The newly elected president Yoon Suk-yeol will officially take office on May 10, 2022. In April, he appointed ministers to be approved by the National Assembly. There is a renowned microchip expert and professor at the country’s first university, the Seoul National University, and the developer of a production process still used in the semiconductor industry among the nominees. Meanwhile, Intel hopes to enter the microchip smelter market, where TSMC and Samsung hold the undisputed podium. Therefore, the Sino-American competition has now taken on extremely grey contours in the semiconductor industry.
This article is part of Blue House 22, Geopolitica.info’s column dedicated to the South Korean presidential election and its short-term implications in March.
New tenants and old disputes
The victory of the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol is accompanied by expectations of significant changes on several fronts. At home, the most discussed shifting is currently the move of the presidential seat from the historic Blue House, home of the Head of State for decades, to a venue “closer to the people”. It is not the first time that South Korea has discussed the move of the presidential residence, so the credibility of the current administration in this regard is not assured. The Ministry of Equal Opportunities has been entrusted to former parliamentarian and professor of Economics at Soongsil University Kim Hyun-sook. She has declared her willingness to contribute to its abolition.
The proposed law to deprive the prosecution of its investigative powers at the National Assembly, the Criminal Procedure and the Prosecutors’ Office Act, is debated among conservatives and progressives. There is a chance that the latter will depart on the matter. Initially appointed by former premier Moon Jae-in as attorney general, the current president Yoon came into conflict with the then head of state precisely on the controversial law proposal. Currently, the progressives of Moon Jae-in’s party hold a majority in parliament, which would limit the room for manoeuvres of the conservative president’s proposals. However, parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2024. Suppose the Democratic Party of Korea will break on a relevant issue in the presidential election campaign. In that case, the prospects that the current composition of the Assembly may remain so are fading.
Concerning the foreign policy, the appointed South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs has pledged the incoming government to strengthen the impenetrable alliance between his country and the United States in the meeting with the US Special Representative for North Korea. He also remarked that the Pyeongyang missile tests pose a severe threat to the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia. Furthermore, relations between the two nations are characterized by the rhetoric of “taking their alliance to the next level “. The next level referred to is undoubtedly related to a more substantial commitment by Seoul regarding its participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). President Yoon has already declared that he wants to participate in the informal forum as an observer.
If, on the one hand, Korea’s participation in the Quad is symbolic of a clear-cut position of the new administration concerning its relations with China, on the other, various pitfalls are covered underneath. Japan is part of the Dialogue. The two Asian countries have complex relations due to the Japanese colonial past during the second world war. The United States will necessarily have to deal with this element, which could add to a series of internal frictions in the alliance with the Land of the Rising Sun. Despite this, during the last week of April, a delegation from the current government will travel to Tokyo to re-establish bilateral relations.
The second pitfall is related to the economic relations between China and South Korea, which could get closer and closer to the definition with which Evan Fegeinbaum describes the behaviour of Eastern countries.
Ambiguity or schizophrenia?
Ally of the United States, albeit with more calm tones than its successor, but condescending to China and North Korea. The years of the Moon administration are described as years in which the Country of Calm Morning held an “ambiguous” international posture. In 2017, then-president Moon Jae-in complied with Beijing’s demands, accompanied by strong economic sanctions, not to further expand the THAAD missile system envisioned by his conservative predecessor Park Geun-hye.
Although characterized by a sort of neutrality, as Professor Fiori defines it in an interview for Geopolitica.info, it is possible to find a ratio within the Korean diplomatic posture of the period. It had defined objectives and intermediate steps necessary to achieve them, despite costing the re-election to the Korean Democratic Party. The conservative Yoon’s posture, on the other hand, could mean great uncertainty in regional relations.
During the election campaign, he said he wanted to increase the THAAD missile system, which could lead to economic retaliation by Beijing. The South Korean conservatives, and the People Power Party is no exception, tend to be closer to the country’s large family-driven industrial conglomerates, the chaebols. The multinational Lotte, for example, was forced to close all its branches in China in 2017 due to Chinese retaliation. Samsung and SK Hynix, two leading companies in the global semiconductor sector, have manufacturing facilities on Chinese soil. The first, in particular, opened the doors of the second NAND factory in Xi’an in April.
In January 2022, President Biden and the CEO of Intel announced significant investments by the American firm to build manufacturing plants on US soil. Since the signing of the executive order in February 2021, the Atlantic power has invested considerable sums in strengthening America’s productive potential within its territory to reduce dependence on imports of microchips. The CHIPS for America Act and the US Innovation and Competition Act represent America’s tools to lead this agenda. The effects of these initiatives could harm both Korea and Taiwan.
The semiconductor sector represents the extreme case of Seoul’s dependence on a China that does not use its economic strength as a coercive means to interfere in its foreign policy. But the example can be applied to other sectors. In essence, South Korea’s participation in the Quad and a less condescending posture towards China do not go well with the need to access its market.
The path to followUltimately, the Yoon administration’s diplomatic posture could show symptoms of Asian schizophrenia, Evan Fegeinbaum’s term. He describes the behaviour of Eastern countries as such. In his opinion, the economy and security in the Pacific do not run parallel lines. The expectations about the conservative president’s short-term initiatives could again tell us the story of the two Asias already narrated by Fegeinbaum. The fundamental question is whether or not these initiatives will find themselves on stable trajectories. The political inexperience of the newly elected prime minister might escalate into international tensions or diplomatic twists and turns between the first two nations of the world.