Republic of Korea’s new foreign minister and foreign policy challenges
Translated by Amb. Oscar de los Reyes
Since the beginning of President Yoon Suk Yeol’s administration, linked to the Peoples Power Party (PPP) in May 2022, Dr. Park Jin, of the same party, served as foreign minister until he submitted his resignation at the end of 2023 to run in the April 2024 parliamentary elections. Cho Tae Yul, who had been permanent ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations (UN), among other functions, was appointed to the vacant post.
The priority of newly appointed ROK foreign minister Cho Tae Yul upon taking office has been to strengthen a diplomacy that combines security and economics, precisely in the midst of a new escalation of tensions with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The two countries have deepened their contradictions since the inauguration of President Yoon Suk Yeol until the present day, with relations characterized by media confrontation, reciprocal verbal offenses, military exercises on both sides, absence of dialogue and -even in recent times- fake news and tricks to test the reaction of the other party to evaluate possible scenarios.
Whoever analyzes the situation on the peninsula in the current context may tend to believe that it has reached its peak, but it has still not taken on such tense tones as on other occasions. The peninsular situation is characterized by oscillations that move between confrontation-dialogue-confrontation. At present it is particularly in confrontation mode.
For 2024, the DPRK presented a series of goals, including the launching of three more military spy satellites and increased efforts to strengthen its nuclear arsenal. Meanwhile, the ROK plans to launch two new satellites with a similar purpose this year to better monitor the DPRK, according to the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), a move that could elevate the inter-Korean space race. The state arms procurement agency says two synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites will be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, U.S., next April and November, respectively.
The negative phrases used are part of the traditional language between the two Koreas, such as Kim Jong Un’s definition of inter-Korean ties as relations «between two states hostile to each other». In principle, he recognizes the existence of two Koreas, but the level of hostility shows that there will be no reunification in the short or medium term, except by force. In practical terms, a war in this part of the world would have very serious consequences, which would not be viable for any of the parties involved in the conflict: the United States,
As early as 2022, the DPRK leader called South Korea an «undisputable enemy» and called for an «exponential» increase in the country’s nuclear arsenal. Drastic calls such as stepping up preparations to «suppress the entire territory of South Korea» might not only seem far-fetched or of great concern. The parties are already accustomed to such rhetoric, but it does not imply that the situation will remain stable.
In the midst of this complex background, it is important to analyze the foreign policy of the current South Korean government. The major challenges of the Yoon Suk Yeol administration stated in the 2023 National Security Strategy are:
- The development of the DPRK’s nuclear capabilities.
- Competition between the United States and China.
- Supply chain crisis.
- Threats of new security (Office of the President of Republic of Korea, 2023).
Clearly, there are several fronts which South Korean diplomacy must confront, taking advantage of its strengths, but also bearing in mind its challenges. It is no coincidence that, although the policy of continuing to enhance ties with the United States and improving links with Japan, after years of tensions and historical differences, is a priority, in the case of multilateral security agreements, despite the pronouncements, the current South Korean government is in practice approaching them with caution, given the need to manage its relationship with Beijing.
Centrality of the Korean peninsula conflict in Seoul’s foreign policy
Since the inauguration of ROK President Yoon Suk Yeol, he has been pushing the so-called «Bold Initiative» to advance the plan to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, which in fact means the denuclearization of the DPRK. Unfortunately, Yoon Suk Yeol’s pronouncements since his campaign, contrary to those of the Democratic Party and former President Moon Jae In, generated an accelerated rift between the two Koreas and caused greater difficulties for denuclearization.
Taking into account its theoretical approach, the bold initiative consists of three phases:
- Pre-negotiation phase: DPRK’s return to denuclearization talks. The ROK government will create a strategic environment that will leave the DPRK no choice but to return to denuclearization talks. To this end, the ROK government will continue to adopt a holistic approach that deters nuclear threats from the North, deters Pyongyang’s nuclear development, and pursues dialogue and diplomacy. In this regard, the «Bold Initiative» is already underway (MOFA, 2022a).
