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RubricheBlue House 22Is there room for the Republic of Korea in...

Is there room for the Republic of Korea in a free and open Indo-Pacific?


The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, published during the first week of March 2021, outlines the main goals of the Atlantic power regarding international security; the Indo-Pacific is vital to develop the American Grand Strategy. After four years of Trump’s Administration, the ties with US’ historical allies in the region have been loosened by the will of the Commander-in-Chief. In the aforementioned document, the Harris-Biden administration has made clear its intention of strengthening these ties once more, particularly those with Australia, Japan and South Korea. This article is the forerunner of a series of texts on President Moon mandate’s last year.

Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and the Land of the Morning Calm

The United States took part in the Quad with Australia and Japan, an informal organisation founded to contain the Dragon militarily. India is also a member, and in 2020 it signed a sort of Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement with the Land of the Rising Sun. Furthermore, in 2021 Australia joined the Malabar Naval Exercise for the first time with all the countries involved in the Quad.

In the same March 2021, the USA and the Republic of Korea (Rok) signed the Special Measures Agreement taking the place of the previous treaty and upgrading Seoul’s financial support to the American presence in the peninsula. Under its terms, the Rok will commit a billion dollars per year, 90% of which is estimated to circulate into the Korean economy, for the following six years.

During the negotiations, the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has underlined to his Korean counterpart how Rok’s participation in the Free and Open-Indo Pacific (Foip) strategy is fundamental to its cause. However, the relationship between South Korea and Japan, the Foip’s initiator, does not seem to be currently flourishing. The recent demotion of Japan from “partner” to “close neighbor” in the Korean White Book of the Defence seems to match rhetoric to facts, even if the same document bids for increased cooperation between the two countries, contradicting itself.

During his mandate, President Moon Jae-in has endeavoured to maintain a peaceful relationship with Beijing, supporting his approach to Pyongyang. At the beginning of his administration, this policy towards the North has been fruitful: In the 2018 inter-Korean summit, the first visit to the South of a North Korean leader has taken place. Nevertheless, the explosion of Kaesong’s liaison centre of June 2020 foretells a cooling down of the inter-Korean relationship.

If the alliance between the USA and the Rok is nothing but a fact rooting in the 1950/53 Korean War, an eventual new alliance in the Pacific, with the explicit purpose of containing the Celestial Empire militarily, might hinder the delicate peninsula situation. Indeed, Beijing has not hidden its recriminations against the organisation many calls, speculating on its evolution, the “Asian Nato”, namely the Quad.

The hardships above the 38° parallel

On March the 22nd, 2021, the United Nations General Assembly (Unga) held a vote about humanitarian matters in the Northern part of the Korean peninsula. It did it even after Tomas Ojea Quintana, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (Dprk), explicitly demanded that Seoul do so. For the third year, the South Korean delegates abstained from voting, proving that South Korea did not intend to take a solid position against the North.

He has also insisted that the Korean government apply a 2016 law against human rights violations. Said law has been approved as a part of Moon Jae-in predecessor President Park Geun-hye iron fist’s attitude towards the Dprk. In charge from 2017 to today, the current administration has taken a neat stance against the previous one and has worked on the repeal of the mentioned law ever since.

The sure thing is that the recent Rok’s political history does not abide in favour of Korean participation in the Quad or even at the most likely triangular axis Washington-Tokyo-Seoul. Moreover, the 2020 ending has witnessed a joint declaration by Germany, Belgium, Dominican Republic, Estonia, France, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States denouncing Pyongyang’s repeated human rights violations inside its territory, imposing the Dprk to adhere to Unga’s resolutions.

Towards Moon administration’s end

Hard to tell what role South Korea would play during Biden’s presidency; the current Korean government has repeatedly proved reluctant to make more substantial commitments with the other Pacific States in stark contrast to the Dragon. Nevertheless, its last year is approaching: South Korean law states that each and every President of the Republic can be elected only once in their life. Moon Jae-in is a member of the liberal party, while polls predict a conservative candidate as favoured next President.

South Korean conservatives traditionally have less inclination to maintain accommodating and indulgent stances towards the North: It does not appear utterly unlike a tighter Washington-Tokyo-Seoul axis whether the conservatives were to win March’s election. Conversely, from a mere economic and industrial point of view, conservatives’ proximity to chaebols might make it even more challenging to cut the commercial ties with China.

Seoul’s position on the Asian theatre is therefore highly uncertain: on the one hand, we have the ties with Pyongyang, aligned with Beijing, which to date can hardly allow it to get too close to its allies in the Pacific; on the other hand, there exists the possibility that in 2022 the Rok will change its paradigm and move closer to the Foip strategy. The trade war in the high-tech sector that President Biden intends to wage against Beijing does not match the intentions of South Korean companies, and the Rok could prove to be a random variable in Washington and Tokyo’s plans for a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Alessandro Vesprini,


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