PacNet #54 – Comparative Connections Summary: September 2022

Comparative Connections Summary:
May-August 2022

REGIONAL OVERVIEW

Washington “Pivots” to Asia

BY RALPH COSSA, PACIFIC FORUM & BRAD GLOSSERMAN, TAMA UNIVERSITY CRS/PACIFIC   FORUM

The Biden administration has rediscovered Asia. And, for better or worse, so has the US Congress. While the administration’s national security documents (or at least their unclassified sneak previews) have identified the Indo-Pacific as a priority theater vital to US national security and China as “our most consequential strategic competitor and the pacing challenge,” Europe continues to steal headlines and the lion’s share of the administration’s (and international media’s) attention, thanks to Vladimir Putin and his unwarranted (and so far unsuccessful) invasion of Ukraine. While many eyes remain on Putin’s war (and NATO’s US-led solid support for Kyiv), this reporting period saw President Biden finally make his first trip to Asia to visit longstanding US allies and attend the second in-person Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) Summit. Prior to his trip, Biden hosted his first US-ASEAN Summit in Washington. Meanwhile Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken were both in Southeast Asia, respectively for the Shangri-La Dialogue and for various ASEAN-driven ministerials. These administration trips were largely overshadowed, however, by US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s controversial trip to Taiwan, the first by a House Speaker in 25 years, which was sure to—and clearly did—draw Beijing’s ire.

 

US-JAPAN RELATIONS

Abe’s Legacy and the Alliance Agenda

BY SHEILA A. SMITH, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & CHARLES MCCLEAN, YALE MACMILLAN CENTER

It was a busy summer for the United States and Japan. President Joe Biden visited Asia, stopping first in Seoul to meet new South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, and then spending two days in Tokyo for a bilateral summit with Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and a follow-on meeting with the two other leaders of the Quad, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australia’s newly elected prime minister, Anthony Albanese. Biden announced his Indo-Pacific Economic Framework in Tokyo with Kishida by his side. Economic security legislation in both Japan and the United States revealed the unfolding strategic calculations for the alliance. National efforts to enhance economic productivity and resilience included efforts to ensure reliable supply chains for Japanese and US manufacturers as well as the desire for greater cooperation among the advanced industrial economies to dominate the next generation of technological innovation. State investment in attracting semiconductor suppliers to Japan and the United States demonstrate the urgency with which both governments seek to diminish reliance on critical technology imports.

 

US-CHINA RELATIONS

US-China Relations Sink Further Amid Another Taiwan Strait Crisis

BY BONNIE GLASER, GERMAN MARSHALL FUND OF THE US

Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan—the first visit by a speaker of the US House of Representatives in 25 years—was met by a strong response from China that included provocative military exercises, punitive economic measures against Taiwan, and the suspension and cancellation of a series of dialogues with the United States. Just prior to Pelosi’s visit, Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping held their fifth virtual conversation since Biden’s inauguration. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a comprehensive speech on the administration’s China strategy in late May. Biden officials debated whether to lift some of the tariffs imposed on China under the Trump administration, but as of the end of August, there was no decision to do so. Human rights remained on the US agenda, with statements issued on the anniversary of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre and on the 25th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to the PRC, and a ban imposed on imports into the US of products made by forced labor in Xinjiang. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin held his first face-to-face meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

 

US-KOREA RELATIONS

Split Images

BY MASON RICHEY, HANKUK UNIVERSITY & ROB YORK, PACIFIC FORUM

Lopsided: such was the state of US relations with the two Koreas during May-August 2022. The Washington-Seoul axis mostly flourished on the military/security, diplomatic, economic, and cultural fronts, while Washington and Pyongyang deepened doldrums whose depths had been plumbed in prior reporting periods. For the former, the most significant items included the May inauguration of conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and quick follow-on summit with US President Joe Biden, increasing trilateral US-South Korea-Japan cooperation, a raft of announcements on US-South Korea economic and technology cooperation, the resumption of field maneuvers in US-South Korea joint military exercises, and South Korea’s continuing growth as a serious middle power player in foreign policy, including stepped-up engagement with NATO. In US-North Korea relations, a COVID-19 outbreak failed to lead the Kim Jung Un regime to open up to outside humanitarian assistance, as Pyongyang remained content to keep borders mostly closed and allow the virus to course through the population with only basic prophylactic measures. On the positive side, Pyongyang’s hyperactive missile testing in spring slowed during summer, and a feared (yet still expected) seventh nuclear test failed to materialize.

 

US-INDIA RELATIONS

Relations at 75: Hawaii to the Himalayas

BY AKHIL RAMESH, PACIFIC FORUM

Like the saying, “after the storm comes the calm,” US-India relations witnessed four months of productive talks, cooperation, and collaboration. This contrasted with the previous trimester, mired as it was by Cold-War era differences brought about by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. There were thriving Indo-Pacific synergies and the decline of Cold War-era differences. The US and India continued and expanded cooperation on a wide array of regional and global issues, such as climate change, supply chains, and the Sri Lankan crisis. They solidified their defense partnership from Hawaii to the Himalayas through navy and military exercises. The US turned down pressure on India over Russian oil purchases and recalibrated the dialogue to address other pressing challenges. They did not avoid tough conversations, however. India reinforced its view of the US and other Western nations’ role in keeping the Indo-Pacific a safer and more open region.

 

US-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS

Washington Revs Up Diplomacy with Southeast Asia

BY CATHARIN DALPINO, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY

The Biden administration’s diplomatic campaign in Southeast Asia kicked into high gear in the late spring and continued through the summer. On May 12-13 President Biden co-hosted, with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen as the 2022 ASEAN chair, the first-ever US-ASEAN Special Summit to be held in Washington, DC. US relations in the region were also boosted when the Biden administration launched the long-awaited Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) on May 23; seven Southeast Asian countries indicated interest in joining, although few are likely to accede to all four pillars of the framework in the near-term. Two Cabinet officials made visits to two US treaty allies: Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Thailand in June and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to the Philippines in August. Notwithstanding continuing differences over human rights, the visits served to reaffirm the bilateral alliances. However, global and regional tensions remained high, over the persistent crisis in Ukraine; brinksmanship in the Taiwan Straits; and the internal conflict in Myanmar which has only deteriorated further. These pressures only divided ASEAN further as the region looks ahead to a trifecta of international meetings—APEC, East Asia Summit, and the G20—in the fall.

 

CHINA-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS

Countering US Initiatives, Taiwan Crisis Complications

BY ROBERT SUTTER, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY & CHIN-HAO HUANG, YALE-NUS COLLEGE

Chinese enhanced activism in Southeast Asia in this reporting period focused on countering Biden administration efforts to enhance influence in the Indo-Pacific. The Chinese government intensified its depiction of the United States as disrupting regional order and portraying itself as the regional stabilizer. Beijing’s effort faced complications and uncertain prospects as Chinese military forces in August launched large-scale provocative shows of force amid strident media warnings targeting the United States over Taiwan.

 

CHINA-TAIWAN RELATIONS

Pelosi’s “Ironclad Commitment” or “Political Stunt” Leads to Crisis and Promises Instability in the Taiwan Strait

BY DAVID KEEGAN, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES & KYLE CHURCHMAN, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES

Between May 1 and Sept. 1, tensions between Taiwan and China exploded in ways few anticipated but were in retrospect the culmination of well-established dynamics. The US once again was right in the middle. On Aug. 2, US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan, which Taiwan’s government celebrated as the most important visit in at least 25 years by a US politician. She promised Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen that US support for Taiwan’s security would remain “ironclad.” On Aug. 4, the day after Pelosi departed Taiwan, China signaled its displeasure by conducting the most extensive military exercises ever conducted near Taiwan, closer to the island than any before, and launching ballistic missiles over Taiwan’s capital to land in waters east of the island. Throughout these exercises, the Chinese, Taiwan, and US militaries avoided any interactions that might have provoked confrontation. On Aug. 10, the Chinese military announced that the exercises had concluded, achieving their objectives, but that the military would continue its activities around Taiwan.

 

NORTH KOREA-SOUTH KOREA RELATIONS

An Inauspicious Start

BY AIDAN FOSTER-CARTER, LEEDS UNIVERSITY, UK

On May 10 Yoon Suk Yeol took office as ROK president, and rapidly lost popularity. While talking tough on North Korea, he also offered aid to fight COVID-19—but was ignored. His “audacious plan,” wholly unoriginal, to reward Pyongyang materially if it denuclearizes, had very little detail. For months the DPRK did not even mention Yoon. In late July Kim Jong Un sharply warned him against any pre-emptive strike. In August, his sister Kim Yo Jong put the boot in: ludicrously blaming materials sent by ROK activists for bringing COVID-19 into the DPRK, savaging Yoon’s proposal as insulting and unoriginal, and saying the North will never talk to him. At home, meanwhile, the new government chose to reopen two contentious inter-Korean episodes from the recent past, seemingly to punish its predecessor’s policies. It was hard to see how good could come of that, or to hold out hope for any thaw on the peninsula.

