In January 2022, North Korea launched six Hwasong-12 missiles, raising concerns from the United States, Japan and South Korea. Although there have been several trilateral summits over the years, last week’s meetings are intertwined with the imminent leadership change at the Blue House. Could the declining approval rate of the South Korean ruling party, perhaps linked to a soft approach à-vis the North, prompt Seoul leadership to reverse course in order to secure the consensus necessary to renew the democratic mandate in the upcoming March elections?
This article is part of Blue House 22, the Geopolitica.info column edited by Alessandro Vesprini and dedicated to the South Korean elections in March 2022.
From the Black Sea to the Indo-Pacific
While all eyes are on Kyiv, security in the Indo-Pacific remains a significant issue. Last weekend, Washington was engaged in a series of meetings focused precisely on this theme. In addition to the Quad Ministerial Summit, the United States, Japan, and South Korea took part in a series of trilateral meetings to discuss the North Korean question and the numerous security issues in the region. Last Thursday, it was the turn of the three defence representatives who, in a call, underlined the importance of trilateral collaboration to address the risks that Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile program poses to the stability and security of the Korean peninsula and the entire region.
During the call, Secretary of Defense Austin also promptly reaffirmed the American commitment to support the two allies. These issues were resumed during the Honolulu ministerial meeting between US Secretary of State Blinken and Foreign Ministers Hayashi and Chung. According to what emerges from the joint declaration, the three partners seem to share an aligned diplomatic approach towards Pyongyang. They intend to strengthen the trilateral cooperation mechanisms since this collaboration is recognized as an indispensable tool to address the North Korean question adequately.
This series of trilateral meetings is crucial given the growing challenges within and outside the Indo-Pacific. The fact that such discussions took place concurrently with the crisis in Ukraine is indicative of the centrality Washington continues to give to this region in its strategic posture. In particular, the meeting seems to send a clear signal to those challenging the US and allies in this area: Pyongyang and Beijing. Simply put, Washington’s attention continues to remain focused on the Indo-Pacific. Therefore, in light of North Korea’s recent missile tests, the meeting between Washington and the two allies is intended as a warning. While remaining open to dialogue with the North, the three partners are firmly ready to deepen cooperation to deter any provocation from Pyongyang. However, the joint declaration seems more a symbolic reaffirmation than a practical one, as it does not outline any details of a diplomatic engagement with the Kim regime.
Furthermore, although all three partners are aware of the importance of coordinating their bilateral relations, trilateral relations continue to be hampered by the precarious relations between Tokyo and Seoul. On the one hand, the bilateral meeting between Chung and Hayashi affirmed the renewed commitment to advance trilateral cooperation. On the other hand, it is hard to predict how current frictions between the two Asian actors will affect trilateral relations. In the past, the weight of Japanese colonialism has often compromised the potential for security coordination between the two main US allies in the region.
In 2019, Seoul threatened to abandon the GSOMIA intelligence-sharing agreement, an agreement of fundamental importance to ensure continuity in the security operations of the United States and allies in the region. This scenario has not occurred as both Seoul and Tokyo are careful not to pursue excessively drastic actions that could jeopardize their respective relations with Washington. However, these frictions continue to have negative repercussions on the overall coordination capacity of the three partners, in particular the credibility that such coordination can proceed without hiccups.
The possibility that the clashes between Tokyo and Seoul have new repercussions on trilateral collaboration cannot be overlooked. The two countries, for example, are currently involved in a controversy surrounding Tokyo’s attempt to name the Sado gold mine a UNESCO World Heritage Site. South Korea has, however, objected to this since, during the Second World War, numerous Koreans were subjected to forced labour in this mine. This dispute does not seem to have damaged trilateral relations, but given the circumstances, the doubt indeed remains.
A new tenant at the Blue House
If, on the one hand, the trilateral summit of defence ministers is expressive of the desire to increase Japanese-Korean cooperation, on the other hand, there is still uncertainty about what role the Country of the Morning Calm can play within the Indo-Pacific. The statements of the candidate and former Attorney General Yoon Yeok-sul about the increase in THAAD facilities on South Korean soil go well with the promise of a more significant anti-Chinese effort. However, the sanctions that the Dragon imposed on Korea in 2017, on the occasion of a similar increase, certainly do not suit Korean companies. Therefore, they are to be taken with due precautions.
Prosecutor Yoon has gained fame precisely because of his legal and judicial commitment against the excessive power of corporations. This commitment earned him the sympathies of the Democrats so much that Moon appointed him to a critical institutional position. However, the historical proximity of the conservatives, a political formation to which the former prosecutor Yoon belongs, to the family-owned multinational conglomerates, the chaebol, could turn into the loss of internal consensus in the party when the repercussions of Beijing were to recur.
Therefore, the election of the opposition candidate, if, on the one hand, will focus a lot on the personality and charisma of the former prosecutor, on the other, they could represent the sword of Damocles that will hang over the heads of the next government. In addition, the Democratic candidate, former governor of Gyeonggi province, Lee Jae-myung, has expressed a willingness to take a tougher stance towards Beijing, opposing the activities of Chinese fishing boats. The statements of the Democratic candidate could only represent the need to exploit the wave of anti-Chinese sentiment that is taking over inside the Korean state. However, the election of a conservative mayor in Seoul may have prompted the party to carry out an electoral campaign in the diametrically opposite direction to the current administration‘s.
As for relations with Japan, surely both sides will move on delicate ground. However, prosecutor Yoon has repeatedly expressed willingness both to branch out the historical controversies against Tokyo and re-establish those relationships that deteriorated during the Moon administration. Indeed, conservative President Park Geun-hye signed irrevocable termination agreements on the issue of ” comfort women ” in 2015, an agreement that her successor did not hesitate to revoke after his election. Conversely, Governor Lee has not yet held a clear position towards Japan, despite being more inclined to a status quo without continuity of solution than the current one, eventually correcting the route according to contingencies.
A three-legged table
Although last week’s trilateral meetings seem to show the interest and the commitment of the three partners to strengthen their alignment, there remain numerous question marks regarding the precarious relations between Tokyo and Seoul and the overall posture of South Korea in the Indo-Pacific.
In short, the trilateral cooperation of Korea, Japan and the United States rests on shaky foundations: economic interests, historical revenge and party uncertainties are the main elements to consider in evaluating the stability of the joint response against Pyongyang. On the one hand, Moscow and Beijing stances make it increasingly difficult to exercise some countries’ ambivalence towards Sino-American competition. On the other hand, these nations try to take paths that put them not having to choose, for instance, in the commercial field.
Anyone residing in the Blue House after March will find themselves exactly dealing with these foreign policy issues, which will have substantial implications for the resilience of the future government. That the Land of the Morning Calm will have another four years ahead of choosing not to choose?
Alice Dell’Era and Alessandro Vesprini,
Centre for Geopolitical Studies “Geopolitica.info”