South Korea's new leader Yoon Suk Yeol. (Twitter)
President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol (YSY), who will be sworn in as South Korea’s new leader for a five-year term on May 10, is a first-time politician and a former prosecutor-general. He catapulted into politics after helping convict former President Park Geun-hye in her impeachment trial. Yoon Suk Yeol is considered rather unfamiliar with global affairs and is likely to rely on his trusted advisers to frame policy.
Prof. Kim Sung-han, the head of the diplomacy and security division of the incoming President’s transition team, and was vice foreign minister in the 2008-13 Lee Myung-bak administration, is regarded by the South Korean media as the brain behind President-elect Yoon’s foreign policy architecture which focuses on reinforcing Seoul’s security alliance with Washington by restoring trust between the two countries.
In an article in Foreign Affairs prior to his March 9 election this year, YSY indirectly criticised the current policy of outgoing President Moon Jae-in and said that Seoul’s reluctance to take a firm stand on a number of issues that have riled the relationship between Washington and Beijing has created an impression that South Korea has been tilting towards China and away from its long-time ally, the United States.
In the campaign, YSY had strongly criticised the Moon government for creating a "master-servant" relationship between the two Koreas by doggedly pursuing the dialogue with North Korea as an end in itself rather than as a process for negotiations towards denuclearisation.
YSY said in an interview to the Washington Post on April 14 that South Korea must step up its foreign policy commensurate with its economic and cultural status and become a stronger ally of the United States. Yoon aspires to make South Korea a critical player in addressing global challenges — including supply chain management, climate change and vaccine production. In Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Mr Yoon would find a ready partner to work together in pursuing their shared objectives.
On the four-nation Quad (comprising the US, India, Japan and Australia), the President elect has said that before deciding on seeking to join the Quad, South Korea will support and cooperate with its working groups in tackling global issues such as "vaccines, climate change and emerging technologies to create a synergy with the Quad countries."
Mr Yoon called North Korea as South Korea’s "main enemy", a stance different from that of outgoing President Moon Jae-in, but said that he would continue a two-track response to pursue dialogue and offer humanitarian aid.
Importantly, Mr Yoon has said that poor Seoul-Tokyo relations have backfired on South Korean companies and have hampered Seoul’s ability to coordinate with Tokyo and Washington. He said South Korea should work to rebuild confidence by having frequent conversations with Japanese officials. He asserted that during his presidency "South Korea-Japan relations will go well".
This would be a course which friendly democracies like the United States and India would encourage. In the shifting strategic balance of the Indo-Pacific, it is of vital importance that all democracies work together and harmonise their policies to ensure peace and stability in the region. Any progress towards normalisation of sentiments between South Korea and Japan would positively influence the strategic balance in Northeast Asia.
In parallel, North Korea has been signalling its own frustration over the impasse regarding easing of the crippling sanctions faced by it. In April, Chairman Kim Jong-un vowed to speed up the further development of its nuclear arsenal "at the fastest possible pace" and threatened to use them against its enemies. On May 4, North Korea launched a ballistic missile towards the East Sea. This was North Korea’s 14th missile firing this year, just six days before the new conservative President takes over in Seoul. Subsequently on May 5, a North Korean propaganda website described the incoming South Korean President as "pro-United States" and "confrontational".
After being elected, US President Joe Biden was the first foreign leader that YSY called. Subsequently, YSY also spoke to Prime Ministers Fumio Kishida of Japan, Boris Johnson of Britain, Scott Morrison of Australia and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 17. China’s Xi Jinping sent a letter of congratulations on March 11 and the two spoke on the phone on March 25.
On March 10 itself, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his warm congratulations to YSY, adding that he looked forward to working with him to further expand and strengthen the India-ROK "Special Strategic Partnership". On May 6, India’s ambassador in Seoul, Sripriya Ranganathan, called on Mr Yoon when YSY affirmed that India-ROK ties would be scaled up significantly by his administration.
New Delhi’s ties with Seoul have gradually flowered after the advent of democracy in South Korea in the 1990s. There is a strong sense of goodwill and friendship towards each other among the leadership as well as people in the two countries. There is strong bipartisan political commitment in both countries to deepen the strategic partnership and scale up trade and investment relationship.
South Korea’s Presidents, of both the liberal and conservative persuasion, have invested in promoting friendly ties with India. In India too, the "Strategic Partnership" established by the UPA government in 2010 has been strengthened as the "Special Strategic Partnership" by the NDA government.
However, till now, the strategic partnership has been mainly based on economic cooperation as the outgoing South Korean President was wary of rubbing China the wrong way. The incoming Yoon administration may make a more objective and realistic assessment of China as a disruptive and expansionist nation responsible for upsetting the peace of the entire Indo-Pacific region.