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Under new, conservative president, South Korea is poised to adopt a more hawkish foreign policy

Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea's president-elect and former top prosecutor, speaks at his campaign office after his election win. (SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg News)

SEOUL — For the past five years, South Korea’s foreign policy decisions have been shaped with one goal in mind: peace with North Korea. Now, under an incoming conservative president, Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea is poised to make a hawkish about-face that would reshape its relationship with not only North Korea but also the United States, China, Japan and nations beyond.

The return of conservative rule in South Korea comes as Seoul harbors growing ambitions to be a key player on global challenges, such as supply-chain resiliency, climate change, vaccine supply and emerging technology — especially in the face of intensifying U.S.-China competition.

But despite its big dreams, South Korea under liberal president Moon Jae-in prioritized improving relations with North Korea, which sometimes meant it hedged or sat on the sidelines to avoid overly antagonizing China, North Korea’s economic lifeline. With progress on inter-Korean relations and North Korea’s denuclearization more elusive than ever, South Korea under Yoon is likely to dramatically change course, experts say.

“I see the strategic mapping of South Korea’s foreign policy is going to be broadened, including East Asia and also the Indo-Pacific,” said Lee Sook-jong, a professor of public administration at Sungkyunkwan University’s Graduate School of Governance. “He is more willing to cooperate with President Biden and with the United States, rather than taking a more equidistant policy or neutrality.”

Yoon, a former prosecutor general, has no experience in foreign policy and was voted into office Wednesday with a margin of less than 1 percent. He faces steep challenges in governing, not just because he is new at it but also because the country is deeply divided.

But with the help of his advisers, including childhood friend and former vice foreign minister Kim Sung-han, Yoon has called for a stronger security alliance between South Korea and the United States, especially when it comes to North Korea and China. Yoon has called for “strategic clarity” on China rather than Moon’s “strategic ambiguity.” And he advocates a more assertive role in working with the international community to respond to countries that threaten the “international order,” such as Russia with its invasion of Ukraine.

Lee said the time is long overdue for South Korea to play a more assertive role by building relationships with countries throughout the Indo-Pacific, Southeast Asia and Europe; promoting democracy throughout Southeast Asia; and supporting efforts of the “Quad” countries — the United States, India, Japan and Australia — to counter China’s economic and diplomatic rise.

“We are the 10th-largest economy. We need to expand to not only the conventional ASEAN countries, but also we have to go to India and South Asia,” she said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. “It is good to diversify the economic flow, so we can reduce our economic dependence on China.”

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In a written interview with The Washington Post, Yoon said he found it “regrettable” that South Korea lagged behind Western countries, Japan and Australia in responding to the Russian invasion with economic sanctions. He said South Korea must “do our best to meet the expectations and demands of the international society.”

“We face the task of strengthening our global diplomatic competence amid growing nuclear threats from North Korea and tensions from the strategic competition between the United States and China,” Yoon said Thursday in his first news conference as president-elect.

In recent months, North Korea has conducted a series of missile tests as it seeks to expand its nuclear arsenal, and it has shown signs that it may be planning to resume nuclear and long-range missile tests. Among other hard-line approaches to the North, Yoon wants to pursue preemptive strike capabilities against the North’s nuclear and missile threats — a proposal that has already gotten Pyongyang’s attention.

North Korean propaganda outlets described Yoon’s advocacy for preemptive strike as “reckless” and called him a “war maniac” and a “quisling” — a sign that Yoon’s rhetoric is raising concerns in Pyongyang, said Kim Seok-hyang, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

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“Kim Jong Un is deeply disconcerted by the new South Korean president, who urged a hard-line response to provocations from the North,” she said.

Last year, when Moon held a summit with President Biden, the two leaders outlined their goals for broadening the scope of the U.S.-South Korea alliance beyond North Korea issues — a welcome move for many experts who had hoped to see South Korea become more influential on the global stage.

Now, it will be up to Yoon to turn those promises into specific policies, said Miyeon Oh, director of the Asia Security Initiative at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.

“Yoon has to show how to incorporate his campaign promises into actual policies that are aligned with what the previous administration has agreed with the current U.S. administration,” Oh said. “It will also require that South Korea’s foreign policy under the Yoon administration be aligned with the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy.”

South Korea can step up with its private sector, which has already been building factories and infrastructure in critical industries such as semiconductors and high-capacity batteries through foreign direct investment in the United States and other countries, Oh said. Yoon has said he wants to tackle these “new frontier” opportunities.

“These are key areas in which South Korean companies have already become leaders in the global market, and therefore South Korea under the Yoon administration could take a leading role in shaping the agenda in terms of multilateral cooperation,” she said.

A key test of Yoon’s leadership will be whether he can start thawing the icy relationship between South Korea and Japan, as he promises to do.

The Biden administration has emphasized the need for the United States, Japan and South Korea to work more closely together to counter China’s rise, especially given the fact that South Korea and Japan are major markets for semiconductors.

As Biden seeks to restore alliances, a souring Japan-South Korea relationship presents a challenge

But this is a tall order, not just because of the long history between South Korea and Japan but also because of the strong pushback Yoon is likely to face domestically from critics of Tokyo.

“I think there will be some limit because of the domestic politics here. He won the race with [a margin of] 0.8 percentage points,” said Lee, of Sungkyunkwan University. “If [Yoon] is perceived too soft, I’m sure liberals and progressives will attack him. He has to maneuver very wisely to improve relations with Japan.”

At his news conference Thursday, Yoon said he wants South Korea and Japan to look toward future opportunities rather than dwell on their past. In Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Yoon faces a counterpart who is experienced in mending ties between the countries. As foreign minister, Kishida helped broker a historic agreement with Seoul in 2015 over the issue of “comfort women,” those forced into sexual slavery by Japan’s military during World War II.

On Thursday, Kishida congratulated Yoon and called for a “healthy Japan-Korea relationship,” which he said was “indispensable.”

“I look forward to President-elect Yoon's leadership and look forward to working closely with him to improve Japan-Korea relations,” Kishida said. “Japan-Korea relations are currently in a very difficult situation, but we cannot leave things as they are.”

Julia Mio Inuma contributed to this report.

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