First steps to sucessPresident Yoon Suk-yeol debuted on the diplomatic stage through a summit with U.S. President Joe Biden. The summit has elevated the bilateral relationship to a “global comprehensive strategic” partnership. The new conservative government clearly manifested its commitment to sa trong alliance with the U.S. to differentiate its foreign affairs path from the previous government. Yoon drew a generally positive score on his first diplomatic test, but the new government still has to ensure its outright turn to the U.S. does not stoke conflict with China and expanded deterrence measures do not escalate tensions with North Korea.
The summit redefined the Korea-U.S. alliance, going beyond security to cover technology and global partnership. Although Seoul has tried to push bilateral ties to a new level, an economic and comprehensive alliance has been proclaimed for the first time. Korea, which mostly relied on U.S. for security, is on a more equal footing through technology backing. Biden devoted his first and last day in Korea to Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor. He would have been happy to return home with a $10-billion investment package from Hyundai, but a U.S. president seeking out Korean businesses is also something for the Korean people to be proud of.
The security alliance has also been enhanced. The high-level Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group which was briefly operated during the Park Geun-hye administration was revived. The platform enabling the two allies to coordinate closely on the deployment of U.S. strategic assets could be a protection against the North Korean nuclear threat. Although dialogue must stay open, it is necessary to ensure practical and effective protection.
The new government has shifted away from the policy of ambiguity as the country is sandwiched between the U.S. and China by joining the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework designed to contain Chinese influence in the region. Still, maintaining a relationship with Beijing, given Korea’s reliance on economic cooperation and trade with China, is a challenge.
Yoon, just two weeks in office, has pulled off a productive summit by differentiating his stance from the previous government. But the precarious external environment remains unchanged with North Korea upping military provocations, the U.S. and China mired in a hegemonic contest and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The new government has just taken the first step. The economic agenda can no longer be separated from security. The government must steer domestic and foreign affairs by keeping the correlation in mind.