 

CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS

A Muted 30-Year Anniversary

BY SCOTT SNYDER, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & SEE-WON BYUN, SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY

Beijing and Seoul marked 30 years of diplomatic ties on Aug. 24 as South Korea transitioned to a new administration under President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office in May. Although early high-level exchanges reaffirmed partnership, the two leaderships confront growing pressures from US-China competition, economic uncertainty, and public hostility. Domestic priorities in China in light of the 20th Party Congress and South Korea’s shift to conservative rule amplify these concerns. The impact of US-China rivalry on the China-South Korea relationship extends from security to economic coordination, including approaches to THAAD and global supply chains, and export competition, especially in semiconductors, challenges new Xi Jinping-Yoon economic agreements. Moreover, public hostility is strongest among South Korea’s younger generation, raising pessimistic prospects for future China-South Korea ties. Despite mixed signals, false starts, and the continued absence of leader-level meetings marking the recovery of economic ties between China and North Korea, geopolitical developments have pushed the two countries closer together. Such engagement features mutual reinforcement of each other’s positions on issues of vital interest and solidarity in response to US policies.

 

JAPAN-CHINA RELATIONS

Few Positive Signs and Much Negativity

BY JUNE TEUFEL DREYER, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI

The tone of China-Japan relations became more alarmist on both sides with long-anticipated plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations still clouded with uncertainty. Several related events were canceled or postponed sine die. Internationally, Prime Minister Kishida was exceptionally active, attending meetings of the Quad, the G7, NATO, and Shangri-La Dialogue, where he delivered the keynote address. A common theme was attention to a Free and Open Pacific (FOIP) and the need for stability in the region, both of which Beijing sees as intended to constrain China. At NATO, Kishida met with US and South Korean representatives for their first trilateral meeting in nearly five years and suggested the possibility of joint military exercises. Meanwhile, China continued pressure on Taiwan and the contested Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Although Foreign Minister Wang Yi and State Councillor Yang Jieqi were active internationally, Xi Jinping himself has not ventured outside the Chinese mainland since January 2020 save for a brief, tightly controlled visit to Hong Kong, which is unquestionably part of China.

 

JAPAN-KOREA RELATIONS

The Passing of Abe and Japan-Korea Relations

BY JI-YOUNG LEE, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY & ANDY LIM, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES

How might the passing of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo impact Tokyo’s approach to Seoul? This unexpected turn of events loomed large in the minds of many who have been cautiously optimistic that Japan and South Korea would take steps toward a breakthrough in their stalled relations. In our last issue, we discussed how this summer could provide good timing for Seoul and Tokyo to create momentum in this direction after Yoon Suk Yeol’s inauguration as president in South Korea and the Upper House election in Japan. However, the results from this summer were mixed. Seoul and Tokyo have not yet announced whether Yoon and Kishida will hold a summit any time soon. Both leaders ended the summer juggling domestic politics amid declining approval ratings. However, there were some meaningful exchanges between the two governments, signaling that both sides were interested in improving relations.

 

CHINA-RUSSIA RELATIONS

Embracing a Longer and/or Wider Conflict?

BY YU BIN, WITTENBERG UNIVERSITY

Unlike in 1914, the “guns of the August” in 2022 played out at the two ends of the Eurasian continent. In Europe, the war was grinding largely to a stagnant line of active skirmishes in eastern and southern Ukraine. In the east, rising tension in US-China relations regarding Taiwan led to an unprecedented use of force around Taiwan. Alongside Moscow’s quick and strong support of China, Beijing carefully calibrated its strategic partnership with Russia with signals of symbolism and substance. Xi and Putin directly conversed only once (June 15). Bilateral trade and mil-mil ties, however, bounced back quickly thanks to, at least partially, the “Ukraine factor” and their respective delinking from the West. At the end of August, Mikhail Gorbachev’s death meant both much and yet so little for a world moving rapidly toward a “war with both Russia and China,” in the words of Henry Kissinger.

 

AUSTRALIA-US/EAST ASIA RELATIONS

Australia’s New Government: Climate, China and AUKUS

BY GRAEME DOBELL, AUSTRALIAN STRATEGIC POLICY INSTITUTE

Australia has changed government and the political war over climate change draws to a close after raging for 15 years. The new Labor government led by Anthony Albanese promises continuity on foreign and defense policy, delivered with a different tone. In the government’s first 100 days, it chipped some ice from the frosty relationship with China. Ending a Beijing ban on meetings with Australian ministers that was in its third year, Chinese ministers had face-to-face talks with Australia’s foreign minister and defense minister. Albanese’s observation that dealing with China will continue to be difficult was demonstrated by a diplomatic duel in the South Pacific, as Canberra pushed back at Beijing’s ambition for a greater security role in islands. Two major defense announcements are due in the first months of 2023: the plan for an Australian nuclear submarine, based on the AUKUS agreement with the US and UK, plus a re-set of Australia’s military and strategic posture because of the toughest security environment in decades. Labor says the alliance with the US should go “beyond interoperability to interchangeability” so the two militaries can “operate seamlessly together at speed.”

 

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors

PacNet #53 – How the United States can build a chip alliance in Northeast Asia without decoupling

A pandemic-induced semiconductor supply chain snarl caused global production jams in a wide array of products used for consumer, industry, and military applications. This, combined with the geopolitical risk created by the industry’s concentration in Northeast Asia, its reliance on China, and predatory Chinese industrial policies, has caused America, its allies, and its partners to brace against future shocks. With the CHIPS and Science Act signed into law, Washington is now moving toward a semiconductor alliance with Tokyo, Taipei, and Seoul. A successful collaboration will address risks to key points of the semiconductor supply chain by adding rigor to the system, ensuring continued access to supply, and maintaining an environment of innovation. It’s a step in the right direction, but much remains to be done. The effort will fall short if the alliance cannot address members’ concerns and respond to the risks posed by the People’s Republic of China without tripping down the slippery slope of technological decoupling. Although the PRC poses a threat that warrants a response, the highly distributed nature of the global supply chain means that decoupling would be inordinately expensive, alienate America’s partners, and inhibit the innovative capacity of America’s firms. Furthermore, the fate of the industry will likely be determined by the innovation race, so the alliance should spend equal time cooperating on that front. The upcoming first meeting of the prospective chip alliance should address these concerns while formulating a framework for enduring cooperation and mutual gain.

The semiconductor industry is highly specialized and concentrated. There are over 50 points in the supply chain where a single country provides over 65% of supply. Last year, pandemic-induced disruptions caused a global supply snag, drawing attention to the world’s fourth-most traded product. The industry is heavily concentrated in Northeast Asia, where geopolitical risks are considerable. Since Taiwan makes over 90% of the world’s most advanced chips, a PRC takeover would cause a “deep and immediate recession” in the United States, according to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. A contingency on the Korean Peninsula would have similar consequences.

The PRC could acquire a monopoly over a supply chain choke point and utilize this as leverage to extract concessions. The PRC already routinely weaponizes its economy with informal sanctions and engages in destabilizing industrial policies like irregular subsidies and forced technology transfers. Chinese firms collude with one another to weaken foreign takeover targets before buying them in a distressed state. Beijing engages in IP theft against South Korean and Taiwanese firms. And the Chinese government’s sprawling chip investment vehicles also creates the risk that a supply chain could “inadvertently support China’s military-civil fusion.”

The alliance should cooperate with the PRC wherever possible and confront it wherever necessary, mirroring US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statement that, in all matters related to China, America will “cooperate wherever we can… [and] contest where we must.” The US should press Beijing to report irregular subsidies as required by WTO regulations and cease market-distorting practices and forced technology transfers. Subsidy ceilings should factor into the conversation, including with the PRC, to prevent a never-ending race to the bottom. Alliance cooperation on export controls with the European Union will be an important aspect of this approach. Multilateral export controls on semiconductor equipment is conducted through the Wassenaar Arrangement, a group of 42 countries that collaborate on restrictions of dual use technologies. But industry experts think the institution is inadequate, and have pushed for alternatives. However, while targeted restrictions are effective, “broad unilateral restrictions,” could hurt US firms, raise consumers’ costs, and cause pain to partner countries producing in China.

