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With Yoon’s Election, It’s Time for China to Rethink Its Korea Policy

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With Yoon’s Election, It’s Time for China to Rethink Its Korea Policy

The victory of the more hawkish, China-skeptical candidate means China must rethink its approach to the Korean Peninsula.

With Yoon’s Election, It’s Time for China to Rethink Its Korea Policy
Credit: Cheong Wa Dae

Former Prosecutor General Yoon Suk-yeol swept to power in a narrow victory over his rival, Lee Jae-myung, in the 2022 South Korean presidential election. His entry into the Blue House is likely to bring substantial transformations not only to domestic and social policies, but to South Korea’s foreign policy and relations with its regional allies. With respect to the latter, Beijing would benefit from taking note – and responding accordingly, in its diplomatic strategizing and approach to the Korean peninsula.

Making Sense of Yoon’s Foreign Policy Vision

Much commentary concerning the prognosis for Yoon’s foreign policy tends to revolve around the fact that he is a “hawk” and adamant “conservative” on the fronts of North Korea and China. Yoon himself situates Korean foreign policy within the broader ideologically embedded rhetoric of a fight between “liberalism and authoritarianism” – a stark departure from the meek pragmatism espoused by his predecessor Moon Jae-in, who has come under criticism for his perceived softness on North Korean aggression and excessive affinity for China.

Yet to portray Yoon as a mere conservative would be intellectually lazy, for several reasons. It is imperative that we disaggregate the foreign policy debate within the People Power Party (Yoon’s party) approaches into at least three possible categories – the values-driven, ideologically dogmatic “liberal-internationalist,” which favors closer integration within and drawing upon free trade agreements and trans-Pacific commercial deals in enshrining South Korea’s strategic partnerships with the United States and Japan; the military/defense-propelled “militarist-neoconservative,” which calls for heightened militarization in warding off perceived North Korean military threats (under the dual auspices of Russia and China); and – finally – the “populist,” a faction that is distinctively less ideologically and values-driven than the first, and that is willing to employ a flexible range of possible tools in combating threats to South Korean national security.

As a relative outsider and newcomer to his party, Yoon falls squarely into the third category – one that is less defined by doctrinaire, steadfast adherence to principles of internationalist liberalism (Yoon himself is a social conservative), and more to a brand of Korean nationalism that is both reactionary and propelled by disillusionment with an ineffectual political establishment.

What does this therefore mean for South Korea’s China-oriented foreign policy after Yoon takes office in May? There are three implications worth highlighting here:

First, it is likely that Yoon’s administration will place a much greater emphasis upon rekindling many of the cooled security ties – in both multilateral and bilateral forms – with the United States. Calls for instating trilateral security cooperation between Japan, South Korea, and the United States have been at the forefront of Washington’s Korean Peninsula policy, under both Donald Trump and Joe Biden – more notably, the first overseas trip by two senior Biden cabinet members (Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin) was to Japan and South Korea. It is likely that under Yoon’s populist, strongman-imagery-inspired rule, his administration would prioritize solidifying U.S. military and security support in order to amplify his perceived leverage against Pyongyang.

From the perspective of South Korean citizens, such moves are likely to be popular in the short-term, albeit with lingering questions over efficacy. After all, the North Korean regime has been repeatedly testing offensive weapons – and dialing up its frequency of so doing – amidst the military confrontation over Ukraine. Pyongyang’s January 30 firing of an intermediate-range missile – the longest-range missile the North has tested since 2017 – served as a critical reminder to South Korean foreign policy hawks that Moon’s contact-engagement policy had not adequately, despite his best efforts, softened Pyongyang’s resolve in advancing militarization. Thus whilst Yoon is no militarist zealot, it is likely that he views Seoul as having few options other than doubling down its military ties and securitization efforts with the United States, in order to ward off the threat from the North.

Second, while some view Yoon’s foreign policy adviser’s declaration of “strategic clarity” over the Sino-American relationship and favoring of Washington as a clear signal that Seoul would re-pivot to Washington for closer economic and commercial ties, such a hasty conclusion would be unwise. Seoul’s increasing economic, financial, and trade connections with Beijing predate Moon Jae-in’s tenure, and come as a natural response to the complementarities in needs for goods and services between the Chinese and Korean populations. South Korea has one of the world’s lowest birth-rates, deeply unaffordable housing, and heightening fears over under-employment and economic stagnation. These conditions do not favor a self-defeating economic policy where South Korea exclusively “picks and chooses” partners on the basis of politico-ideological ties.

Thus what is more likely to emerge is a shift toward diversification in economic and trade partnerships. China remains – at least in the short to medium run – South Korea’s preferred trading partner, with the country being Seoul’s largest export-import partner, over the United States, by a substantial margin. With slowing growth rates, uncertainty over the real estate sector, and declining demographics in China as looming challenges on one hand, and surging inflation and protectionist amplification of domestic industries in the United States, neither China nor the U.S. presents itself as the natural, exclusive economic partner for Seoul in the long run. More promising, perhaps, would be the exploration of expanded options and connections between South Korea and emerging markets such as Vietnam and India, as well as the European Union. Yoon centered his campaign around the allegations that the present regime has been too economically dependent upon China – yet in the absence of overwhelming motivations to do so, he is as unlikely as his predecessor to steer South Korea back toward the proverbial Pax America.

