On May 10, Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative People’s Power Party was sworn in as South Korea’s new president after narrowly beating his opponent, Lee Jae-myung, in the country’s election in March. While South Korea’s alliance with the U.S. would undoubtedly continue to be the cornerstone of the country’s security policy regardless of who won, Yoon’s campaign indicated that his administration would revisit other aspects of South Korea’s foreign and security policies. These include taking a more assertive approach to North Korea, improving Seoul’s strained relations with Tokyo, seeking greater trilateral cooperation with the U.S. and Japan, and revisiting the fairly conciliatory approach to China favored by the administration of South Korea’s outgoing president, Moon Jae-in.
Four months into his new administration, Yoon is clearly setting a new tone, consistent with his campaign rhetoric, in South Korea’s approach to security policy. U.S.-South Korean drills — which had been substantially scaled back in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and attempts by the U.S. and South Korea to create conditions for diplomacy with North Korea — are being resumed and expanded. Eleven combined drills will be conducted this summer alone, the two sides have agreed to resume field training during major combined exercises, U.S. Army helicopters staged live-fire drills in Korea for the first time since 2019, the two navies recently conducted their first drills involving carrier strike group since 2017 and the two air forces conducted their first-ever combined training with F-35A stealth fighters when a squadron of U.S. F-35As conducted a rotational deployment to South Korea in June, the first such deployment by the U.S. Air Force in five years.
In addition to improving bilateral security cooperation with the U.S., there have also been developments on the foreign policy front. In June, Yoon met with President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Madrid, the first trilateral meeting between leaders of the three countries since 2017. In addition, Yoon indicated that he wants to see a closer bilateral relationship with Japan, a clear departure from that of his predecessor. The NATO summit in Madrid was also the first time a South Korean president attended and addressed a NATO meeting. Yoon stated that he hoped for a cooperative relationship between NATO and the Indo-Pacific region in defense of “universal values.” Yoon has also stated that South Korea is ready to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), either as a partner or as a full member.
However, Yoon’s agenda is less clear-cut. Yoon does not appear to be ready to move ahead with a second Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery, though he has not abandoned the promise and the issue continues to be a source of friction in South Korea’s relations with China. China is likely unhappy with the reinvigoration of U.S.-South Korea joint drills, engagement with NATO and attempts to improve relations with Japan. China’s recent announcement of a live-fire naval exercise in the Yellow Sea may be a message to South Korea as well as Taiwan. At the same time, Yoon cannot further risk damage to South Korea’s relations with China, particularly their economic relations (China is South Korea’s largest trading partner). Yoon did not meet with Speaker of the House Pelosi when she visited Seoul just after her trip to Taiwan. South Korea and China recently agreed to work together to further develop commercial ties, ensure supply chain stability and pursue two plus two talks (foreign policy and security) at the vice minister level. For now, at least, Yoon still needs to balance economic relations with improved security relations with the U.S.
Another factor worth noting is that Yoon’s approval ratings have declined sharply as a result of domestic dissatisfaction over the state of South Korea’s economy. It is unclear whether this will force him to scale back his overseas engagement in order to focus on the economy and other domestic issues.
Still, an increased focus on domestic issues is unlikely to affect the revival of U.S.-South Korea security cooperation. A May 2022 poll showed strong support for continued security cooperation with the U.S. and the resumption of drills. Similarly, the resumption of trilateral meetings received widespread support in the polls. However, further engagement with Japan may slow if Yoon has less time to devote to active foreign policy. Engagement with NATO and outreach to the Quad would likewise be curtailed, but certainly not reversed. The outcome so far for the U.S. is a South Korea that is more aligned with U.S. policy in the region but developing at a slower pace than might have been predicted just a few months ago.
The big question that remains is Yoon’s future approach to China. Given the importance of China to the South Korean economy and the domestic dissatisfaction with the state of the South Korean economy, the Yoon administration might be more reluctant to take positions that harm the bilateral economic relationship. Yoon is unlikely to return to the policies of Moon, but he will likely take a less aggressive approach to China than he indicated as a candidate.