South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has introduced a profound shift in the country’s foreign policy, aligning it more closely with the United States. Yet this bold strategic redirection has not necessarily translated to an uptick in his domestic approval ratings.
Yoon — devoid of a foreign policy background — took the reins of the presidency in 2022. Conventional wisdom suggested he would hone in on domestic matters. Surprisingly, he charted a foreign policy course markedly different from South Korea’s immediate past, in a clear tilt towards the United States.
Yoon’s foreign policy direction contrasts starkly with that of his predecessor, former president Moon Jae-in — whom Yoon labelled as “pro-China” in his public statements. Yoon once remarked that “most South Koreans, especially younger ones, don’t like China even though President Moon’s administration pursued pro-China policies.” He spelled out his stance to The New York Times in September 2022, saying that “South Korea will take a clearer position with respect to U.S.-China relations.”
Yoon was instrumental in orchestrating the recent U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit at Camp David. That summit would have been improbable without Yoon’s push for reconciliation with Japan — South Korea’s former colonizer.
Though the summit stopped shy of solidifying a formal military alliance, it resonated with the spirit embodied in NATO’s Article 5 — “an attack against one is an attack against all” — replacing “attack” with “threat.” Some suggested that the new security partnership might hold even more historical significance than the AUKUS pact. Meanwhile, The Global Times in China described the Camp David summit as possibly “a starting shot for a new Cold War.
Though the summit stopped shy of solidifying a formal military alliance, it resonated with the spirit embodied in NATO’s Article 5 — “an attack against one is an attack against all” — replacing “attack” with “threat.” Some suggested that the new security partnership might hold even more historical significance than the AUKUS pact. Meanwhile, The Global Times in China described the Camp David summit as possibly “a starting shot for a new Cold War.”
Yoon’s foreign policy is predicated on democratic values, advocating alliances rooted in shared ideals. He has identified Japan as “a partner sharing universal values.” Yoon’s administration has been forthright in condemning North Korea’s human rights infringements and China’s coerced repatriation of North Korean escapees.
Under Yoon’s stewardship, South Korea has also participated in its first NATO summit and green-lighted intermittent dockings by U.S. nuclear submarines in South Korean ports as a deterrent to North Korea. South Korea endorsed the Camp David joint declaration which even explicitly calls out China by name, reproaching China’s “dangerous and aggressive behavior” in the South China Sea and reaffirming South Korea’s stance on Taiwan.
Besides security, Yoon has intensified economic links with the United States. During a visit by U.S. President Joe Biden to Seoul last year, the Yoon administration officially embraced the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Corporate majors from South Korea, like Samsung and Hyundai Motor, have pledged billions to build semiconductor and electric vehicle battery manufacturing facilities in the United States.
Despite these discernible shifts in foreign policy, Yoon’s domestic appeal remains lukewarm at best. A recent Gallup poll pegs Yoon’s approval rating at a modest 34 per cent. This is due to his policies, his leadership style, press freedom issues, moments of “hot mic” gaffes, and controversies surrounding the first lady’s use of power, all of which highlight the multifaceted dynamics of South Korean politics.
As per the constitution, South Korean presidents are confined to a single five-year term. Unfettered by entrenched party affiliations, Yoon — an political outsider — is relatively unhindered by Seoul’s intricate political factions. This autonomy might empower him to largely stick to his policy trajectory. And some link Yoon’s audacious policy manouvers to South Korea’s “imperial presidency” that bestows disproportionate power upon the office, leaving little room for opponents.
Yoon faces many challenges ahead. Whether his policies endure after his tenure is questionable, especially if a successor from the traditionally more anti-Japanese progressive side of politics emerges victorious. An overwhelming majority (84 per cent) of South Koreans expressed disapproval of Japan’s decision to release treated radioactive waste water from the Fukushima nuclear facility into the ocean. Even those identifying as conservative and supportive of Yoon’s government echoed these concerns.
Yoon has bucked the trend of popular sentiment in his pursuit of trilateral convergence, long sought by Washington. Yoon’s push for better relations with Japan, despite public reservations stemming from historical grievances, showcases the delicate balance leaders need to strike between international diplomacy and domestic sentiment.
The domestic economy might yet prove to be the Achilles’ heel of Yoon’s ambitious foreign policy. Mounting unemployment rates, especially among young professionals, underline pressing economic issues. Those with a college degree or higher account for a staggering 53.8 per cent of all unemployed. Polls consistently highlight the economy as the predominant concern of South Korean voters. If economic conditions deteriorate further, it could erode Yoon’s already fragile domestic support.
As South Korea increases its security collaboration with the United States, it will have to establish robust economic alliances to offset potential losses in the Chinese market. Yoon’s legacy will hinge on his capacity to convince South Koreans that opting for the United States over China proves more than purely strategic and also directly benefits South Korea’s economy.
The pivotal moment of reckoning for Yoon will arrive in April 2024 when South Koreans head to the polls for legislative elections. This event — analogous to the U.S. mid-term elections — serves as a litmus test of the sitting president’s performance.
A defeat for Yoon’s party could plunge him into a premature lame duck phase, sapping his policy momentum. If an opposition candidate then secured the presidency, there is potential for a rollback of Yoon’s signature policies — especially his foreign relations policies.
Seong-Hyon Lee is a visiting scholar at the Harvard University Asia Center and a senior fellow at the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations.