South Korea’s newly elected president, Yoon Suk-yeol, is a conservative who is expected to sharply move his country in a more hawkish direction. That’s great news for the United States and the world.
Despite these factors, outgoing President Moon Jae-in sought to appease its belligerent neighbors rather than fully stand up to them. Moon preferred dialogue with North Korea to confrontation and argued for strategic ambiguity with respect to China. He maintained South Korea’s strong military, but otherwise sought to focus on economic development rather than play an active part in global or even regional affairs.
Yoon sees the world completely differently. He wants to strengthen the alliance with the United States and plans to acquire increased missile and air defense capability, including allowing the United States to station more Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile units in South Korea. China vociferously protested the initial THAAD deployment because it believes it could be used to combat its own nuclear capabilities. That doesn’t scare Yoon, who emphasizes China’s socialist nature and its long-standing support for North Korea over the fact that it is South Korea’s largest trading partner. Yoon even wants to improve relations with South Korea’s former colonial overlord, Japan, in an effort to increase allied cooperation.
All this will help President Biden increase the strength of the anti-Chinese bloc of Asian democratic countries he is trying build. South Korea is the world’s 10th largest economy, larger than Russia’s and just behind Canada’s. The Korean Peninsula is also strategically situated, sitting astride China’s access to the Pacific via the Yellow Sea and Russia’s access via the Sea of Japan. Its 2020 decision to build an aircraft carrier presaged a more important role in the region. Yoon’s diplomatic and military plans will make South Korea a valuable outpost to contain Chinese and Russian aggression.
Increased cooperation with Japan is also in the U.S. strategic interest. Japan plans to refit two helicopter carriers to accommodate fighter jets and has said it will increase its defense spending above the historic 1 percent of gross domestic product cap it has followed since its defeat in World War II. Japan’s navy is already training with U.S. and British forces; adding South Korea’s to that cohort makes joint naval action in the Pacific more formidable. Improved South Korean ties with Japan could also lead to the two former enemies building their own joint capabilities, which would reduce their military dependence on the United States. This would allow the United States to deploy its increasingly stretched assets elsewhere, something especially important if multiple global threats emerged simultaneously.
Yoon also wants to increase cooperation with the Quad — a diplomatic and military arrangement among the United States, Japan, Australia and India intended to counter the rising power of China. South Korea won’t join and make the Quad a Quint, at least not yet, but increased involvement can only enhance the Quad’s potential deterrent effect.
Together, these developments will place South Korea even more firmly within the U.S.-led Western alliance than it was previously. If Yoon is successful during his five-year term, he will have created “facts on the ground” that would be difficult for a liberal successor to unravel. Subsequent moves to rein in Quad cooperation, for example, would be viewed as backsliding by South Korea’s allies. Asking the United States to remove its THAAD batteries would sour relations between the countries, and more extreme moves could lead to even conservative American presidents re-examining the long-standing alliance. The U.S. bipartisan policy of containing China will force South Korea to choose to be in or out of that alliance. Yoon’s election makes it harder and more painful for Seoul to choose to stay out.