The best method to strengthen and secure the supply chain is a coordinated approach with allies and partners that avoids completely excluding the PRC, so long as it refrains from destabilizing behaviors such as invading Taiwan. Some have called for technological decoupling and total on-shoring of chip production to cut dependency on the PRC. This is impractical. It would cost over $1 trillion to transition to a system wherein each country is self-sufficient, prompting a rise in costs of 35%-65%. It would cost the United States $4 billion to build just one fab making the relatively low-tech chips needed for automobiles, which would only become profitable after five years. Furthermore, decoupling would alienate America’s allies (who count China as a top customer), decrease US firms’ market share, and insulate US firms from foreign innovation. Decoupling would lead to two separate ecosystems with different standards. Firms from countries like Taiwan and Korea would face a difficult choice: either get cut off from their manufacturing base or get cut off from the US IP that’s core to their products.

America has thus far attracted investments for fab plants from Samsung (a $17 billion fab in Texas) and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (a $12 billion facility in Arizona). The CHIPS Act will provide $52 billion in incentives to support chip manufacturing, research, and workforce development. Companies that receive this support are barred from building new advanced plants in China and from making certain advanced modifications to existing plants, leading some firms to “re-evaluate further Chinese investments.” These policies are just the beginning.

To coordinate on investments, supply chain resilience, and production plans, Washington proposed Chip 4, a group involving the United States, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. Taiwan and Japan have committed to joining, with Taiwan calling for greater semiconductor cooperation among democracies. South Korea has taken a more cautious approach, agreeing to attend the first meeting. Korea’s memory chip producers rely on materials from China and chips account for nearly 40% of Korea’s exports to China. A news report claimed that the US Commerce Department has exempted some Korean fabs in China from restrictions banning equipment capable at producing chips below 14 nanometers. The alliance will be more durable if it demonstrates flexibility. Forums of cooperation should not simply be based on a contest of leverage against the PRC.

How has Korea found itself at the center of the dynamic? The PRC interprets the other Chip 4 members as outside its sphere of influence, but losing traction with Korea would signal that the PRC’s regional influence is waning. The Yoon administration and Beijing are off to a rocky start, with tensions simmering over Beijing’s assertion that Seoul is beholden to a supposed agreement by the former administration not to install more US missile defense systems. Beijing’s 2017 economic retaliation cost Korea over $7 billion and pushed the Korean public to turn sharply against the PRC: 80% currently view the PRC negatively, a record high, according to Pew. And three quarters of the public want the government to “actively respond to China’s economic retaliation,” according to a 2021 survey by the Korea Institute for National Unification.

Following a recent meeting between South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the PRC’s foreign ministry asserted that “the two sides need to stay committed to openness…and keep the industrial supply chain stable and unfettered.” In the meeting, Park explained that Korea’s attendance at the Chip 4 meeting is meant to safeguard “national interests,” not to exclude “any specific country.” Korea will make a decision about joining after the meeting, and has taken to referring to Chips 4 as a “consultative body,” rather than an alliance. While certain export restrictions are needed on national security grounds, it will be important to refrain from over-punishment of partners that deviate from export controls. The success of cooperation hinges not on the comprehensiveness of export restrictions but on the ability of the partners to shore up the supply chain while sustaining a high tempo pace of innovation.

The United States should collaborate with Korea, Taiwan, and Japan on a mutually beneficial, values-based vision for semiconductor collaboration that protects national security interests without spoiling supply chain efficiencies. The alliance should create a compensation mechanism to address retaliatory measures its members experience for participating in the alliance, such as assisting affected industries or reciprocal sanctions. To balance resilience and innovation, the alliance should engage with industry stakeholders, including (but not limited to): private sector firms, academia, and industry associations. Joint ventures, joint investments, and joint workforce development programs would benefit all, as would contingency planning and supplier diversification. A priority should be the resolution of a dispute between Japan and South Korea that has impacted the trade of semiconductor-related materials between the two countries. Amid growing tensions, Japan restricted exports of semiconductor materials to South Korea. The move disrupted supply chains between both countries.

The pandemic-induced chip supply chain snarls are not the industry’s last supply chain challenge. Geopolitical risk and Chinese industrial policy pose considerable risks and warrant coordination. But alliance partners’ concerns should be considered and decoupling is not viable. The better option is a partnership that addresses security threats without impairing the global supply chain.

Major Jessica Taylor (jg0787@princeton.edu) is a logistics readiness officer in the United States Air Force Reserve (USAFR) and a Ph.D. student in Security Studies at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs, where she focuses on Alliance cooperation on systemic geopolitical risk to supply chains.

Jonathan Corrado (jonathan.corrado@koreasociety.org) is Director of Policy for The Korea Society, where he produces programming and conducts research on a range of security, diplomacy, and socioeconomic issues impacting the US-Korea Alliance and Northeast Asia.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily represent the views of their respective institutions.  

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #44 – “Hybrid multilateralism” and the Yoon pursuit of middle power strategy

Unlike his predecessor, President Biden prefers multilateral mechanisms to promote partnership with allies. In particular, he pursues “constructive recoupling” or “relinking” with China, selectively excluding Beijing from access to high-tech and critical strategic materials, rather than all areas of trade.

This multilateralism has intensified in the Indo-Pacific, especially after the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)—the world’s largest free trade agreement, centered around China—came into force. While visiting Asian allies in May, Biden announced the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), aimed to secure global supply chains and set economic rules and norms for the Indo-Pacific. IPEF serves as a platform for the United States, through cooperation with allies, to contain China’s economic “territorial expansion.” It excludes China from high-tech supply chains and is also a watershed for a potential new global economic order. Implementation of IPEF would assure economic security through a closed supply chain distributing production facilities only among countries sharing American, free-market, values.

Similarly, the strategic objective of the current US-led liberal international order differs from the original liberal order after World War II. The original order sought a multifaceted, extensive international system based on multilateral institutions and free trade among democratic blocs—spreading to non-Western societies post-Cold War. The current order promotes “friend-shoring”—only like-minded countries are grouped in a mini-lateral way.

The new Seoul government’s participation in IPEF suggests the US-Korea alliance will contribute not only to peace on the Korean Peninsula, but also global security and prosperity. Specifically, in transitioning to the so-called “comprehensive strategic alliance,” the two countries have added technology to their existing military/economic agenda. Accordingly, Seoul can stabilize the supply chain, maximize domestic companies’ net profits, and enhance strategic industries’ competitiveness through participation in a comprehensive regional economic cooperation system. In addition, IPEF can allow middle powers like Korea to promote emerging global norms on supply chains, the digital economy, and decarbonization.

Dealing with unlike-minded countries

President Yoon Suk Yeol should consider the following actions, in addition to advancing alliance solidarity.

First, maintain positive relations with China wherever and whenever Korean and Chinese interests align. The two can mutually benefit from stable trade relations, cooperation on environmental issues such as air and marine pollution, and diplomatic collaboration towards North Korea’s denuclearization. Even if Korea is forced to choose between the United States and China, these areas of cooperation can and should be pursued continuously with China. Korean participation in IPEF risks triggering Chinese retribution because Beijing views it as an effort to contain China. Many Korean experts doubt Beijing will engage in outright economic retaliation, however, as was the case after THAAD deployment in 2017, for several reasons. The main ones include President Xi Jinping’s bidding for a third term and the fact that China’s economy has stagnated in the wake of Beijing’s zero-COVID policy, and US-China competition is intensifying. Similarly, Korea’s high dependence on exports to China is a weakness, but Seoul also supplies Beijing with necessary intermediate goods, without which China would not be able to secure supply chain stability. Reminiscent of mutually assured destruction in the Cold War, Korea and China would both suffer from a trade war.

Still, Yoon should take countermeasures to reduce economic dependence. The president should also pursue “values diplomacy” by expanding networks of “friendly countries” and strengthening multilateral partnerships with democratic middle powers to secure strategic leverage against China. Korea, a country that developed and democratized within a quarter century, can advance a rules-based, multilateral approach identifying and addressing global and regional common problems such as climate, energy, public health, and humanitarian aid, where Washington and Beijing need to cooperate. Korea should also facilitate the establishment of a new, more diverse international trade order, incorporating countries with different levels of economic development and diverse political regimes.

Second, Korea should mediate international economic disputes. IPEF’s success depends on reconciling expectations of countries with very different economic development levels. The United States prioritizes export controls in the high-tech sector, while ASEAN and India focus on technological and infrastructure support from advanced countries. Australia and Japan want the United States to participate in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, and would like to see IPEF formalized, including the obligations of participant nations. Korea, then, should encourage increased participation to advance IPEF’s legitimacy and representation.

Third, Korea should provide support to “unlike-minded” states in multilateral mechanisms such as RCEP, the ASEAN Regional Forum, G20, and the United Nations. Certainly, the bloc of Western democratic countries reconsolidated following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Nonetheless, the G20 appeared far more divided in its response to Russia’s invasion than it did to the financial crisis of 2008. Consequently, an international order based solely on values-based, like-minded states may appear threatening to non-democratic, and neutral, countries. As a middle power, Korea can lead in mitigating this problem and characterizing the IPEF as more inviting.

Hybrid multilateralism

Fourth, the South Korean government, in cooperation with like-minded countries, must carefully evaluate strategic options between values and national interests. Other countries do so all the time. President Biden, for instance, has sought cooperation from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—despite concerns over bin Salman’s authoritarianism and the Jamal Khashoggi killing—to counter the global oil shortage. Moreover, Washington considers lifting sanctions against oil-rich Venezuela to respond against Russia’s “weaponization” of energy resources. The United States and its Western allies now view energy from the Middle East and South America (as well as Africa) as an alternative to Russian imports, even though the resulting revenues empower certain authoritarian governments. To resolve the dilemma between resource security and value diplomacy, the US may justify “hybrid multilateralism” by selectively incorporating authoritarian resource-rich countries into existing or evolving multilateral platforms, including IPEF.

On a final note, middle powers have opportunities to facilitate in areas like climate change, pandemic response, vaccine research, and the maintenance of free trade, as the United States’ and China’s focus has shifted more to their own rivalry instead of the provision of global public goods. From the view of the two great powers, it would be advantageous to attract more countries to their own side as the competition intensifies. Therefore, the collective choices and actions of middle powers—armed with numerical superiority and a united voice—could lead to more contention, or cooperation, between multilateral or minilateral networks driven by these great powers. For now, most middle powers, including Korea, tend to lean toward the liberal international order (LIO) because they have achieved stability and development while pursuing democracy, free trade, and multilateralism within the LIO framework. They believe that it is still in their national interest to support and improve LIOs that reflect universal human values. Ultimately, the future of the LIO depends on whether the United States has the ability and resolve to provide global public goods and, at the same time, whether the international community, centered on middle powers, supports US leadership.

Shin-wha Lee (swlee922@gmail.com) is Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Korea University and President of the Korean Academic Council on the UN System (KACUNS). She is also South Korea’s Ambassador-at-Large on International Cooperation on North Korean Human Rights. 

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo: The 20th President Inauguration Ceremony by Korea.net and Yang Dong Wook

PacNet #35 – Abe Shinzo and the Japan-South Korea relationship: Near- and long-term legacies

Under former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, Japan’s relationship with South Korea had its ups and downs, mostly downs at the end. But the broad actions that Abe took to shore up Japan’s regional role have laid the basis for a promising renewal of security cooperation under Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and the new South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.

Over his eight years in office, Seoul-Tokyo relations went from bad to worse. The region also evolved during those eight years as overlapping minilateral and multilateral groupings brought Japan and South Korea closer together, even if by accident. Abe was responsible for both—that is his complicated legacy.

As Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, Abe spent time alongside four South Korean presidents, but his legacy will likely be cemented by the developments in relations that took place under the tenure of conservative former President Park Geun-hye (2013-17) and progressive former President Moon Jae-in (2017-22). Numerous historical grievances frustrated progress in improving relations during Abe’s time in office, as each government took antithetical views over reconciliation on issues surrounding forced labor and the “comfort women” (wartime victims of sexual slavery).

In the weeks to come following Abe’s assassination there will be countless pieces published that focus, rightly, on Abe’s ideological bent which often manifested itself in revisionist personal and political actions that damaged the country’s relations with South Korea. Yet, Abe’s strategic re-shaping of the Indo-Pacific region will continue to elevate the role of regional powers, like South Korea, in shaping and defending the rules-based international order. As threat perceptions in South Korea and Japan converge to drive closer strategic alignment, Abe’s transformation of Japan’s security and defense architecture can enable the two counties to work together more seamlessly. With an eye to the future, the legacy Abe leaves behind is a strong foundation on which his successors can build.

Abe is often quoted for the famous line he delivered to former Secretary of State Richard Armitage in 2013 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that “Japan is not, and will never be a Tier-two country…I am back, and so shall Japan be.” As the intellectual godfather in the conception of the Indo-Pacific and the Quad, a central stakeholder in keeping the Trans-Pacific Partnership alive after US withdrawal (and renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership), a main player in moving Japan towards a “values” based foreign policy centered on democracy and human rights, and a leading figure in seeing Japan become the most trusted strategic partner in much of Asia, Japan’s proactive leadership role in the region under Abe unquestionably accomplished this goal.

While bilateral relations between Japan and South Korea during Abe’s tenure did not see the same levels of progress, another quote from his 2013 CSIS speech underscores Abe’s view of the strategic importance of the relationship, “Even with the existence of issues…the ties between Japan and Korea is something that cannot be severed.” Many of Abe’s successes in elevating Japan’s security and economic role and re-shaping Indo-Pacific regional architecture have set the groundwork for the two countries to take the bilateral relationship to new heights. These developments have evolved as South Korea, too, has sought a greater security and economic leadership role in the region.

Abe played a large role in re-envisioning the region’s hub-and-spokes-style regional architecture to encompass minilateral groupings. These minilateral arrangements have proven adept and flexible in responding to challenges and organizing collective action. Smaller memberships facilitate stronger consensus-building. As I have argued elsewhere, pursuing regional peace and stability through minilateral engagement allows countries to cooperate where their interests align, without the fear of being trapped in a formal and binding structure. Conflicting views on issues outside the distinct remit of a minilateral grouping do not jeopardize cooperation.

Abe’s leadership in elevating minilaterals to center-stage in the Indo-Pacific has direct implications for future Japan-South Korea relations, as the likely main vehicle for near-term cooperation is the US-Japan-South Korea trilateral. Progress is already happening on this front, as the three countries announced last month that they would restart trilateral ballistic missile defense-tracking exercises, the first such trilateral exercise in three years.

The shared threat from North Korea is an obvious motivation for these exercises, but both countries similarly share concerns regarding China’s assertiveness and provocative actions in the East and South China Seas and across the Taiwan Strait. Both countries’ leaders have joined President Biden in joint statements emphasizing the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, representing a significant shift from prior US-Japan and US-ROK joint statements. While it was Suga Yoshihide, Abe’s successor as prime minister, who issued the first US-Japan joint statement that mentioned Taiwan for the first time since 1969, no one made greater efforts than Abe to bring the two Asian democracies closer together. The significance of both progressive former President Moon and conservative incumbent President Yoon joining Japan to include mention of Taiwan in respective joint statements with the US cannot be overstated.

Economic security is another realm in which Abe spearheaded efforts to minimize risks to Japan from supply chain vulnerability, industrial espionage, and economic coercion by launching an economic division at the National Security Secretariat in April 2020, becoming the largest of the seven divisions in the NSS. As both Japan and South Korea have felt the screws of China’s economic coercion, the South Korean government has taken similar steps and launched a center dedicated to economic security that will be housed under its foreign ministry. In another promising development to link these efforts through US-Japan-South Korea trilateral cooperation, the three countries’ senior officials discussed ways to enhance cooperation on economic security during a June 2022 meeting.

While Abe’s often ultra-nationalist and revisionist actions in office should not be downplayed as his legacy on the Japan-South Korea bilateral relationship is recounted, his time as prime minister was instrumental in shaping the region to the benefit of both countries’ national interests. The growing policy alignment in Japan and South Korea owes much to the path Abe charted in modernizing Japan’s national security state and enabling greater international security engagement. Whether converging threat perceptions and growing policy alignment in Japan and South Korea can translate to substantial cooperation remains unclear, but these past few months have seen promising developments in the bilateral relationship.

All three countries have a responsibility to capitalize on the momentum in both Japan-South Korea and US-Japan-South Korea senior official engagements and invest sustained attention towards incrementally upgrading cooperative activities based on the shared national security interests of all three countries. Abe Shinzo laid much of the groundwork for this. It is now up to Prime Minister Kishida to build on it.

Jada Fraser (jada.fraser@yahoo.com) is an MA student in Asian Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Her research interests lie at the intersection of defense and diplomacy in Asia and her work has been published in outlets such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies, The Lowy Institute, and The Australian Strategic Policy Institute. 

