Following months of bitter contest, South Koreans on Wednesday narrowly elected Yoon Suk-yeol, the candidate from the conservative People Power Party, as the country’s next president. Facing an uncertain economic outlook and increasing political polarization, the stakes of the election were momentous, with some comparing the ferocity of the campaign to the popular Korean horror-survival show “Squid Game.” In particular, Yoon came under fire for his stance against feminism, which resulted in him winning just 34 percent of the vote from women in their 20s.
In terms of foreign policy, Yoon is expected to take a more hawkish approach to China, and to pursue a renewed, strengthened alliance with the United States. Under Yoon’s presidency, for example, the United States is likely to resume bomber flights and carrier strike group deployments to the Korean Peninsula, which have been on pause since 2018. But Yoon’s election also presents opportunities to strengthen the South Korea-U.S. relationship beyond traditional security concerns. One of these is the promotion and protection of critical and emerging technologies.
First, the Yoon administration can build on the work of its predecessor to strengthen South Korea-U.S. promotion of emerging technologies. The May 2021 summit between Presidents Moon Jae-in and Joe Biden established a framework under which the United States and South Korea can coordinate on high-technology issues, but it will be up to Yoon, who takes office in May, to put words into action. In artificial intelligence, for example, the United States and South Korea have both recognized the mutual benefit of exchanging scientific talent but have yet to establish a formal mechanism for doing so. Both countries also agreed to collaborate when screening outbound technology investments, but such screening mechanisms are still under negotiation in the United States and are not expected to crystallize until later this year.
The Yoon administration also has ample room to tackle new technology challenges not covered by the Moon-Biden agreement. For example, South Korea will be an integral partner as the Biden administration promotes its new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for digital trade. The Blue House has embraced metaverse content and “Web3” applications at the same time it has regulated cryptocurrency transactions, and Yoon has pledged to raise the threshold for a crypto capital gains tax, prompting a more permissive investment environment. The United States and South Korea can also coordinate to tackle unanticipated threats and mitigate supply chain risks. In biotechnology, for example, South Korean gene sequencing companies could serve as trusted alternatives to Chinese counterparts like BGI, which have fueled China’s military modernization and contributed to human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Beyond its scientific prowess, South Korea has cultivated significant soft power, and may offer a counterweight to China’s ballooning influence in international standards-setting bodies like the International Telecommunications Union and Third-Generation Partnership Project. The Korea Research Institute of Standards and Science (KRISS) has already proposed technical standards that could augment the development of quantum information science. As treaty allies and like-minded democracies, the United States and South Korea should continue working closely to craft rules of the road for digital and emerging technologies.
Finally, Yoon’s election bodes well for U.S. and South Korean prospects to resist the shared threat of Chinese economic coercion. Since the 2017 “THAAD incident,” the Moon administration had been hesitant to coordinate with the United States on issues beyond traditional security concerns, for fear of prompting economic reprisal from China, its largest trading partner. Yoon, by contrast, has promised to “reset” the China-South Korea relationship, and in late February even committed to purchasing an additional THAAD battery. Writing in Foreign Affairs last month, Yoon decried what he viewed as “timidity” by the Moon administration and “overly accommodating gestures meant to placate China.” He also opened the door to a trilateral security partnership with the United States and Japan.
Still, questions remain about how far Yoon’s administration may swing toward countering threats from China. For example, although the Moon administration had announced that South Korea would join the global coalition of countries coordinating to impose sanctions and restrict technology exports to Russia and Belarus, it is not clear whether Yoon is willing to extend restrictions to Chinese companies likely to violate these policies, as U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo promised earlier this week.
If carried out, Yoon’s campaign promises concerning the United States and China would represent a bold about-face in South Korean foreign policy. The new direction charted by his administration could create significant room for Seoul and Washington to maneuver on other issues, such as supply chain resilience and export controls, but also has the potential to invite new risks. But no matter what challenges may test the South Korea-U.S. alliance during Yoon’s administration, technology will remain one fruitful area for cooperation between Washington and Seoul, and may serve as a launchpad for tighter economic integration in the Indo-Pacific.