”
Wang Yun-jong and Kwon Young-se, strongmen to handle China
Two men tapped to handle Korea’s relations with North Korea and China come with extensive experience with China.
Wang Yun-jong, professor of international business and economy at Dongduk Women’s University and former senior vice president of the Supex Council of SK Telecom, was nominated as Yoon’s secretary on economic security.
With a Ph.D. in economics from Yale University, Wang was the head of research and planning at SK China from 2010 to 2012.
As a former chairman of the Korean Chamber of Commerce in China, Wang repeatedly warned Korea to wake up and smell the roses in its dealings with China.
“If you think China will gladly help us out if we shut tight our mouths and keep things ambiguous, you need to wake up from that fantasy,” Wang wrote in a report about Korea-China economic relations in 2018. “The Thaad experience taught us that there is no such thing as keeping ties with the U.S. strictly on security and those with China strictly on economy.”
Thaad, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, is a U.S.-led antimissile system that was deployed in Korea in 2017 to counter missile threats from North Korea. Beijing lashed out at the agreement between Seoul and Washington, calling it an intention to spy on China.
For years after that, China levied an unofficial order to Chinese companies to not work with artists from Korea, delayed issuing licenses to Korean businesses including cosmetics and gaming companies to export their products to China and prohibited tour groups from visiting Korea.
“This kind of action from Beijing, to take a diplomatic or security issue and retaliate with an economic measure, is something that should not be allowed again,” Wang told the Kyunghang Shinmun, a local paper, in an interview in February.
“The Thaad issue alone is not going to shake the foundation of Korea-China relations,” Kwon told MBC radio on July 26, 2016, a few weeks after the decision to deploy the Thaad battery in Korea was announced jointly by Seoul and Washington.
On the campaign trail, Yoon hinted at a possible departure from the so-called “three no’s” policy with regards to China, referring to the Moon administration’s pledges not to make additional deployments of Thaad, participate in an American missile defense network or transform the U.S.-Korea-Japan alliance into a military alliance.
But this wouldn’t necessarily mean that the Yoon government would cold-shoulder Beijing, said some experts.
“Seoul is not a pivot point that tips the regional balance between Washington and Beijing,” said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “Rather, South Korea is a globally relevant power with a foreign policy more complex than choosing sides between superpowers.”
“The incoming Yoon administration understands that in the years since the Lee Myung-bak administration, China has become increasingly assertive and North Korea more threatening,” he added. “So deepening cooperation with the United States isn’t a matter of being anti-China or hostile toward Pyongyang, it’s about defending international order and South Korean national interests.”
Foreign minister nominee Park also stressed getting the two presidents of Korea and China to hold summits as soon as possible.
BY ESTHER CHUNG [email@example.com]