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New Seoul Government Turns Sharply to Washington
Yoon seeks Quad membership, stiffened nuclear defense
By: Shim Jae Hoon
South Korea’s incoming government, which takes power on May 10, looks set for significant security policy changes, ending five years of risky peace initiatives pursued by outgoing President Moon Jae-in. The country’s hardening posture comes in the wake of a barrage of missile launches by North Korea in January, and Pyongyang’s recent threat to use nuclear weapons in the event of another war on the peninsula.
The tension has turned more pronounced since the change of government in Seoul from the center-left, peace-at-all-cost regime of outgoing President Moon to a conservative, center-right administration of president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, who vows to confront rather than condone North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s continuing test-firing of long- and short-range missiles.
During his election campaign, Yoon proposed building what he called a “Missile Kill Chain,” under which South Korean missiles would simultaneously strike at North Korea’s missile bases if it fires toward the South.
With Seoul and Washington abuzz with speculation that Kim is likely to conduct a seventh underground nuclear test soon on the occasion of his grandfather Kim Il Sung’s 110th birthday on April 15, the US has sent the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln to the East Sea (also called the Sea of Japan) near the North’s east coast in a show of force. It was the first such dispatch of US warship to the area in five years.
As the war rages in Ukraine and China refuses to condemn Russia’s invasion, US President Joseph Biden arrives in Tokyo on May 25 for a summit meeting with leaders of Japan, India, and Australia that form the so-called Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the regional security grouping formed to deal with China’s expansionist threats in the region.
With South Korea starting with a new security concept – eager to join the Quad – Yoon has asked Biden to drop by Seoul before or after the Tokyo Summit for security talks and a visit with the 29,000 American troops who have been based in Korea since the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.
Yoon is ready to firm up the bilateral alliance, which has wobbled in recent years with Moon, obsessed with his peace deal with the North, having cut down on joint field exercises with US troops and requesting modifying the process for a complete denuclearization of the Kim regime. Biden’s visit, he hopes, will leave no light between the two allies on how toughly to proceed on denuclearization as well as on missile threats.
Even weeks before his inauguration, Yoon dispatched a new policy team to Washington, with the mission of achieving closer policy consultation on North Korea. Yoon’s new cabinet lineup illustrates his intention. It is filled with conservative realists with proven records on security issues. Taking the post of foreign minister is Park Jin, a Harvard-educated five-term legislator of the National Assembly and its foreign affairs subcommittee, well known in Washington’s Korea desk people. Cho Tae Yong, former deputy foreign minister and now a legislator of the National Assembly, will go to Washington as the new ambassador. He has been a prominent critic of Moon’s illusory pursuit of peace with the North. The new defense minister is retired army Lieutenant General Lee Jong Sup, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had served as deputy commander of US-Korea Combined Forces Command. He is on record as saying publicly that an army without regular training exercises “has no reason to exist.”
Foreign Minister Park is expected to start talks soon on Seoul joining the Quad. If not a full membership, Seoul is willing to join in some capacity as a starter. In whatever capacity Seoul joins, it will be necessary to start consultation with Japan, as the two nations have lingering disputes over history questions. Yoon has vowed to remove irritants in relations with Tokyo, saying Seoul should not, as Moon has, use history for domestic political purposes.
In Washington, Park also expressed hope of gaining membership in the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a regional trade set up to check China’s growing economic muscle in the region. For Seoul, finding new markets has turned imperative as it must avoid overly depending on China, which takes a quarter of Seoul’s entire trade. The Yoon government officials consider reducing dependence on China a top priority as it seeks to counter Beijing’s hegemonic attitude
Relations with China have been a sore spot as Beijing heavily pressures Seoul on basing of US high-altitude interceptor missiles, even as it refuses to restrain North Korea’s missile and nuclear program. Seoul considers Beijing’s hands-off policy on North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction a unilateral and unfriendly act. As Yoon hopes to invite more THAAD missiles and develop an indigenous antimissile program that will match the North’s unremitting missile threats, it finds China’s interferences hard to justify.
Irrespective of China’s position, Seoul is committed to proceed with new cooperative deals with the US on its own missile development.
As Seoul is poised to strengthen security ties with Washington, Yoon has to tread carefully in dealing with domestic critics who dominate the National Assembly now controlled by pro-Moon left-wing Democratic Party. Claiming 172 seats in the 300-member Assembly, the Democrats are led by leaders like Song Young Kil, a former student radical who insists North Korea has every right to possess nuclear weapons when the US has hundreds of them. He recently created a storm of controversy by claiming the North is too weak to start a war.
In the face of severe internal division between the left and right, Yoon has enough trouble handling nonpolitical agenda. That being the case, he needs to develop wider consensus behind his security agenda so that he can effectively contain the North while pushing through his economic agenda of market deregulation.
Even so, over the longer term, Yoon needs to come to grips with his conservative constituency’s longtime demand for securing “extended nuclear coverage” to checkmate the North’s growing nuclear arsenal. In the coming bilateral talks with Washington, Seoul will be demanding a US commitment for nuclear coverage from the US similar to that covering Japan. All nuclear weapons under US control formerly based in South Korea were withdrawn in the early 1970s under the US-Soviet nuclear disarmament treaty. Instead of cementing peace, that gave the North a chance to start its own nuclearization.
Shim Jae Hoon is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel. He is a former long-time correspondent for the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review.