US versus China: the case of South Korea

When US Presidents lose Congressional majority in the midterms, they turn more to international affairs where they have more leeway to act without Congressional approval. So Biden follows this rule in receiving South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol last week in Washington.

President Biden honored President Yoon with a full state visit, only the second in his Administration. The two Presidents signed a “Washington Declaration”, establishing a new Consultative Group to handle discussions of nuclear deterrence and strategic planning in the Korean peninsula and also reiterating South Korea’s commitment not to develop nuclear arms. On the 70th anniversary of their mutual defense treaty, the agreement is aimed to reassure South Korea of the firm US commitment to defend South Korea against aggression from the North. The two Koreas are still officially at war, the US has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea (Donald Trump never acted on his threat to remove them) and South Korea continues to rely on the US for its security.

The Washington Declaration is significant in presenting a shift in geopolitical positioning of South Korea, reflecting the repercussions of the US’s increasingly aggressive focus against China as well as the geopolitical impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The consequences will influence reciprocal relationships among South Korea, Japan, Russia, China and the US.

Historically, Koreans are used to being a small country dominated by giant neighbors: Russia and China, and also Japan, but the country has grown spectacularly over the last decades, fueled by an export-driven economy that is now the fourth largest in Asia (after China, Japan and India) and President Yoon came into office in May of last year proclaiming an ambition for South Korea to assert its position as a “global pivotal state”.

South Korea has complex relationships with its Asian neighbors:

– It is officially at war with its aggressive, nuclear power cousin North Korea,

– China is its largest trading partner, accounting for 25% of total trade and providing critical supply chains for South Korea’s dominant electronics industry, but the political relationship with China has been strained in part due to China’s inability to reduce the aggressiveness of North Korea and with the impact of the growing rivalry between the US,

– With Japan, there is active two-way trade relationship as well as an economic rivalry but also a deep historical enmity, with the Japanese never having fully admitted nor apologized for the inhumane treatment of Korea before and during WWII, and

– With Russia, the war in Ukraine has interrupted what had been a growing economic partnership, but South Korea has resisted selling arms to Ukraine, only providing humanitarian aid.

South Korea has in the past maintained a delicate balancing act between relying on the US security guarantee while seeking to develop active economic and good political relations with the two countries having the most influence on North Korea: China and Russia, and keeping an active trade but cool political relationship with Japan.

To the delight of the Biden Administration, President Yoon shifted this equation during his visit to Washington, aligning South Korea directly with the US view of a world divided into two camps in a “battle between democracy and autocracy”. Making unmistakable and surprising references to China and Taiwan and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Yoon stated that world peace was threatened by “attempts to change the status quo by force.” China was furious, denouncing his statements as  “absurd rhetoric” and that “those who play with fire on Taiwan will eventually get themselves burned.” Yoon also suggested that under certain circumstances, South Korea might sell arms to Ukraine, engendering an immediate reaction from Russia, suggesting it may retaliate by providing North Korea with modern weaponry. Yoon has also reinforced his position in the pro-US camp by improving the relationship with Japan, the two countries having recently upgraded the trade status of the other, to preferred status.

Under its constitution, South Korea is prohibited from selling arms to countries involved in a conflict, so it is unlikely the country will sell arms directly to Ukraine, but it will no doubt actively sell arms to NATO countries, consistent with its ambition to grow its already large arms industry, aiming to become the fourth largest exporter of arms in the world. Such a step taken irrespective of Russian reaction will contribute mightily to rebuilding depleted NATO armament.

President Yoon will face opposition within South Korea against his move to side more completely with the US: 49% of South Koreans do not believe the US would fight to defend the country and 77% believe South Korea needs to develop its own nuclear arsenal, but for the time being, he has clearly aligned his country with the US. This may be viewed as a significant victory for Biden and an important step in his efforts to build a network of Asian alliances against China, including the AUKUS agreement with Australia and talks this week with Filipino President Marcos.

But will dividing the world once again into two camps, this time with the US rival being China, serve the long-term interest of peace in the world?