“Korea is the tenth largest economy in the world. It is incumbent upon us to take on a greater role befitting our stature as a global leader,” new South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol declared in a particularly spirited inauguration address earlier this year. “We must actively protect and promote universal values and international norms that are based on freedom and respect for human rights,” he added, emphasizing how South Korea “must take on an even greater role in expanding freedom and human rights not just for ourselves but also for others,” since “the international community expects us to do so. [And] [w]e must answer that call.”
Just months into office, Yoon became the first South Korean leader to attend the annual North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit, where he was invited as the leader of a partner nation. There, he spoke of building a “coalition”, stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, which would uphold cherished “universal values” among democratic nations. On the sidelines of the summit, he met European leaders in order to discuss expanded defense cooperation, including exports of Korean-made weaponries to frontline NATO states such as Poland.
The new South Korean leader will likely push for greater voice in international organizations, including the permanent expansion of the G7 grouping of industrialized nations in order to include emerging powers from across the post-colonial world. Yoon’s distinct air of strategic confidence and ideological certitude reflects his country’s emergence as one of the world’s most dynamic economies as well as largest arms exporters.
A U.S. treaty ally, South Korea has also emerged as a key element of Washington’s ‘integrated defense’ strategy in the region. Following his meeting with U.S. president Joseph Biden in late-May, Yoon greenlighted his country’s membership in the U.S.-backed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which aims to counter Beijing’s growing trade and investment footprint in Asia.
What makes the new South Korean president quite unique, however, is his open commitment to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which is currently composed of Australia, India, the U.S. and Japan. This is music to the ears of hawkish elements in the U.S. Congress, who have openly called for the creation of a “Pacific NATO” against a rising China.
Ironically, it’s the Biden administration, which has had second thoughts about the inclusion of South Korea into an expanded Quad, if not a new “Quint” alliance in the Indo-Pacific altogether. Washington fears that such a move would be too provocative, especially towards China, without providing any substantial strategic dividends, especially since Seoul is already a robust regional ally.
A Self-Confident Power
“The country has come a long way, but it can become an even more responsible and respected member of the international community,” Yoon penned in an of-cited essay earlier this year. Then still a presidential candidate, he lambasted the outgoing Moon Jae-in administration as too “parochial and shortsighted” in its foreign policy, given the latter’s all-consuming strategic focus on ending the conflict in the Korean Peninsula. In the words of Yoon, the former Korean leader’s foreign policy was “tailored mostly to improving relations with North Korea”, thus “Seoul’s role in the global community [began] to shrink [accordingly].”
Eager to solicit maximum international support, former president Moon Jae-in carefully maintained warm relations with all regional powers, including China and Russia, which had strong influence over the regime in Pyongyang. Meanwhile, the Moon administration grappled with unprecedented tensions in U.S.-Korea relations under former President Donald Trump, who threatened existing security and trade deals with Asian allies. In many ways, however, Moon’s strategic approach remained broadly in line with his predecessors, who adopted an equilateral balancing strategy vis-à-vis all major powers in order to maximize Seoul’s strategic capital.
Yoon, however, has advocated for a radically divergent foreign policy direction. Maintaining that his country has “benefited from the global and regional order led by the United States”, he has called for “[a] deeper alliance with Washington” as “the central axis of Seoul’s foreign policy”. To this end, he has welcomed even tighter security cooperation with Washington, while signaling a more lukewarm policy towards China as well as a tougher stance on North Korea.
The new South Korean president is also benefiting from the fruits of his predecessors’ labor. In the past two decades, South Korea has not only emerged as a global economic dynamo, but also a leading arms exporter. Today, the East Asian country is the world’s eighth largest arms exporter, with total volume of exports expected to breach $10 billion this year. Major Korean companies such as Korea Aerospace Industries Ltd. (KAI) have benefited from comprehensive state support, robust educational system and talent pool in South Korea, as well as sustained investment in research and development.
From Southeast Asia and the Middle East all the way to Eastern Europe, South Korea has tapped into rising demand for high-quality yet cost-efficient military equipment. Leveraging his country’s expanding global footprint, from strategic industries to consumer goods and defense items, Yoon is seeking a bigger voice for South Korea in global fora. The new South Korean leader is expected to push for the institutionalized expansion of elite grouping such as the Group of Seven (G7) in order to include newly risen powers from the Indo-Pacific region.
Crucially, Yoon has also openly expressed his interest in joining high-profile defense groupings, most notably the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as Quad, which is currently composed of India, Australia, Japan and the United States. South Korea’s interest in joining an expanded version of the Quad, if not the creation of a “Quint” is particularly poignant in light of simmering tensions between the U.S. and India over the conflict in Ukraine. In recent months, the Biden administration repeatedly criticized, and even threatened sanctions against, India’s decision to expand hydrocarbon imports from and press ahead with major defense equipment acquisitions from Russia.
As a U.S. treaty ally, South Korea is also a natural fit for the proposed “Pacific NATO” alliance by the U.S. Congress. Last year, Congressman Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) and former Congressman Charles Djou (R-HI) penned an op-ed, which called on the Biden administration to build “a new NATO”, which included likeminded democracies and market economies of “Australia, Japan and South Korea” in order to uphold the U.S.-led order in the region against a rising China. More recently, the U.S. Senator Ben Sasse also called for the creation of a “NATO for the Pacific” in order to contain the rise of rival powers in the region, most notably China.
In many ways, South Korea is a major node in a broader U.S.-led ‘integrated deterrence’ strategy in the Indo-Pacific. So far, however, the Biden administration has been skeptical about Yoon’s overtures, with the White House insisting that “the Quad will remain the Quad.” As Washington-based expert, Harry Kazianis, explains, the biggest concern for the Biden administration is that “adding [South] Korea [to the Quad] could further antagonize China when U.S.-Sino relations are in terrible shape,” and that the move “won't make relations better, [but] it won't make them worse" between the two superpowers.
Moreover, many experts see Korea’s formal inclusion as strategically unnecessary, since the Northeast Asian country is already enmeshed in a whole series of Quad-related initiatives, which focus on pandemic management, non-traditional security, and supply-chain resilience. A full-fledged expansion of the Quad will likely only reinforce the brewing Cold War in the Indo-Pacific. Not to mention, South Korea has yet to address rising tensions in its own backyard, especially as Pyongyang steps up its own aggressive missile diplomacy in recent years. In short, granting Yoon’s wishes would likely bring more strategic costs than benefits, thus the Biden administration’s reluctance to expand the Quad for the foreseeable future.