After the text about the President of the ROK at the NATO summit was published, part of the audience questioned whether the ROK, despite its loyalist statements, was in fact in no particular hurry to do Washington’s bidding. This question is best answered by a combination of words and facts.
The joint statement of the ROK and US leaders had three parts, but the common theme was areas in which Washington and Seoul would stand together “for all the good things” (and, naturally, “against all things bad”). On the North Korean issue in particular, the two leaders pledged to “initiate discussions to expand the scope and scale of combined military exercises and training on and around the Korean Peninsula,” including increased cooperation to counter a range of cyber threats from the DPRK. Joe Biden and Yoon Suk-yeol also agreed to consider deploying more US weapons, including nuclear ones, in the region.
An entire section of the statement was devoted to economic cooperation, including economic security, and the establishment of safe and sustainable global supply chains.
On the Russian dimension, it was stressed that the parties “stand together with the international community in further condemning Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine,” which they consider a violation of international law, and introduced “their own financial sanctions and export controls against Russia.”
China was not explicitly named, but implied quite clearly. Seoul, in particular, was prepared to push hard the issue of human rights in both North Korea and China.
It is clear that the practical implementation of decisions made by the top officials does not happen overnight, but by the end of July 2022 it can be seen what has been done, rather than said, in the almost two months since Biden visited the ROK.
Harsher Stance on the DPRK
Experts immediately noted that the two leaders did not mention the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration or the Singapore Joint Statement, which were included in the May 2021 joint summit statement of Biden and then South Korean President Moon Jae-in. In an interview with CNN on May 23, 2022, Yoon Suk-yeol stressed that the previous government’s conciliatory approach to North Korea had failed, “the age of appeasing North Korea is over and any new talks between Seoul and Pyongyang must be initiated by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un”. Later, in a meeting with the military in July 2022, he ordered “to swiftly punish North Korea in case of provocations”.
In the same interview, however, Yoon said that the collapse of the DPRK was undesirable; the best option was for the South and North to prosper together. This distinguishes him strongly from classical conservatives, who openly spoke of wiping the DPRK off the map and absorbing it soon.
On May 24, a spokesman for the Ministry of Unification said that, given the President’s stated practical approach, the South Korean government would consider whether to maintain the economic sanctions imposed on North Korea in 2010 after “the North sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan.” Under the sanctions, known as the May 24 Measures, almost all inter-Korean exchanges are banned, with the exception of the Kaesong industrial complex and humanitarian aid projects. There has been no further news on this, however, and the author assumes that such a move is held up until action by the North.
No new unilateral sanctions have been imposed yet either, although Brian Nelson, the US Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence in charge of sanctions issues, held several meetings with high-level representatives of the ROK on June 27 during which he discussed the topic of sanctions restrictions against the DPRK and Russia.
In a meeting with Kim Gunn, Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs, the two sides agreed on the need to increase international sanctions against North Korea if it continues to refuse dialogue and develop its nuclear-missile capabilities. Negotiators discussed the issue of unilateral sanctions by the US and the ROK, but Seoul never imposed anything, unlike Washington.
However, there has been activity on the human rights front as an additional tool to exert pressure on Pyongyang. On July 19, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea announced the appointment of Lee Shin-hwa, a political science and international relations professor at Korea University, as Ambassador-at-Large on North Korean Human Rights. The seat has been vacant since September 2017, having been created in 2016 following the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act.
Finally, it should be noted that the North Korean agenda is being actively exploited in domestic politics – the “pushback” against the previous administration is being carried out through the investigation of incidents in which the Moon administration has been accused of trying to serve the North at the cost of the lives of ROK citizens.
The results here are clearly visible, not only in the example of IPEF membership. Seoul has joined Washington’s Mineral Security Partnership (MSP) initiative aimed at diversifying and creating stable supply chains for key resources and minerals used in advanced industries (semiconductors, batteries, green energy, etc.).
Then, it was decided that Seoul would join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). A formal application will be submitted after all the necessary internal procedures, including a hearing before parliament.
On July 7, Presidential Secretary for Economic Security Wang Yun-jong and Tarun Chhabra, Senior Director for Technology and National Security at the US National Security Council, held talks in Washington.
Separately, the visit to the ROK by US Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, from which Seoul was expected to make clear moves towards the US course, should be noted. In her speech after visiting LG Chem’s battery plant, Yellen called for sustainable supply chains to reduce inflation and prevent China from using its leverage on the supply of key materials. In addition, Yellen called the proposed price cap on Russian oil exports the most powerful tool for dealing with high energy prices and urged US allies to join the move. As a result of the visit, South Korea joined the US proposal to cap prices on Russian oil, but this is nothing more than a nice gesture, given that the ROK hardly buys it at all. Most of the oil comes to South Korea by sea from Arab countries and the US.
It is also important that when Janet Yellen met behind closed doors with President Yoon Suk-yeol, contrary to expectations, the sides did not address the issue of sanctions on the DPRK.
In another important development, on July 20 Minister of Science and ICT Lee Jong-ho openly stated that South Korea should be cautious when deciding whether to join the US Chip 4 or Fab 4 technology alliance initiative, as the potential implications could affect not only the country’s semiconductor industry, but also the economy as a whole. The framework, which in addition to the US and the ROK also includes Taiwan and Japan, is designed to counter China’s growing influence in global supply chains for advanced high-tech products, as well as to increase American production capacity and capabilities in this area.