- Negotiation phase: Set of actions and comprehensive agreement. The ROK government will work toward a comprehensive agreement on the overall roadmap for the denuclearization process. The ROK is ready to take an initial set of actions at the start of negotiations once the DPRK returns to the negotiating table with sincerity. An example of the initial set of actions that may be taken during the negotiations phase includes the Resource-Food Exchange Program (R-FEP). This program would allow limited export of mineral resources through the use of sanctions exemptions, which would allow Pyongyang to use the revenue to meet peremptory needs such as food, fertilizer, and medicine. Moreover, even during the negotiations, Seoul would be in a position to test pilot projects to improve the living conditions of the North Korean people in the areas of public health, drinking water and agriculture. These projects could be further expanded in conjunction with progress made in the denuclearization of North Korea (MOFA, 2022a).
- Complete denuclearization: corresponding comprehensive measures. The ROK government is willing to implement a set of corresponding measures covering political, economic, and military aspects once the DPRK moves toward substantial denuclearization.
The following are examples of corresponding economic measures that could be implemented and possibly further expanded, commensurate with North Korea’s denuclearization steps (MOFA, 2022a).
In this regard, the project was to:
- provide assistance for its power generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure,
- modernize ports and airports for international trade,
- modernize medical infrastructure and hospitals,
- provide assistance for agricultural technology,
- provide assistance for international investment and finance (MOFA, 2022a).
In addition, some of the corresponding political and military measures they might consider include providing diplomatic assistance to normalize U.S.-DPRK bilateral relations and initiating discussions on conventional weapons disarmament (MOFA, 2022a).
The initiative was flatly rejected by the DPRK as the «height of stupidity,» describing it as nothing more than a copy of the approach of the previous conservative Lee Myung Bak government, called «Vision 3,000 for denuclearization and opening up,» which ended in failure more than a decade ago. The plan was intended to help the North raise its per capita income to $3,000 in a decade through comprehensive assistance if it gave up its nuclear program and opened its borders (Yonhap, 2022).
The situation in recent months on the Korean peninsula has moved toward confrontation where there is no room for dialogue. Provocations persist between the two Koreas and each side boosts its hostile pronouncements. In this sense, no possibility of rapprochement is expected in the short term, except for the action of a power close to the parties, such as China or Russia, in relation to the North or a change of government in the United States in which the Republican Donald Trump returns to the presidency and tries to project again the dialogue with the DPRK, although it is expected to have similar results to those of his first term in office.
South Korea’s new Foreign Minister Cho Tae Yul took over with a focused approach that the current priority toward the DPRK should be more about strengthening deterrence than pursuing dialogue, considering the increasingly belligerent behavior of Pyongyang’s leadership over the past few weeks without taking southern responsibility for provocations through joint exercises with the United States.
In the short term, Seoul’s foreign policy does not envisage dialogue with Pyongyang. Instead, it will focus on strengthening deterrence. In this regard, the new foreign minister will face many diplomatic challenges, ranging from having to deal with growing hostilities with the DPRK to rebuilding relations with China amid the Sino-U.S. rivalry.
An element that differs from the previous foreign minister has to do with the newly appointed Cho Tae Yul’s interest in repairing relations with China. In that regard, on the long-suspended South Korea-China-Japan trilateral summit, Cho reaffirmed the commitment to make efforts to resume the summit as soon as possible. The foreign minister said there are areas that need to be strengthened, and he will focus his attention on such fields, working hard to constantly make new tangible achievements.
New South Korean foreign minister’s priorities and strengths of ROK diplomacy
The new chancellor, Cho Tae Yul, has said he will seek to strengthen a South Korean diplomacy that combines security and economics in order to address complex challenges such as the strategic competition between the United States and China. For the new chancellor, it is becoming increasingly difficult to manage the economy and security as two separate areas, at a time of «great geopolitical transition.» He intends to strengthen South Korea’s diplomatic capabilities to converge the economy and security and create a working system and culture to make this possible. He will work to promote South Korea’s diplomatic status, as a significant medium power, in order to consummate its bid to join the G-7 Plus [the planned expanded version of developed countries of the Group of Seven (G-7)]. He further said that South Korea is already recognized as an advanced country and added that, during his tenure, he hopes to soon consolidate national status as a potential G-7+ candidate, or higher status (Hyuna, 2024).
In practice, although it is a major foreign policy challenge, the dynamics of the Republic of Korea’s foreign ministry is also a function of elevating the country’s role as a rising power in the coming years given the relevance of its culture, as well as its economy, especially in the microchip sector.
For the diplomacy of the Republic of Korea, there are three relevant alternatives:
First, cultural diplomacy, which aims to spread cultural attractiveness (high impact of K-pop and K-dramas, among others), raise the national image through cultural goods and strengthen two-way communication through cultural exchange. The various actions undertaken in this regard are exhibitions in diplomatic missions, celebrations on special diplomatic occasions, promotion of South Korea Week, public diplomacy sports, World K-Pop Festival, as well as the Cultural Agreement – Joint Cultural Commission (MOFA, 2024).