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Issues & Insights Vol. 22, SR 3 – South Korea’s Place in the Indo-Pacific: A Research Showcase for Pacific Forum’s Korea Foundation Fellows

About this Volume

Papers by the Pacific Forum’s current and previous Korea Foundation Fellows examine pressing issues facing the Korean Peninsula in the 21st century. These include the Great Power Competition between the US and China, North Korea and nuclear security, critical new technologies, and energy security. These papers by emerging leaders in the Korean Studies field offer fresh perspectives on Korean security issues – both well-known and emerging – useful for watchers of the peninsula both inside and out of Northeast Asia.

Authors of this volume participated in the Pacific Forum’s Korea Foundation Fellowship program between 2019-2022, with the generous support of the Korea Foundation 

The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their respective organizations and affiliations. Pacific Forum’s publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its staff, donors and sponsors.

Click here to download the full volume.


Table of Contents

  1. Introduction: Fostering Conversations on Emerging and Enduring Security Challenges | Rob York
  2. Choose to Win: Two Scenarios on Future Weapons and their Implications for Korea, the US, and Asian Security | Seongwon Lee
  3. South Korea’s Role Amid US-China Strategic Competition | Su Hyun Lee
  4. Between Rhetoric and Practice: Yoon Suk Yeol’s Choice for South Korea and the Indo-Pacific | Eun A Jo and Jae Chang
  5. South Korean Semiconductors: The Crux of Yoon Suk Yeol’s Long-Term Strategy toward Technological Leadership | Kangkyu Lee
  6. Exploring the Opportunities for Comprehensive Response to Disinformation in the Indo-Pacific: Cases of the Republic of Korea and the United States | Jong-Hwa Ahn
  7. The Politics of Multilateral Energy Cooperation in Northeast Asia: The Implications for South Korea, Japan, and China | Juyoung Kim

About the Authors

Rob York is Program Director for Regional Affairs at Pacific Forum. He is responsible for editing Pacific Forum publications, including the weekly PacNet series, the triannual Comparative Connections journal, and the in-depth Issue & Insights series. Prior to joining Pacific Forum, Rob worked as a production editor at The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. A PhD candidate in Korean history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Rob has established himself as a commentator on inter-Korean and Hong Kong affairs, as a regular contributor to NK News and The Daily NK and having been published at The South China Morning PostWar on the Rocks, the Foundation for Economic Education, Korean Studies, and The Journal of American-East Asian Relations, as well as conducting numerous interviews in various media outlets. His research agenda at Pacific Forum includes trade and its relationship with security, media analysis, countering disinformation, and human rights.

Seongwon Lee is a lecturer at the Graduate School of International Studies at Korea University. Previously, he was a non-resident Korea Foundation fellow at Pacific Forum (2020), deputy director for international cooperation at the Ministry of Unification, and interpretation officer at the Republic of Korea Marine Corps. He earned his BA at Stanford University, MA at University of North Korean Studies, and is currently finalizing his PhD dissertation titled “Future Weapons: An Evolutionary History” at the Graduate School of Future Strategy, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST).

Su Hyun Lee is the 2021-22 resident Korea Foundation fellow at Pacific Forum. She holds a BA in East Asian International Studies and MA in International Cooperation both from Yonsei University. 

Eun A Jo is a PhD candidate in the Government Department at Cornell University and an incoming 2022-2023 predoctoral fellow at the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at George Washington University. She is interested in political narratives, memory, and the domestic politics of international relations, with a focus on East Asia. Her dissertation, “Narrating Enemies in World Politics,” explores how post-conflict states narrate their former enemies and what implications these narratives hold for policies of peace and reconciliation. To this end, she compares the narrative trajectories of postcolonial, postwar, and post-authoritarian Taiwan and South Korea, using an interdisciplinary theoretical framework and a mixed-method research design. A paper from this research, titled “Pasts that Bind,” is forthcoming in International Organization.

Jae Chang is a recent graduate of Cornell University, where he studied Government and China & Asia-Pacific Studies. His primary research interests are Northeast Asian multilateralism and the role of identity politics in international relations. Additionally, he is interested in the impact of South Korean pop culture, especially in Korea’s partnership with Netflix.

Kangkyu Lee is a research fellow with the Humane AI Initiative at the East-West Center. He is also a consultant in Korean and Japanese affairs for Blackpeak. He is an incoming PhD student in International Affairs, Science, and Technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology Sam Nunn School of International Affairs and was formerly (2020-21) a resident Korea Foundation fellow at Pacific Forum where he researched the implications of AI and other frontier technologies on international relations and global security.

Jong-Hwa Ahn is an expert in international security and strategic planning. Recently, he worked for the United Nations on policy planning and is currently a Salzburg Global Seminar Fellow for media and journalism. At Pacific Forum, he was a Korea Foundation Fellow for foreign policy and regional strategy and, as an army officer in the Republic of Korea, he served in the Korean Demilitarized Zone and with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. He also worked on public diplomacy for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Korea Institute of Sport Science and received his Master’s in International Peace and Security from Korea University.

Juyoung Kim is a non-resident Korea Foundation fellow at Pacific Forum, where her research focused on the politics of multilateral energy cooperation in Northeast Asia. She has nearly five years of policy research experience in several think tanks in South Korea including the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, Future Resources Institute and East Asia Institute and her research interest in natural resource governance, the geopolitics of energy and multilateral energy cooperation has evolved gradually from her work experiences. Juyoung recently defended her PhD thesis on the politics of governing Mozambique’s LNG industry at King’s College London, and she received her MSc in International Relations Theory from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

PacNet #29 – Hints of a new North Korea nuclear strategy

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Japan Times.

For more from this author, visit his recent chapter of Comparative Connections.

Make no mistake: North Korea leader Kim Jong Un truly believes he needs nuclear weapons.

For years, that need reflected a single objective: the protection and maintenance of his regime. A nuclear arsenal was a defensive tool—a deterrent—to ensure that no foreign power would attack his country and end the Cold War division of the Korean Peninsula. Kim’s rationale for possessing nuclear weapons seems to be shifting and his rhetoric and accompanying military developments indicate a new focus—the acquisition of a war-fighting capability.

In the May 9 Japan Times, Gabriel Dominguez argued that North Korea wants nuclear weapons to “offset its weaknesses against the superior conventional military capabilities of the United States and regional allies Japan and South Korea.” I’m inclined to a more ominous explanation. Kim wants nuclear weapons for coercion. It looks as though Kim has resurrected his grandfather’s dream of unifying the whole of Korea under Pyongyang’s flag—and nuclear weapons will assist him in that quest.

Since they began in 2003, an uncomfortable fact has clouded negotiations to get North Korea to give up its nuclear capability: Pyongyang’s commitment to the development and acquisition of a nuclear weapon is absolute, a requisite for regime survival that cannot be bargained away. For all the talk of complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization or its subsequent variants, that wasn’t a real option.

Negotiations had two unspoken goals for the United States and like-minded governments. First, talks would buy time so pressures would build and force the collapse of North Korea. Second, they would reveal Pyongyang as unreasonable and intransigent and rally other governments behind a policy that would pressure the North to give up its weapons or collapse.

The regime proved more durable—and lucky—than many anticipated. It survived the negotiations and kept the other five parties in the Six Party Talks from uniting against it and forcing it to make concessions. It exploded its first nuclear device in October 2006, while the talks continued and has conducted five tests since—the last in September 2017. There are reports that a seventh test may occur sometime soon, perhaps in days.

Equally important has been Pyongyang’s determination to hone its delivery systems. It has steadily developed its missiles, lengthening their range, increasing throw weight, and improving mobility, which requires greater accuracy in targeting. Most recently, it is thought to be miniaturizing components, allowing it to send more payloads farther.

This year, North Korea has conducted a record 16 missile tests as of mid-May, including the testing of two intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the US homeland and a guided missile that can reportedly deliver a tactical nuclear weapon. A May 7 test-launch featured a submarine-launched ballistic missile; such missiles are harder to detect, and better-suited to a surprise attack.

The focus on smaller nuclear weapons is particularly worrisome, because it suggests that Kim now thinks he can fight a war with a tactical nuclear weapon.

Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on the North who teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul, has been sounding the alarm. He told the Financial Times that North Korea’s strategy has changed. A program that was initially “purely defensive”—a product of fears that “without nuclear weapons they would be invaded”—is now “clearly overkill from a defensive point of view.” The new capabilities make Lankov “strongly suspect that their ultimate dream is to assert their control over South Korea.”

