South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol, who takes office Tuesday, is outspoken about his desire to more closely align his country’s strategic goals with those of the U.S. — a shift that analysts say will be on display when Mr. Yoon hosts President Biden for a summit on May 21 in Seoul.
The inauguration and summit come at a moment of heightened tension with North Korea, amid predictions from regional analysts that Pyongyang may seek to disrupt the developments by testing more intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or perhaps even a nuclear weapon over the coming days.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is seen to be bristling over the election of Mr. Yoon, who has signaled a desire to pull back from Seoul’s conciliatory outreach policies toward Pyongyang and Beijing that outgoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in had engaged in over the past five years.
Mr. Yoon, a 61-year-old career prosecutor who has never held elective office, describes North Korea as the South’s “main enemy.” While he says he will always keep open a chance for diplomacy with the Kim regime, Mr. Yoon has openly signaled plans to beef up the South’s military in response to the regime’s expanding provocations and refusals to rejoin denuclearization talks with Washington or Seoul that stalled more than two years ago.
Mr. Yoon said on the campaign trail he’ll make an enhanced alliance with the U.S., which already has some 30,000 military personnel stationed in South Korea, the center of his foreign policy during his upcoming five-year term.
More broadly, Mr. Yoon has argued that the moment has arrived for South Korea to embrace a more proactive role as a defender of the democratic and economic freedoms that have helped his country emerge as a regional power.
“In just over half a century, South Korea has undergone a dramatic transformation from a poor, authoritarian country devastated by war to an economically dynamic, culturally rich, and resilient democracy,” he wrote in a February editorial published in Foreign Affairs beneath the headline: “South Korea Needs to Step Up.”
Mr. Yoon used the editorial to openly lament South Korea’s foreign policy under Mr. Moon’s posture toward North Korea, writing: “Dialogue with the North was once a specific means to a specific end: the complete denuclearization of North Korea. Under President Moon Jae-in, however, dialogue with the North has become an end in itself.
“Meanwhile, as U.S.-Chinese tensions have grown, South Korea has failed to adapt, maintaining an approach of strategic ambiguity without stating a principled position,” Mr. Yoon wrote. “Seoul’s reluctance to take a firm stand on a number of issues that have roiled the relationship between Washington and Beijing has created an impression that South Korea has been tilting toward China and away from its longtime ally, the United States.”
Regional dynamics are complicated by the reality that China has emerged over the past decade as the number one trading partner for both pro-democracy U.S. allies Japan and South Korea. Analysts predict Mr. Yoon will be more outspoken about where South Korea stands geopolitically.
“Under Yoon, I think we’re going to see South Korea shift from what has been a posture of strategic ambiguity to one of strategic clarity,” said David Maxwell, a retired U.S. Special Forces colonel and senior fellow focused on the region with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“South Korea will always try to walk the tightrope between China and the U.S., but what I think you’re going to see from Yoon is a statement that what is in South Korea’s interests is the protection of the rules-based international order,” Mr. Maxwell told The Washington Times. “I don’t think you’re going to see South Korea directly poke China in the eye, but I do think you’re going to see the Yoon government stand up for the values of free countries.”
Joseph DeTrani, a former CIA official and longtime diplomatic adviser on U.S. policy in Asia, offered a similar perspective.
Japan has responded to Mr. Yoon’s election with optimism. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said Japan-South Korea ties, which have soured in recent years amid ongoing historical mistrust, must improve amid the increased North Korean threats and China’s rise as the region’s dominant autocratic political and economic power.
Tokyo and Seoul are both key allies to Washington and closely linked economically and culturally, but their relations sank to postwar lows during Mr. Moon’s presidency over unresolved issues related to Japan’s 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea has responded to Mr. Yoon’s election by test-launching a wave of increasingly sophisticated, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in what experts call an attempt to intimidate the South Korean president-elect and pressure the Biden administration into offering sanctions relief amid stalled diplomatic talks.
China has reacted to Mr. Yoon with caution. An editorial in one of the main newspapers of the ruling Chinese Communist Party congratulated the South Korean president-elect last month, saying Beijing “respects the independent foreign policy of South Korea,” but warning that “Seoul has no room to gamble in the so-called game between Beijing and Washington.”
The editorial, published by the Global Times, expressed particular concern over what it described as indications that Mr. Yoon favors an expanded deployment to South Korea of sophisticated U.S. missile defense technology. Beijing said the policy is less about countering North Korean threats than about containing China.
At issue is the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. The Global Times editorial said the president-elect’s “senior adviser” indicated that Mr. Yoon “supported an additional THAAD deployment” to South Korea. “We hope that this is a misinterpretation of Yoon’s opinion,” the editorial said.
The U.S. military began deploying THAAD to South Korea before Mr. Moon became president in 2017. Mr. Moon engaged in efforts to block further deployments of the system after China imposed economic sanctions on South Korea for accepting a first installment of the system.
Mr. Moon’s efforts to block further deployments are widely seen to have been driven by a desire to assuage the anger from China, South Korea’s top trade partner. At the same time, Chinese officials claim America’s goal in deploying THAAD was to use the system’s advanced “x-band radar” to potentially neutralize China’s ballistic missile capabilities.
U.S. officials have sharply denied such claims, although the THAAD issue could enhance U.S.-South Korean strategic alignment once Mr. Yoon takes office.
Most notably, the president-elect has indicated a desire for South Korea to be included in the “Quad” security dialogue with the U.S. and the other most powerful democracies in Asia: Australia, Japan and India. China has also fiercely complained about the dialogue.
The Quad, which has been aligned for more than a decade, gained fresh momentum during the Trump era. The administration used the grouping to counter what U.S. officials say is China’s increasingly aggressive economic and military moves in the Indo-Pacific. The Biden administration has picked up on the Trump initiative in promoting the potential of the Quad.
Regional experts point to an opportunity for the Biden administration to seize on Mr. Yoon’s interest in the Quad and any efforts to repair relations between South Korea and Japan — potential developments that China appears eager to preempt.
Mr. DeTrani pointed to a visit that Chinese Special Representative on Korean Peninsula Affairs Liu Xiaoming made to Seoul last week, saying that while it showed China “wants to work with South Korea on the North Korea nuclear issue so there is no further escalation,” there are other concerns Beijing wants addressed.
“China is going to be reaching out to the Yoon government I think aggressively to ensure the trade relationship continues and that the Yoon government doesn’t go too far to aligning itself with the United States, in organizations like the Quad, which Beijing views as being focused on containing China,” Mr. DeTrani said.
Mr. Maxwell added that he believes South Korea under Mr. Yoon will “for sure align with the Quad, although I don’t know if the Quad countries will extend an invitation to join or if they do, South Korea will accept.”