Second, South Korea undertakes diplomacy aimed at promoting knowledge and awareness of South Korea, supporting Korean studies and Korean language education abroad, as well as supporting education and academic cooperation. In this regard, subordinate to the foreign ministry there are different entities such as the Korea Foundation (KF) (MOFA, 2024).
Third but not least, public diplomacy which politically aims to enhance the understanding and confidence of the general foreign public and opinion leaders such as politicians, academics, foreign affairs specialists and journalists regarding South Korean foreign policy with a view to creating a favorable environment for achieving its key diplomatic objectives such as the establishment of permanent peace on the Korean peninsula. At the same time, it aims to broaden the understanding of the country’s policy by diversifying the audience, outreach programs and topics, as well as to strengthen exchanges and interaction with foreign residents and students in South Korea (MOFA, 2024).
From the bilateral point of view, it will continue to strengthen relations with the United States and Japan. Particularly in the current context, the historical differences with Tokyo are frozen, but not forgotten by society. The government’s priority is to strengthen the alliance in order to face its greatest challenge, which is the DPRK. Add to this the relevance of Southeast Asia, and the ROK has launched a specific plan for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), called the Korea-ASEAN Solidarity Initiative (KASI), which will be a central component of its Indo-Pacific strategy.
When it comes to South Korean foreign policy, one cannot fail to address China. When South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol took office in 2022, the likelihood of a cooler bilateral relationship with China increased. After all, Yoon Suk Yeol during the election campaign spoke harshly about China, and conservative South Korean politicians are often deepening the alliance with the United States and suspicious of Chinese support for the DPRK. Even despite the growing closeness of DPRK-China ties, Yoon Suk Yeol has been able to manage his government’s relationship with Beijing with some effectiveness, potentially setting a model for how other small and medium-sized nations might do the same (Grossman, 2023).
As mentioned above, there is a different nuance in relation to China. The new Foreign Minister Cho Tae Yul himself, upon being nominated, expressed that since South Korea’s relationship with China is as important as its alliance with the United States, he would try to find ways to maintain harmony in South Korea-China relations (…). Allowing the antagonism between South Korea, the United States and Japan on the one hand and North Korea, China and Russia on the other to take hold is not conducive to our foreign policy, so I will pay close attention to that (Shin, 2023).
From the multilateral point of view, the main organizations to which the Republic of Korea pays the utmost attention are the UN, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), ASEAN, the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM), the European Union (EU), the Forum for East Asia-Latin America Cooperation (FOCALAE), the G-20 and the South Korea-Caribbean Forum.
Particularly the High Level Forum on South Korea-Caribbean Partnership has served as an important platform for cooperation between the two sides in various fields since 2011. The forum is composed of, in addition to South Korea, on the Caribbean side, Guyana, Grenada, Dominica, Barbados, Bahamas, St. Lucia, Belize, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, Suriname, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, as well as St. Kitts and Nevis (MOFA, 2024).
What is interesting is how the Western and even some South Korean media focus most of the foreign policy attention under current President Yoon Suk Yeol on the alliance with the United States and Japan. Beyond the trilateral between the aforementioned countries, the Yoon Suk Yeol administration joined the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and the Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP). The PBP coalition includes Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Canada to increase diplomatic and economic ties with Pacific Island countries. The Yoon Suk Yeol government also engaged in talks to secure global semiconductor supply chains through Chip 4 (or Fab 4) with the United States, Japan and the Taiwan province of China.
However, it should be added that under Yoon Suk Yeol’s own presidency, participation in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) promoted by ASEAN, China and others was raised, ties with Vietnam were raised to the level of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Likewise, international cooperation has been strengthened and cooperation mechanisms have been activated with the small island states of the Pacific. All this for the purpose of becoming a Global Pivot State.
Yoon Suk Yeol’s government has increased the Republic of Korea’s contribution in line with the Global Development Goals. At the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting in October 2022, Yoon Suk Yeol announced his intention to increase South Korea’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget in 2024 by a whopping 43% to $5.2 billion. (…) The Yoon Suk Yeol government organized the inaugural Korea-Pacific Islands Summit in Seoul in May 2023 to address climate change, sustainable development, maritime security, and cybersecurity, among other issues. Following the summit, Yoon Suk Yeol pledged to double the amount of ODA to Pacific Island countries to $39.9 million by 2027 (Yeo, 2023).