That was his grandfather’s dream, one that he tried to make real in 1950 with a bloody, ill-fated invasion of the South. Later, Kim Il Sung appears to have accepted co-existence with South Korea after the Cold War, although we’ll never know his actual intent in agreeing to a nuclear deal with Jimmy Carter, a proxy for President Bill Clinton, in 1994. Kim Il Sung died soon after. I’m inclined to believe that his son, Kim Jong Il, knew that reunification was impossible given the balance of forces he inherited and the appalling shape of his country.

Recent statements by Kim Jong Un and other senior officials suggest those grand ambitions have been revived. Kim last month spoke of a “secondary mission” for the country’s nuclear forces, adding that “our nuclear (arsenal) cannot be tied to this one mission of war prevention.”

Gibum Kim, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a government-funded think tank, emailed that development of nonstrategic, low-yield nuclear weapons is consistent with statements from Kim and other officials “that they are working toward ‘diversification,’ ‘miniaturization,’ and ‘lightening.’” He also said that ambition is much longer lived, pointing to a 2016 order of Kim’s to the North Korean military to “convert (their) mode of military counteraction toward the enemies into a pre-emptive attack one in every aspect.”

Paul Choi, a military expert in Seoul, agrees with Gibum and Lankov. “North Korea’s advancing military capabilities and changing nuclear doctrine reflect Kim’s pursuit of a more coercive strategy and posture,” he explained in an email. Pyongyang “seeks to control escalation, if not dictate the terms of conflict (including its termination), and be the dominant force (the product of capabilities, commitment, and threshold of risk).” Especially worrying is Choi’s assessment that tactical nuclear weapons are aimed at being able to prevail in a fight that may include territorial expansion.

External developments have no doubt reinforced Pyongyang’s thinking. Western governments’ concern about Russian nuclear escalation to break the stalemate in Ukraine makes the North Korean pulse quicken. Western restraint and refusal to put boots on the ground as it supports Kyiv seems to underscore the deterrent effect of nuclear threats. But, Choi cautioned, North Korea is also learning “about the formidable challenge of controlling any territory with a resisting population.”

A second external development is the return to power of a conservative president in Seoul. New President Yoon Suk-yeol has promised to prioritize the alliance with the US over inter-Korean relations, which will deprive Pyongyang of a vocal advocate in otherwise skeptical capitals.

A senior member of the presidential transition committee, who worked on foreign affairs and national security, agreed that Kim Jong Un shares his grandfather’s dream of unifying the Peninsula under the North. “Diplomacy and negotiation for denuclearization have always been tools to earn more time and political space to continuously develop nuclear weapons,” the committee member says. “For Pyongyang, military threat is leverage to force the US and the ROK to accept nuclear arms reduction negotiations, a peace treaty, withdrawal of (US forces in Korea) and eventually a socialized Korean peninsula.”

Note, however, that those developments reinforce North Korean thinking. Pyongyang has its own logic and central to that thinking is the necessity of a nuclear capability; recent developments confirm existing beliefs. Or to put it differently, the outside world has limited ability to redirect North Korean policy.

There is no need to hyperventilate, however. Coercion and expansion may be the goals, but they both remain beyond Kim’s grasp. South Korea is not Ukraine. It’s a treaty ally and US commitments, conventional and nuclear, are steadfast. I’ve heard North Korean officials talk about a relationship with the US akin to that of the Soviet Union, which was characterized by nuclear parity. That’s a fantasy. A nuclear threat is not the equivalent of mutually assured destruction.

The North has a long way to go to turn its ambitions into reality. Gibum Kim explained that a test or two (or 16) isn’t enough. North Korea would have to spend lots of money to build the logistical infrastructure for nuclear use and maintenance, train for nuclear use and, “most unimaginable of all,” prepare to delegate authority to field commanders for nuclear use in wartime.

Still, the US, South Korea, and Japan must plan on continued acquisition and sharpening of North Korean nuclear capabilities and prepare to better deter and defend. Yoon has said that he wants to work more closely with Washington and Tokyo to do that, and President Joe Biden is reportedly going to reiterate nuclear assurances to US allies during his trip to the region beginning this week.

The signals must be clear to discourage Kim Jong Un from reviving those dangerous dreams of unification or miscalculating his way into a nuclear conflict.

Brad Glosserman (brad@pacforum.org) is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #27 – What Yoon Suk Yeol’s election means for minority rights in South Korea

Yoon Suk Yeol’s election generated two different kinds of responses: one marked by self-congratulation and another by resignation. Those who subscribed to the former saw the peaceful transfer of power, evident in Yoon’s opponent Lee Jae-myung’s swift concession, as a sign of the country’s democratic health. Those who fell in the latter category found much to be dismayed by Yoon’s victory and the Trumpian politics he symbolized.

Both views contain truths. South Korea did not suffer the kind of contentious aftermath that one saw, for instance, in the United States following the 2016 election. Yet Yoon’s campaign—though perfectly legal—capitalized on the country’s uglier impulses. If this election suggested resilience of South Korea’s democratic institutions, it also revealed the limitations of its democratic culture.

This “democratic ceiling” has important implications for how the country under Yoon’s leadership might treat its under-represented populations, including women and other social minorities. Yoon’s callousness—even if merely rhetorical at this point—is dangerous, because it can fuel a culture of neglect that undercuts the institutional maturity of South Korea’s nascent anti-discrimination regime.

A democratic ceiling

Discrimination against women in South Korea has continued in spite of institutional protections, which suggests problems of enforcement rather than provision. From the Sexual Equality Employment Act (1987), Women’s Development Act (1995), to the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Protection of Victim Act (1997), South Korea has advanced legal mechanisms to promote and protect gender equality. Yet, these laws have had limited impact in ensuring equal treatment of women at work, on which South Korea ranks the lowest among OECD countries; closing gender pay gaps, of which South Korea maintains a striking 31.5%; and curtailing gender-based violence, on which South Korean courts have remained notoriously lenient. Cultural barriers—from the victim’s stigma to the double standards of law enforcement—have undermined institutional mechanisms for addressing gender inequity.

Even so, Yoon has repeatedly stated that structural discrimination based on gender does not exist in South Korea. During the campaign, he made a controversial promise to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, tasked with tackling gendered inequities mentioned above; instead, he accused the officials of treating men as “potential sex criminals.” At the same time, Yoon blamed feminism for the country’s low birth rates, claiming that it “prevents healthy relations between men and women.” Such misogynistic narratives bode ill for a much-needed policy reappraisal on the social and economic status of women in South Korean society.

The situation is even more bleak when it comes to members of the LGBTQ community and migrant workers, for whom there are fewer institutional protections. Besides the Military Criminal Act (1962), which outlaws sexual acts among soldiers regardless of consent, Yoon’s stance on LGBTQ rights has been one of willful silence. Meanwhile, despite the provisions of the Multicultural Families Support Act (2008), migrant workers and their families have little to no concrete recourse when faced with discriminatory treatment. Migrant women—especially foreign-born brides who come to South Korea through brokered marriages—have suffered greatly as a result, with limited social networks and access to redress.

In this context, Yoon’s rhetoric may also impede efforts to further institutionalize anti-discrimination initiatives. So far, he has made only ambiguous commitments to recognizing the right to choose sexual orientation, citing the “social impact” of “denying biologically assigned genders.” Tactless comments can be also found about migrant workers; in one social media post, Yoon pledged to “resolve the issue of foreigners laying their spoon on a dinner table set by Koreans.” These queer-intolerant and ethno-nationalist narratives may exacerbate demands for more exclusive policies among his socially conservative constituents.

To be fair, Yoon has not been dismissive of all minority rights issues. He has made a welcome pledge to implement the North Korean Human Rights Act (2016), which would advance the livelihoods of North Korean refugees. The law seeks, among other things, to secure the safety of defectors and support South Korean civil society organizations working to raise awareness of human rights conditions in the North. Both courses of action could have direct and indirect impacts on the welfare of North Korean refugees in their journey to, and resettlement in, South Korea.

Yet, selective efforts to advance defector rights—disconnected from a broader anti-discrimination agenda—may generate charges of hypocrisy. The plight of North Korean refugees has been the subject of growing policy incoherence as it became increasingly politicized of late. Sadly, as long as it remains a tool of partisan politicking, progress on North Korean refugee policy will likely be superficial and transitory.

A policy reversal?

It is unclear to what extent Yoon’s narratives will bind him to exclusionary policies in practice. What appears more certain is that these narratives have awakened and mobilized previously silent forces that do support such policies and will want Yoon to keep his promises. Unless he is willing to make a dramatic policy reversal—apart from his campaign narratives—the future seems inhospitable for the advancement of minority rights in South Korea.