Military Cooperation and the THAAD Issue
Yoon intends to build a so-called three-axis system that includes a “Massive Punishment and Retaliation System (an operational plan to disable the North Korean leadership in the event of conflict)”; a Kill Chain pre-emptive strike system; and an air and missile defense system. However, these developments did not begin under him and the extent to which the rate of military spending and defense procurement will equal the growth that occurred under Moon remains to be seen.
The high level Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group, which had briefly operated during the Park Geun-hye administration, was reactivated. It is a platform for the two allies to coordinate closely on the deployment of US strategic assets. These usually include aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines and bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
As for THAAD, the ROK Minister of Defense said on May 23 that South Korea will push for normalization of the US missile defense deployment, as it is in a temporary installation status due to environmental and other reason. The Ministry of Defense plans to form a government-civilian advisory body for the long-delayed environmental impact assessment of the US THAAD missile defense unit in order to speed up the process.
No active action has yet been seen on the ROK’s accession to QUAD: Yoon’s spokesman denied a report in the Japanese media that the new Korean government is seeking to attend the four-country meeting as an observer.
Where progress can be seen is in joint exercises of different types. On June 11, 2022, the defense chiefs of South Korea, the United States and Japan agreed to intensify cooperation to counter North Korea’s missile threats through joint exercises, including missile warning drills. Similar statements were made at the meeting of the three leaders on the sidelines of the NATO summit.
On June 29, 2022, the DPRK harshly criticized a joint US-Japanese and South Korean Pacific Dragon exercise on the pretext of “practicing ballistic missile tracking and retrieval capabilities,” which was largely conducted in private.
On July 4, South Korea held its first four-day plenary meeting of the National Reserve Force Committee (NRFC) in Seoul, attended by officials from 20 committee members as well as from six countries with observer status, including Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
Established in 1981, the NRFC serves as a key body tasked with advising NATO on reserve force matters and enhancing the readiness of the Alliance’s reserves through the sharing of best practices.
On July 20, 2022, it was finally announced that the Eulji civil defense exercise will be held at full scale from August 22 and will last for four days nationwide, after having been held in a scaled-back manner in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some 480,000 officials from some 4,000 city, county and district governments, government agencies and other organizations across the country will take part to test their readiness for war and other contingencies. The exercise will include actions to restore facilities, telecommunications and waterworks in the event of a North Korean missile attack, as well as training to counter GPS jamming in conjunction with a joint South Korean and United States military exercise.
The military part of the exercise, scheduled for August 22 to September 1, is likely to combine computer-based command post exercises and field maneuvers, which in combination with the Eulji exercise amounts to a revival of the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise, cancelled in 2018 under the Moon Jae-in administration.
The maneuvers are expected to be given a new name, which is currently under discussion, and the author expects a new round of tensions in this respect, similar to those traditional “spring and autumn aggravations” that occurred every year before the “Olympic warming” of 2018.
Seoul’s Support for Washington’s anti-Russian Line
There are no additional sanctions. There are no high-profile statements. Park Jin’s meeting with Lavrov on July 7, 2022 on the sidelines of the G20 ministerial meeting in Bali did not come down to accusations either. Park Jin urged Lavrov not to allow damage to South Korean citizens and companies living and working in Russia.
Lee Jun-seok’s visit to Ukraine was not a reason for additional action, and it was Yoon’s supporters who criticized Lee for it.
Militant blogger Lee Geun is being interrogated, but the topic has gone off the news – apparently because while in detention status, he cannot post updates on Instagram.
Meanwhile, some regard the abolishment of the Committee on Northern Economic Cooperation, which oversaw relations with Russia and the Eurasian states, as an anti-Russian action. However, not everyone is aware that this structure has been virtually dormant and the Russian version of its website has not been updated since 2019.
“U-turn Away from China”
There are no harsh anti-China statements; instead, there are constant reservations that the ROK’s participation in US programs does not carry an anti-China agenda. Answering a question on the possibility of economic retaliation by China over the ROK joining the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), the South Korean leader said that “China is unlikely to be overly sensitive on this issue.” He recalled that bilateral cooperation is equally important for Seoul and Beijing. Strengthening contacts with Washington in the areas of security and technology does not mean Seoul considers economic cooperation with China unimportant, Yoon Suk-yeol emphasized.
On May 23, ROK First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Hyun-dong said that the strengthening of the economic and technological alliance between the ROK and the US under the new Yoon Suk-yeol administration is not directed against a specific country and the government will make efforts to simultaneously strengthen the economic and technological partnership with China, which is a close neighbor and the biggest trade partner of the ROK.
On July 2, ROK Foreign Minister Park Jin pointed out that Yoon Suk-yeol’s participation in the NATO summit was not directed against China. And on July 7, Park Jin and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi agreed to communicate regularly. During the G-20 foreign ministers’ meeting in Bali, Park and Wang exchanged views for about 50 minutes on the active exchanges between the two countries after Korea got a new president in May.
Thus, Seoul is by no means running ahead of the locomotive. Where issues are not “on the table” is either economic cooperation without the obvious threat of spoiling relations with China, or those security initiatives that Yoon has been voicing since the election race. The rest may be laid out on the table in a critical situation (e.g. amid a serious inter-Korean escalation), while Yoon tries to refrain from overtly anti-Russian or anti-Chinese moves.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Contemporary Asia RAS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.