Yoon’s BLAZING navigation of the U.S.-China rivalry

  • Yoon is strengthening South Korea’s security cooperation with the U.S. and Japan amid rising tensions with China.
  • He has managed to avoid significant Chinese retaliation as a response to his pro-U.S. approach.
  • His assertive approach to North-Korea as well as North Korean military build-up are contributing to increasing inter-Korean tensions. 
“President Yoon at GSFC” by NASA HQ PHOTO (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)

Why is Yoon’s temperature blazing?

Answer: Yoon has successfully navigated the China-U.S. rivalry by enhancing South Korea’s U.S. security alliance and avoiding Chinese economic backlash.

South Korean politics traditionally involves navigating the U.S.-China rivalry while safeguarding national interests. This is due to the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) economic dependence on China and value-based security alliance with the United States. 

Elected in 2022, President Yoon Suk Yeol took a decisive stance by prioritizing a closer alignment with the United States over ties with China. This shift was underscored by his introduction of South Korea’s first Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS). The IPS aligns with the U.S. Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and challenges Chinese interests in the region. 

Through the IPS, Yoon aims to shift focus from inter-Korean relations to aligning with “value-based” partners. This shift intends to transform South Korea’s image from a passive player to a robust U.S. ally. This marks a departure from the previous Moon Jae-in administration, criticized by Yoon for perceived timidity in navigating ROK-U.S.-China relations.

Since taking office, Yoon has improved relations not just with Washington,  but also with U.S.-aligned states, such as Japan. Beyond fortifying economic and diplomatic ties, he has elevated security cooperation with the U.S. and Japan in East Asia. The 2023 U.S.-Japan-ROK Trilateral Summit underscores this, as the three nations signed a security pact including joint multidomain military exercises, missile defense, and intelligence gathering. This is significant because, while the U.S.-Japan-ROK cooperation predated Yoon, the President expanded the alliance by establishing a security pact

Hence Yoon went against the “Three Nos” deal between South Korea and China, signed by the previous ROK administration. Under this deal, South Korea had three commitments: no additional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment, no participation in the U.S. missile defense system, and no military alliance with the U.S. and Japan. The Yoon administration rejected this deal, declaring that THAAD deployment is a matter of national security.

Yoon’s alignment with the U.S. has fueled Chinese distrust of South Korea. Beijing is dissatisfied with the U.S.-Japan-Korea security cooperation, labeling it a “mini-NATO”. This dissatisfaction extends to his pro-U.S. diplomacy, particularly his public criticism of China’s approach to Taiwan, South China Sea, and North-Korea. In response to Yoon’s U.S.-aligned policy, China warned against politicizing economic and technological cooperation.

What is changing Yoon’s heat level?

Answer: Yoon benefits from a South Korea-friendly Biden administration and weakened Chinese economic retaliation capabilities.

Yoon’s decision to strengthen ties with Washington aligned with the agenda of the Biden administration, which regards South Korea as a key Northeast-Asian ally, making strengthened cooperation mutually beneficial. Due to increased China-U.S. rivalry, growing regional assertiveness from China and a North Korean military buildup, the Biden administration places higher importance on South Korean relations compared to its predecessor. For Seoul, this is advantageous, especially in times of increased inter-Korean tensions. China’s warm relations with North Korea and Beijing’s reluctance to support South Korea in case of an inter-Korean conflict makes stronger security cooperation with the U.S. more appealing. 

Besides the U.S. support, Yoon’s blazing position is further fueled by the lack of Chinese economic coercion against his policies conflicting with Chinese interests. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner and the primary supplier of raw materials for its crucial battery and semiconductor industry. Retaliation from China would inflict significant damage on the South Korean economy. Previously, China has already imposed trade restrictions on Seoul as a retaliation to South Korean foreign policy going against Chinese interests. Hence, Yoon’s pro-U.S. policy may lead to economic repercussions from Beijing.

However, due to U.S. restrictions on semiconductor exports to China, Beijing relies more on South Korea for its technology needs. Therefore, worsening trade relations would hurt both parties. This mutual dependence reduces the likelihood of South Korea facing economic retaliation from China. In addition, Yoon has also made efforts to de-risk ROK’s trade dependence on Beijing. He did so by diversifying South Korean supply chains as well as moving major South Korean electronics companies’ production lines from China to other countries, such as India and Vietnam.

What is driving Yoon?

Answer: Yoon’s pro U.S. alignment and firm stance against North Korea stem from his identity as a South Korean conservative and a former prosecutor general known for upholding the rule of law.

Yoon’s foreign policy is partially driven by his representation of the conservative party –  People Power Party (PPP). South Korean conservatives generally support close ties with the U.S. and the EU, reject communism, support strong national defense, free-trade, economic liberalization and human rights. Unlike progressives who favor détente with North Korea, conservatives oppose warming relations and aim to strengthen the U.S.-ROK alliance for enhanced South Korean security.

However, Yoon’s decisive stance on the U.S.-China rivalry is not only driven by his role as a conservative president, but also stems from his personal convictions. He attributed his alignment with the U.S. and its partners to a commitment to advocate for democracy and human rights. Similarly, he vowed to take a more critical stance on North-Korea partially in order to stand up for human rights.

Yoon’s personal convictions were recognised by the South Korean public before his presidency. Before taking the office, he was a prosecutor, who was known to the public as someone who steps up against injustice, and is not afraid of authority. He became especially popular among the conservatives during his role as the Prosecutor General in the previous progressive Moon government, where he stood up against the former Minister of Justice Cho Kuk. As public concerns over unfair advantages in the Moon government increased, conservatives viewed Yoon as a fighter against corruption and the defender of democracy. Drawing on his image, he grounded his presidency in these principles, forming the basis of his U.S.-aligned foreign policy.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Yoon’s assertive stance toward North Korea and North Korean military build-up are leading to increasing tensions in the Korean Peninsula.

Under President Yoon, Seoul’s relations with North Korea have deteriorated significantly. Despite enduring tensions between Pyongyang and Seoul since the Korean War, there was a notable easing of strains during the previous South Korean administration. However, under his presidency, inter-Korean tensions are escalating. That is both the result of the recent North-Korean military build-up and nuclearisation, as well as Yoon’s approach toward North-Korea, especially his decision to strengthen military cooperation with the United States and Japan.

Yoon took a shift in inter-Korean policy from the previous administration led by Moon. The former President applied a diplomacy-focused strategy which led to stable relations with Pyongyang despite the ongoing North Korean military development. In contrast, Yoon vowed a more assertive response to North-Korean provocations and a less accommodating policy towards Pyongyang. This shift was underscored by his security alliance with the U.S. and Japan.

Due to increasing tensions marked by border disputes, both sides resumed previously restricted military activities, replacing inter-Korean dialogue with heightened military efforts.