Eun A Jo (ej253@cornell.edu) is Non-resident Korea Foundation Fellow at Pacific Forum and a Ph.D candidate in the Government Department at Cornell University.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #26 – Why South Koreans See Little Difference in Biden’s North Korea Policy

Does the South Korean public see a difference in the American administrations when it comes to North Korea? Our survey data suggests most do not.

Each US president since Bill Clinton has tried to convince North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program, and each has failed. As such, the extent to which the South Korean public sees a difference across administrations is unclear, although previous data found that the public strongly opposed the Trump administration’s demand of a fivefold increase in payments from South Korea toward hosting US troops in the country.

We conducted a national web survey in South Korea on March 11-16, administered by Macromill Emrbain, using quota sampling for age, gender, and geographic region. We asked 1,107 respondents: “Which US administration do you think had a better North Korea policy?”

A clear majority (57.45%) believe that the Trump and Biden administrations were about the same concerning North Korea policy. This option was selected the most across supporters of the two largest parties, the progressive Democratic Party (DP) and conservative People Power Party (PPP), but also the smaller parties (the social democratic Justice Party (JP) and the center-right People’s Party (PP)), as well as those with no party preference. Across all groups, respondents were slightly more likely to have chosen the Biden administration over the Trump administration as having a “better” policy, even though Biden has not publicly said much about North Korea. There was no additional question as to why this was chosen, but respondents could be evaluating Biden’s leadership style or personality traits, or weighing Trump’s demands for South Korea to pay a substantially higher cost share, rather than responding to specific North Korea policy.

We also asked respondents to evaluate, on a five-point scale (“strongly oppose” to “strongly support”) how they feel about the presence of American military bases in South Korea. We found 55.83% of respondents supported the presence, compared to 10.84% in opposition. Views of the two administrations, broken down by opinions on the US troop presence, reveal the same pattern as before: a majority (or at least plurality) say that the Trump and Biden administrations were about the same. However, we also find that those more supportive of the US presence are more likely to pick one administration as better than the other. Why this is the case is unclear, though it may reflect greater attention to the United States or interest in security matters.

The results of our data reflect increasing ambivalence about North Korea among the South Korean public. As with previous survey research, our survey found that less than 10% of respondents thought about North Korea frequently. While missile tests and worsening relations between Seoul and Pyongyang may reengage the public temporarily, continued engagement remains a challenge.

The results potentially have implications for President-Elect Yoon Suk-yeol. Yoon’s policy proposals center around policy alignment with the United States, improving relations with Japan and Southeast Asia, bolstering defenses, and stricter enforcement of the North Korean Human Rights Act. Our data suggests that Yoon’s approach could encounter resistance domestically. The election of Yoon suggests a public that wants a departure from the engagement policies of Moon. Yet, the general lack of attention by the public to North Korea suggests that the public will only reengage on North Korea in light of a major breakthrough or if a crisis occurs, such as a resumption of nuclear tests or a military skirmish that results in South Korean deaths. If this is the case, and the public attributes such inter-Korean tensions to Yoon’s policy, a reengaged public may be less supportive of Yoon.

It is also currently unclear whether South Koreans understand the Biden administration’s policy and how it differs from his predecessor, suggesting the need for a clearer articulation of a North Korea policy by an administration focused on other areas such as Ukraine, inflation, and pandemic recovery. Rather, the public may assess the Biden administration not on policy differences, but as a return to a more predictable leadership style. With a new administration in Seoul, such positive evaluations may not continue, especially in the event of increased tensions or dramatic deterioration of security conditions on the peninsula.

Furthermore, Yoon has signaled support for pre-emptive strikes on North Korea under certain circumstances (e.g. signs that a North Korean missile launch towards South Korea is imminent), and it is unclear whether this, or other measures departing from how past Seoul administrations have handled Pyongyang, would receive support from the Biden administration. Increased public support for South Korea to procure nuclear weapons themselves may undermine efforts at a unified stance on North Korea. More broadly, a Biden administration unable to present a distinct North Korea policy, other than some middle ground between Obama and Trump, provides an opportunity for North Korea to exploit differences between the allies. This may lead to both inconsistent policies on deterrence as well as frustration in the Yoon administration as to its ability to strengthen ties with Washington, further encouraging Seoul to act independently of its alliance partner. The Biden administration should use this opportunity to signal its commitment to the US-ROK alliance via a coordinated response to North Korea, while the Yoon administration may wish to dampen expectations that the South Korean public will identify much of a change out of Washington.

Timothy S. Rich (timothy.rich@wku.edu) is an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University and director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL).

Ian Milden (ian.milden650@topper.wku.edu) is a recent graduate from the Master’s in Public Administration program at Western Kentucky University. He previously graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and History from Western Kentucky University.

Mallory Hardesty (mallory.hardesty769@topper.wku.edu) is an honors undergraduate student researcher at Western Kentucky University majoring in History and Political Science.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #16 – South Korea’s presidential election aftermath: Ukraine as test for a “global pivotal state”

For more from this author, visit his recent chapter of Comparative Connections.

South Korea has watched the tragic development of war in Ukraine and—like much of the rest of the world—come down firmly on the side of Ukrainians. Seoul city authorities have displayed blue and yellow lighting on buildings and monuments to show solidarity. President Moon Jae-in and Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong have condemned Russia’s invasion and voiced support to their Ukrainian counterparts. Nongovernmental and civil society groups have launched emergency charity and humanitarian efforts, and citizens have made donations. Most substantively, South Korea has agreed to support and enforce the sanctions—spearheaded by the United States and the European Union—to impose costs on Russia.

At the same time, South Korea has been focused on its March 9 presidential election, which resulted in victory for conservative opposition candidate Yoon Suk-yeol. With a new executive team soon to enter the presidential office and ministries, South Korea’s approach toward Russia and the Ukraine war are likely to continue, but the new leadership may set different accents. New issues and challenges may also emerge depending on how the war evolves.

The nail that sticks up gets hammered down?

South Korea is a member in good standing of the international community. It is democratic, well-governed, prosperous, and peaceful. It follows international law and supports the rules-based order. Today, it does so regardless of which party is in power, so it was not surprising that Seoul chose to implement the economic sanctions, financial transaction lockout, asset freezes, and export bans against Russia. The Moon administration recognized that Russia’s invasion is not just an attack against another sovereign state, but against sovereignty tout court—a concept a formerly colonized nation appreciates—and against the rules-based order generally.

That said, South Korea’s principles are tempered by pragmatism, and the Moon administration was mindful not to be too forward in responding to Russian aggression. At first, the Blue House offered rhetorical support to Kyiv and called out the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, but was slow to condemn Russia by name. South Korea was also a follower—not a leader—in the campaign to sanction Russian entities. Seoul’s primary concern was potential blowback from Moscow, both economically and with respect to Russian support for inter-Korean relations.

South Korea has legitimate concerns, as it both exports and imports products to/from Russia. Nonetheless Seoul eventually acquiesced to the broad sanctions package, although it did negotiate inclusion on a US waiver list for certain export-ban items. Meanwhile, the Moon administration’s worry about alienating Russia as a partner for inter-Korean relations seemed primarily reflexive. Inter-Korean relations have been stagnant for years due to North Korean recalcitrance, and Seoul is a long way from sufficient rapprochement with Pyongyang such that Moscow’s support would be necessary.

For its part, Russia has indeed flashed its anger. South Korea predictably and understandably demurred from sending Ukraine lethal weapons, but that was not sufficient to prevent Moscow from placing Seoul on an “unfriendly list.” Consequently, South Korean firms owed payment in non-Russian currency will have the debt settled in rubles, which have declined drastically in value since the start of the war.

Enter Yoon Suk-yeol

In contrast with Moon’s progressive Democratic Party (DP), which tends to be more parochial and Peninsula-focused on foreign and security policy, Yoon’s conservative People Power Party (PPP) privileges more comprehensive and geographically expansive alliance alignment with the United States. Indeed Yoon’s campaign foreign policy statement committed to making South Korea a “global pivotal state.” The Russia-Ukraine war will test that commitment.

First, Yoon will need to maintain current sanctions on Russia, even if they have a negative effect on South Korea’s economy, or if Russia retaliates (including through cyberattacks). That will require crafting a narrative for the public, notably and convincingly underlining Seoul’s global role. Beyond that, the United States and European Union may strengthen sanctions, which South Korea would be expected to endorse. That could include joining a ban on the import of hydrocarbons and petrochemicals (of which South Korea imports a modest amount). There may also be cases in which Washington and/or European capitals increase pressure on China to dissuade it from assisting Russia with sanctions evasion. As a “global pivotal state,” Seoul may feel obliged to support such measures, which would risk South Korea’s economic relations with its number-one trading partner.