The performance of a second foreign minister under the Yoon Suk Yeol administration will undoubtedly show a different style, with the same foreign policy objectives of the president since he took office. His administration will focus on trying to promote the ROK as a Central Pivot State, will continue to be more active on global issues, especially the environment, but also on security issues in alliance with the U.S. and Japan.
The main challenge of the ROK’s foreign policy is to improve relations with the DPRK. However, as long as it persists in promoting denuclearization by force or pressure, it will only aggravate the situation further. On the other hand, it is important to bear in mind that the DPRK regards the ROK as its main enemy and will continue to prepare the conditions for an eventual confrontation if Seoul provokes it. Recently, Kim Jong Un has made it clear that he does not intend to avoid a war, but he will not start one unilaterally, the Supreme People’s Assembly approved to eliminate the agencies managing relations with South Korea (Committee for Peaceful Reunification, the National Economic Cooperation Office and the International Tourism Administration (Mt. Kumgang), approved to destroy the railway line linking the two Koreas and constitutionally endorsed South Korea’s status as «enemy number one», «permanent adversary, not a potential partner for reconciliation». Measuring every action by the two countries will be of utmost importance.
The second element of great relevance is that, at least in the short and medium terms, the reconciliation or reunification of the country will not be sought and this was reflected by the leader of the DPRK, Kim Jong Un himself at the last session of the Workers’ Party in December 2023. This is evidence of the failure of the Bold Initiative promoted by the president since his inauguration. However, South Korean foreign policy, especially under the new minister, will not focus on dialogue but on deterrence. The tone could continue to be raised, even so, it is important to keep in mind that this is an election year in both South Korea and the United States and these processes will have an impact on South Korean foreign policy.
The new chancellor’s foreign policy plans to improve ties with China. Beijing is the main trading partner and a key player for South Korean exports of both technological products and services. In this sense, the new chancellor will promote the possibility of reactivating something that has been promoted in recent months, which is the China-South Korea-Japan trilateral summit and even continue discussions regarding the Free Trade Agreement between the three parties.
La diplomacia de la República de Corea con sus diversas vertientes ha ido permitiendo mejorar la imagen internacional del país, especialmente con su diplomacia cultural. Desde el punto de vista multilateral, el gobierno surcoreano otorga gran atención a importantes organizaciones internacionales, pero es llamativo que le dedique gran atención al Caribe, incluso más que a organizaciones en África. Desde el punto de vista de la cooperación, es justamente en Centroamérica, Bolivia, Colombia y Cuba donde, sin mantener relaciones diplomáticas, es donde más cooperación realiza mediante la Agencia Surcoreana para la Cooperación Internacional (KOICA).
The Republic of Korea’s diplomacy has been improving the country’s international image, especially through its cultural diplomacy. From the multilateral point of view, the South Korean government gives great attention to important international organizations, but it is striking that it devotes great attention to the Caribbean, even more than to organizations in Africa. From the cooperation point of view, it is precisely in Central America, Bolivia, Colombia and Cuba, without maintaining diplomatic relations, is where it carries out more cooperation through the South Korean Agency for International Cooperation (KOICA).
Another challenge for ROK foreign policy, with the current or any other minister, has to do with Yoon Suk Yeol’s low domestic approval rating (less than 38%) and his lack of majority support in the National Assembly that will continue to create political obstacles for him and his administration’s diplomacy. For example, Yoon Suk Yeol’s diplomatic rapprochement with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has earned him plaudits from much of the West. However, the Democratic Party (legislative majority) remains highly critical of Yoon Suk Yeol’s Japanese policy.
In short, the biggest foreign policy challenge for the new South Korean foreign minister is the conflict on the Korean peninsula, but unfortunately President Yoon Suk Yeol’s own policy has implied the further stoking of tensions, even though neither side is interested in a flaring up of the ongoing confrontation. The new minister in particular will face another challenge and it has to do in part with the resignation of former Foreign Minister Park Jin. The president, since his inauguration, spent immense political capital to promote Busan as the host city for the 2030 World Expo and got only 29 votes to Riyadh’s 119 votes. In 2024, the situation on the peninsula will remain in open confrontation. Both sides are clear to continue their external projection agenda, even as they devote attention to every unilateral action of the other side.
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