Finally, none of this need mean that Yoon is a necessarily pro-war or militarization candidate. It is unlikely, given the domestic paranoia and concerns over the Korean Peninsula’s ongoing uncertainty, that Yoon would seek to engage in provocative military signals or direct confrontation. What is more likely to unfold, however, is the continued expansion of its domestic defense arsenal, in order to signal to larger regional actors (e.g. China, and to a lesser extent Russia) Yoon’s resolve at addressing the “North Korean problem” once and for all.

Lessons for China: A Rethink Is In Order

As China rises to precipitous global prominence, it is understandable that Beijing views its economic-commercial diplomacy as a self-sustaining and tenable political practice – one that massages away worries concerning national security and territorial sovereignty through visceral deliverables and concrete improvements in the quality of life of recipients of its trade diplomacy. Much of this was taken out of the United States’ playbook of cultivating a global sphere of commercial, mercantilist influence – and should not be dismissed out of hand as ineffective or unjustified.

Yet following Yoon’s victory, and his administration’s likely choice to pursue part-decoupling-from, and part-hedging-against over-dependence upon China, Beijing must recognize that economic diplomacy alone is insufficient as a means of securing robust and reliable regional alliances for the country. The growing skepticism amongst Korean millennials and Gen-Zs toward Chinese foreign policy is a worrying sign that China has an optics problem amongst the youth in Northeast Asia. If Beijing is to take seriously such public disgruntlement in South Korea, China must do more than merely engage in proactive, constructive economic engagements.

One way of going about this at minimal cost, and with potentially significant windfall for Beijing, is to seek to foster closer cross-cultural exchanges and soft power through language and rhetoric more amenable to the South Korean public, as well as emphasizing that the economic fruits of trade with China need not come at the expense of innovation and intellectual property in South Korea.

Furthermore, China has always maintained a most-apparent self-interested stake in ensuring that the United States does not unduly expand its military alliance into the immediate vicinity of China’s border. It is for this reason, among others, that Beijing has always sought to maintain a degree of presence in talks and negotiations over the Korean Peninsula. The challenge for Beijing historically had been in defusing its own security concerns without signaling to the Korean public and government that it is bent on further expanding its sphere of influence in the peninsula.

This delicate dualism could be achieved in two ways – first, in Beijing applying greater pressure on Pyongyang to de-escalate and eschew provocative gestures (e.g. sudden missile tests) and second, in Beijing’s bundling of constructive economic-trade packages with commitments and guarantees on Seoul’s part to curtail its military-strategic dependence upon Washington. Beijing has favored the latter as a more expedient and less-costly (politically or otherwise) means of courting the support of Moon Jae-in. With a more hard-lined incoming president who has a reduced appetite for reconciliation-driven resolution to the Korean Peninsula crisis, Beijing should consider more seriously the former approach, while bearing in mind its broader political-security commitment to the Kim Jong Un regime.

From Beijing-Seoul to Beijing-Washington?

Finally, whether it be Ukraine or South Korea (to be clear, the two countries are drastically divergent and distinct at large), a broad proposition remains clear: China’s relationships with these countries should not and cannot be reduced to its relationship with the United States. To do so would be dismissive of the historico-political contingencies involved. Yet inevitably, these relations are at least somewhat bound up with the broader China-U.S. bilateral relationship. How China handles South Korea, and how it recalibrates its Seoul policy in light of Yoon’s ascendancy to the presidency, will have implications for Beijing-Washington relations, in two ways.

First, it is imperative that Sino-American relations are supported with reasonable guardrails that preclude the spill-over of bilateral tensions into domains that have potentially devastating ramifications. One such area would be denuclearization in the Peninsula. Beijing has recently sought to pair North Korea’s resumption of talks over nuclear weapons with the United States’ lifting of sanctions over Pyongyang – from the Chinese perspective, this is a reasonable extension of its ideological opposition to sanctions against its allies, albeit clearly one that would only make sense insofar as Pyongyang does not engage in dangerous, unilateral escalation. In light of Yoon’s presidency and Washington’s concerns over waging a “war” on two fronts (against Russia and China alike), it would be in the interest of all parties involved to secure a moderate, manageable, concrete affirmation of de-escalation in the Korean Peninsula so as to lower the salience of the national security angle in Yoon’s foreign policy priorities.

Second, in face of Biden and Yoon’s joint push for South Korea to continually diversifying its economic and trade partners, it would be futile, and equally uncharacteristic, of Beijing to seek to preclude the inevitable. What would make much strategic and economic sense for China, however, is to radically lower the barriers to entry for Korean firms and investors and seek win-win collaboration concerning 5G and 6G technology, semiconductors, and supply chain technology. If Beijing is to preserve its ties with Seoul over such domains, it is imperative that it offer and act more proactively.

All in all, Yoon’s presidency indubitably presents challenges to China, which has relied considerably upon Moon’s moderatism as a means of holding off U.S. pressures over the Korean Peninsula. With Yoon’s non-ideological, populist flexibility, however, comes a degree of surprising malleability. If China could seize appropriately upon the opening to develop mutually beneficial, deepened economic-financial-strategic ties, the Korean Peninsula could well remain neutral ground insulated from the deteriorating Sino-American relations.