Finally, depending on how the war develops, South Korea may need to engage in peacekeeping and post-conflict stabilization. Seoul may be called on to participate in rebuilding efforts in Ukraine, as well as in financial assistance programs. In addition to delivering these contributions, the challenge for Yoon would be to do so in a timely way, with South Korea out front and outspoken in bilateral and multilateral fora. This would signal that South Korea is now a “global, pivotal” leader.

The specter of North Korea

Even a “global, pivotal” South Korea cannot escape the specter of Pyongyang, and the Russia-Ukraine war has provided (at this point provisional) lessons for the Korean Peninsula. Those lessons are a mixed bag.

On the one hand, both South Korea and Kim Jong Un’s leadership circle would very likely have understood how pyrrhic the Russian invasion has been. Swallowing and digesting a country with an appropriately armed and motivated population is a devilishly difficult endeavor. Furthermore, military operations with poorly motivated/trained soldiers and shambolic logistics is a recipe for disaster. Note also that South Korea is well-armed (and allied with the United States) and would be motived to defend itself, while North Korea’s military likely has poorly motivated/trained soldiers and limited logistics capabilities.

Putin’s Ukraine war illustrates why North Korea would be foolhardy to invade South Korea. South Korea is thus perhaps marginally safer from North Korean attack. Nonetheless Yoon will surely want to bolster deterrence by re-starting full-spectrum US-South Korea joint military exercises, which have fallen by the wayside under Moon (and partially due to COVID).

On the other hand, Putin’s signaling of potential nuclear escalation in Europe highlights the nexus of the stability-instability paradox, nuclear coercion, and the escalate-to-de-escalate doctrine. Both South and North Korea will keenly watch to see what kind of effects Putin’s nuclear brinksmanship produces vis-à-vis NATO and Ukraine, and whether Russia is able to meet some of its objectives in Ukraine by overcoming conventional military failure through brandishing nuclear weapons as both sword and shield. Yoon’s national security team will watch this development and perhaps need to adjust South Korea’s defense posture accordingly (in consultation with the United States), including especially extended nuclear deterrence.

Conclusions

The Russia-Ukraine war will likely offer both opportunities and risks to the Yoon administration, and there are steps the administration can take to rise to the challenge. First, Yoon should prepare the ground for South Korea’s enhanced prominence as a “global, pivotal state.” Having greater voice in global and regional affairs increases influence and weight, but also means more responsibilities and costs. The South Korean public needs to be convinced of the value of this path. For example, Yoon has made a commitment to leading more in support of democracy and the rules-based order—this implies calling out the predatory behavior of certain states, which South Korea has not often done forcefully. Doing so can attract unwanted attention, and South Korea must be prepared.

On the conventional deterrence front, in addition to re-starting full US-South Korea joint military exercises, the Yoon administration should review South Korea’s defense procurement to make sure it has the right systems and equipment for national defense, notably for a nation with a dramatically declining population of males eligible for military service. In particular, the Yoon administration will need to take a hard look at the value of big-ticket items such as a planned light aircraft carrier. The efficiency of resources allocated for indigenous missile defense assets will also require close examination.

As for extended nuclear deterrence, Yoon may wish to reiterate his openness to the United States eventually re-stationing tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, although Washington has already rebuffed this request during his campaign. More plausibly, Yoon and his senior security and defense officials should consider working more closely with Washington on nuclear planning for the Korean Peninsula, with the objective of further institutionalizing shared nuclear planning and strategy, akin to NATO.

Mason Richey (mrichey@hufs.ac.kr) is Associate Professor of international politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, South Korea and Senior Contributor at the Asia Society (Korea).

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Photo: Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea’s president-elect and former top prosecutor, speaks at his campaign office after his election win. Source: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg News

PacNet #11 – Nuclear submarines for our Pacific allies: When to say yes

An earlier version of this article appeared in Real Clear Defense. 

On March 9, South Korea will elect a new president. One of the first things the new president will have to determine is whether or not to get Washington to support South Korea’s development and fueling of a nuclear submarine fleet. The progressive candidate, Lee Jae-myung, has publicly vowed to press the United States to cut a submarine technology transfer deal for South Korea similar to what Washington struck with Australia. In a recent interview, Mr. Lee noted, “It is absolutely necessary for us to have those subs.”

But is it? Mr. Lee’s key opponent, Yoon Suk-yeol, says no. He favors investing in military space and airborne surveillance systems instead. In fact, if South Korea is serious about neutralizing the naval threats it faces, it would do far better with a sound mix of advanced non-nuclear anti-submarine and anti-surface systems than with nuclear submarines.

A detailed study, which The Naval War College Review just published, spells out why. Commissioned by my center and authored by James Campbell Jr., of Naval Sea System Command, “Seoul’s Misguided Desire for Nuclear Submarines” details how poorly nuclear submarines would perform in the relatively closed East China, Yellow, and East Seas, which border Korea. His conclusion: The best way to track and contain North Korean naval threats and help the United States and Japan monitor the First Island Chain (the islands connecting Russia, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines) is not with nuclear submarines. Nuclear submarines are vastly more expensive and far less effective than a proper mix of advanced non-nuclear naval systems for these particular missions.

Such systems include upgrading South Korea’s air-independent propulsion submarines, anti-submarine aircraft, and naval surface combatants; upgrading, sharing, and analyzing acoustic and non-acoustic anti-submarine sensor information with Washington and Seoul; and investing in new anti-submarine technologies. The latter include airborne and underwater drones, wave runners, artificial intelligence-enhanced anti-submarine systems and the like.

As for South Korea using nuclear submarines to launch conventional missile “second strikes”—yet another argument some South Korean naval advocates make for “going nuclear”—using these boats for this mission compares poorly against using air and mobile ground-launched missile systems. These are far more survivable, can fire many more rounds, and cost far less per flight. Finally, if Seoul is eager to secure a blue-water navy, then developing advanced surface combatants, including small aircraft carriers, is more cost effective and avoids compounding the growing challenge of identifying nuclear submarine friends and foes in the open Western Pacific.

Sensible for Seoul, this set of recommendation is also sound for Tokyo. From bases in Japan, super-quiet, advanced conventional submarines and other select non-nuclear systems can monitor and contain Chinese and North Korean naval threats within the First Island Chain far better than nuclear submarines.

What, then, about Australia? Located thousands of miles from China’s coast, Canberra requires naval platforms that can quickly travel significant distances and stay on station for extended periods. For this purpose, nuclear submarines make sense. In short, it’s different.

Why belabor these points? First, if Washington wants Seoul and Tokyo to make military investments that are leveraged to deter North Korea and China, preventing South Korea and Japan from wasting billions of dollars on nuclear submarine cooperation is essential. This, in turn, requires making a no-nonsense distinction between Australia’s naval requirements and those of Seoul and Tokyo.

Second, green lighting South Korea on nuclear submarines risks spreading the bomb. Nuclear submarines require enriched uranium fuel. Seoul, which attempted to build nuclear weapons in the 1970s, has been asking Washington to allow it to enrich uranium now for nearly a decade. So far, Washington has said no. Why? Even if Seoul promised to enrich uranium ever so slightly, it could flip any enrichment plant it ran to make weapons-grade uranium in a matter of days. Bottom line: If Seoul pursued its own nuclear naval program, it would alarm Japan (a historical antagonist that also has pondered going nuclear) and disrupt alliance relations with Washington, Seoul’s nuclear guarantor.

What’s to be done? It would help if Seoul weren’t the only one being asked to restrain its nuclear aspirations. In this regard, my center has proposed having Australia commit to a moratorium on enriching uranium tied to its 30-year AUKUS nuclear submarine deal. It also has recommended that the United States and Japan join South Korea in suspending their commercialization of fast reactors and the recycling of nuclear weapons explosive plutonium. This would help spotlight similar militarily worrisome plutonium production-related activities in China.

Finally, Washington should work with Europe to help Seoul and Tokyo tackle significant cutting-edge defense related projects of their own. For South Korea, this might be developing space surveillance systems. For Japan, it could be advanced communications, computing capabilities and cryptology to crack China’s great firewall.

Each of these steps would help. First, however, South Korea and Japan need to conclude that their acquisition of nuclear submarines would be, at best, a dangerous distraction.

Henry Sokolski (henry@npolicy.org) is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, Virginia, and author of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future. He served as deputy for nonproliferation policy in the office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense during the George H.W. Bush administration.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael B Zingaro