The Level Headed Diplomacy of Yoon


Photo source: Reuters

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

When South Korea’s president, Yoon Suk-yeol, was sworn into office in 2022, the chances for a bilateral relationship with China had gotten low. After all, Yoon in his campaigns talked tough about China.

The conservative South Korean politicians typically have wanted to deepen the US alliance and are suspicious of Chinese support for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea).

Yoon and his government, to some extent, have also taken a harder stance on China for a while. For example, Yoon became the first South Korean leader to attend the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Summit, during which he criticised not only Russia but China as well. In April 2023, before his state visit to Washington for a summit at the White House with President Joe Biden, Yoon inveighed any ‘attempt to change the status quo by force’ in the Taiwan Strait. He further assured that South Korea would cooperate with the international community to prevent such an outcome. Yoon’s comments predictably angered China and sparked a months-long diplomatic tit-for-tat that prolonged into the summer.

As part of that summit, Biden and Yoon jointly issued the ‘Washington Declaration,’ which includes programs such as the establishment of a nuclear consultative group, the exchange of nuclear-related information, and visits by nuclear-powered military assets like the B-52 and submarines, which could be leveraged not only for North Korea but China-related political emergencies as well.

But Yoon has simultaneously tried to keep an even hand in dealing with Beijing through good diplomacy. For instance, when then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited South Korea after her highly controversial visit to Taiwan to meet President Tsai Ing-wen, Yoon was nowhere to be found. The presidential office said that he was on a five-day vacation and had no plans to meet with Pelosi, though he eventually did hold a last-minute phone call with her.

A classic case of political diplomacy by Yoon can be illustrated when his administration also stepped in softly by supporting China in December 2023, by referring to the communist nation as a ‘key partner’ with which Seoul ‘will nurture a sounder and more mature relationship as we pursue shared interests based on mutual respect and reciprocity, guided by international norms and rules.’

Such moves have probably contributed to a gradual stabilising and normalising of the South Korea-China relationship.

Yoon’s foreign policy, however, is probably only one part of the story. Dismal Chinese economic numbers—including a collapse in exports, heightening inflation, rising unemployment, and slowing consumption, production, and investment, maybe prompting Beijing to achieve a better partnership with Seoul. The same could be true for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to meet with US President Joe Biden in November 2023 at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in San Francisco.

Another factor is probably Yoon’s push to open and strengthen ties with Japan, which has a strained relationship with China. This makes Yoon a progressive, friendly, and liberal diplomat. Earlier in 2023, Yoon held a summit with his counterpart, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the first of its kind in over a decade. Since then, Seoul and Tokyo have agreed to resuscitate a military information-sharing agreement, and in August 2023, Biden met with Yoon and Kishida at Camp David in the first-ever standalone trilateral summit between the three nations. In November 2023, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin sat down in another unprecedented trilateral relations with South Korean and Japanese defense ministers to share information relevant to ‘severe security environments,’ suggesting that North Korea isn’t the only target. Hence, Beijing probably seeks to undermine and ultimately end the strengthening South Korea-Japan partnership possibly aimed to counter its power in the region.

Derek Grossman wrote in ‘Although South Korea is arguably inching closer to a trilateral military alliance with the US and Japan, now featuring, for example, joint military exercises, China can still rationalize that the partnership is still too new and possibly ephemeral, likely circumscribed and strained by lingering mistrust from World War II legacy issues, such as the comfort women.’

In the end, Yoon’s China policy has been unexpectedly successful thus far. He is also irritated a bit by the South Korean public’s increasingly negative views on China, with the nation now reportedly holding the most anti-China sentiment worldwide. Of course, Yoon is still a relatively new president. He is less than two years into his five-year term. A lot of things can go wrong, especially if he pursues the Taiwan issue more assertively. But for now, at least, Yoon and his government have successfully managed China and perhaps offered a road map for how others can too.


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