South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy broadens focus from northern threat

South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy broadens focus from northern threat
South Korean President Yoon Marks First 100 Days In Office

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol delivers a speech during his news conference to mark his first 100 days in office at the presidential office on August 17, 2022 .(Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

SYDNEY —  South Korea has made a strategic commitment to engage with Japan, the United States and other like-minded states in working to promote something akin to a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” as a key component of its first Indo-Pacific strategy, an important shift towards Seoul becoming more of a regional player, analysts tell Breaking Defense.

“The new strategy demonstrated for the first time the ROK’s aspiration to play a greater strategic role in the broader Indo-Pacific region amid the US-China strategic competition, beyond its traditional focus on East Asia and Southeast Asian region,” Yuka Koshino, an expert on Japan and the rest of Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said. The strategy uses this somewhat awkward term — a “Global Pivotal State” — to encapsulate what South Korea aims to become.

While the new South Korean strategy does not use the term “Free and Open Indo-Pacific, which Japan, the United States and other Pacific powers use, Koshino notes, it does contain “elements” of the concept, something Japan acronymizes as “FOIP.”

“However,” Koshino writes in an email, “It is still early to say that ROK made a commitment to the shared FOIP vision between US, Japan, Australia, India and other like-minded countries until we see greater engagement with the regional security and economic architecture, such as the discussions around the Quad, the application to join the CPTPP [Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership], and an upgrade of the US-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation to include concrete actions beyond simply responding to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.”

One of the most intriguing parallels with Japan’s strategy toward China, which is really what FOIP is all about, is the new South Korean strategy’s focus on Taiwan.

“The mention of the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the recognition of the importance of improved relations with Japan for regional solidarity are great steps to contribute to the ongoing efforts to enhance regional security cooperation and are welcomed by these countries,” Koshino said.

The emphasis on the Taiwan Strait was the most surprising aspect of the strategy, she said, marking a “significant step for the ROK given the sensitivity around its relations with China and previous exposure to economic coercion from China.”

The strategy’s underpinning is recognition of the tremendous importance of shipping and sea lanes.

“Particularly, the Indo-Pacific represents approximately 78% and 67% of our total exports and total imports, respectively. The fact that the majority of our top 20 trading partners are located in the Indo-Pacific and that 66% of our foreign direct investment is destined for the Indo-Pacific clearly reflect our close ties with the region,” the official English version of the South Korean strategy says. “The Indo-Pacific region is also home to many key strategic shipping routes. Most of our trade depends on sea lines of communication, with a significant portion going through the Strait of Hormuz, the Indian Ocean, the Malacca Strait, and the South China Sea. In particular, the South China Sea is a key sea route, accounting for around 64% and 46% of our crude oil transport and natural gas transport, respectively.”

China has aggressively staked out much of the South China, illegallydeclaringthat it has historic and legal claims to it, which a UN tribunal rejected.

The US welcomed the strategy document, released Dec. 27, with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan saying “The ROK’s goal to expand its cooperation with other allies and partners across the Indo-Pacific will strengthen our shared ability to advance international peace, security, and promote nuclear nonproliferation. The strategy will also enhance the region’s economic security networks, cooperation in science and technology, and engagement on climate change and energy security. We are grateful for President Yoon’s and the ROK’s leadership, and congratulate the people of the ROK on their new strategy, which will help the United States and our partners advance a free, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”

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Still, the South Korean strategy does not take a hard line toward China, saying instead that “it neither targets nor excludes any specific nation.” The strategy goes so far as to say South Korea will “nurture a sounder and more mature relationship as we pursue shared interests (with China) based on mutual respect and reciprocity, guided by international norms and rules.”

That last phrase about norms and rules is key.

“Whether it will be possible for the Yoon administration to achieve a positive relationship with China based on the principles of inclusion and reciprocity while maintaining its alignment with the United States in favor of the rule of law and liberal international order will be a major test of Yoon’s Indo-Pacific strategy,” opined Scott Snyder, an expert on Korea at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a posting on Korea on Point, a site run by the Sejong Institute think tank.

However, South Korea has historically treaded carefully with China, a key economic partner that has shown a willingness to use economic pressure on Seoul. In 2017, Beijing retaliated to the placement of a US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea by banning Chinese tourists, a move that inflicted heavy economic damage on South Korea.

Remarkably, given the tortured history of the two countries, the South Korea strategy says “improved relations with Japan is essential for fostering cooperation and solidarity among like minded Indo-Pacific nations.”

Snyder noted that a Nov. 2022 trilateral statement by the US Japan and South Korea “offers a new platform for simultaneously addressing peninsular and regional threats. In this respect, South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy will enable the country to gain regional help in dealing with North Korea while expanding cooperation with other countries to address challenges to stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.”

But even in a strategy about the Indo-Pacific, South Korea could not ignore North Korea. The fact the strategy was executed makes clear how much broader the ROK understands its regional — even global — role to be.

“Most significantly, South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy underscores the extent to which South Korea must simultaneously manage both peninsular and regional security risks through the pursuit of a dual strategy that addresses both the North Korea and China threat. South Korea cannot afford to ignore the North Korea threat, but it also can no longer afford to treat North Korea as a threat to South Korea’s security and prosperity to the exclusion of rising dangers to regional security,” Snyder wrote.

So how is North Korea likely to view this and how might it react?

“The DRPK will likely view closer ROK-Japan security cooperation as a challenge to its nuclear and missile ambitions. The recent US-Japan-ROK Summit held on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Cambodia agreed on the intention ‘to share DPRK missile warning data in real time’, which will greatly improve Japanese capabilities to detect and assess missiles from DRPK,” Koshino said. “This comes on top of recent developments in Japan’s security policy to acquire counterstrike capabilities.”

She argues that the Indo-Pacific strategy broadly marks “a shift from the Moon administration’s focus and optimism to improve relations with North Korea to a more realistic approach to deal with the regional security and economic challenges arising from the changing strategic environment driven by the US-China great power competition.”

For his part, Snyder offers markers to track to judge how well the strategy succeeds:

“South Korea’s cultivation of trade, aid, investment, and people-to-people ties with regional partners in Southeast Asia including but not limited to Vietnam (South Korea’s leading trade and investment partner in the region) and its ability to manage continued trade relations with China in spite of geopolitical headwinds will determine the success or failure of South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy.”