The relationship between South Korea and Japan is of significant importance and closely observed due to their geographical proximity and historical connections. Moreover, in recent times, the need for both countries to establish a strategic relationship has become an urgent task to address threats endangering the stability of the Indo-Pacific region, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, North Korea’s nuclear development, and the Taiwan Strait confrontation.
However, there are various constraints and limitations that hinder the full realization of the potential of both countries and their ability to effectively manage their relationship in the Indo-Pacific region. It is indeed a commonly recognized issue that strategic cooperation between South Korea and Japan is challenging due to the historical tensions between the two countries.
While South Korea maintains some strategic cooperation with Japan against the common threat of North Korea, pursuing cooperation beyond the Korean Peninsula is extremely difficult due to the domestic situation in South Korea. In fact, changes in South Korea’s leadership had previously led to diplomatic confusion between the two countries. Japan is concerned that agreements with South Korea may be overturned, making it difficult to establish sustainable cooperation.
Thus, historical tensions between South Korea and Japan have made strategic cooperation challenging. Differences in interpretations of past events, the lack of immediate dialogue on colonial rule, and changes in leadership contribute to the difficulties in building a sustainable cooperative framework.
South Korea’s Regional Vision
South Korea’s participation in the Indo-Pacific strategy is welcomed by Japan, as it aligns with Japan’s own foreign policy stance. However, there are concerns regarding the consistent track record of strategic initiatives from South Korea, which poses a potential risk.
During the Kim Dae-jung administration, South Korea aimed to build multilateralism in Asia to allow Asian countries to have a greater strategic space apart from the United States. Specifically, South Korea actively cooperated with Japan, while taking into consideration China, promoting the East Asia Vision Group within the framework of ASEAN+3. However, after the second North Korean nuclear crisis in 2006, South Korea’s interest in East Asia gradually diminished, and the focus became restricted to the Korean Peninsula. Ultimately, the strategic efforts of progressive presidents in South Korea did not last long, and in the 2000s, they were unable to fulfill their role as a balancer.
In the 2010s, the conservative Park Geun-hye administration also emphasized Northeast Asia cooperation but as China asserted its “new type of great power relations“ and the United States pursued a rebalance to Asia, South Korea’s own strategic space narrowed, and it could not achieve concrete results. Most recently, former President Moon Jae-in introduced the New Southern Policy (NSP) to engage with ASEAN and promote economic connectivity in Southeast Asia, aligning with the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) concept. However, South Korea hesitated to establish strategic links with Japan’s FOIP, which the Moon administration viewed as defense and security measures against China.
The announcement of South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy under the current administration of Yoon Suk-yeol marked a departure from the past, addressing concerns about the lack of a comprehensive South Korean strategy in the region. President Yoon himself appears to be leading a resilient administration that is not swayed by public sentiment or public opinion, displaying strong determination and proactive actions. This presents an opportunity to strengthen the cooperation between the Yoon administration, Japan, and the United States in the Indo-Pacific region.
However, considering that Yoon is limited to a single five-year term according to the South Korean Constitution, with no possibility of re-election, the same old concerns about consistency remain.
South Korea’s China Policy
When discussing the factors that influence the bilateral relationship, it is essential to mention South Korea’s stance toward China, which differs from that of Japan. In its Indo-Pacific strategy, South Korea considers China as a “key partner for achieving prosperity and peace in the region,” emphasizing inclusiveness and stating that the strategy does not target or exclude any specific nation. South Korea supports an Indo-Pacific where countries with diverse political systems can advance peacefully through rule-based competition and cooperation. This approach aims to apply a rules-based international order and establish a relationship of mutual respect with China.
Unlike Japan and the United States, South Korea has rarely expressed overt concerns about the increasing influence of Beijing and, instead, seeks to incorporate China into a cooperative framework. This background is closely related to South Korea’s awareness of its economic and diplomatic vulnerability to China. A significant example is South Korea’s response to China’s social and economic coercion in response to the U.S. THAAD missile battery deployment in 2016. China imposed unofficial economic sanctions, causing turmoil in the South Korean economy. In response, South Korea adopted a “three noes” policy to alleviate pressure from China and did not hide its stance of clearly considering China’s interests.
This perspective has not significantly changed under the current Yoon administration. For instance, Yoon avoided direct talks with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during her visit, leading to criticism that he was attempting to pacify China as Pelosi was fresh off her controversial visit to Taiwan. Yoon’s foreign policy is still in a semi-mature state, and it remains unclear how Seoul will balance economic vulnerabilities to China while sharing strategic security interests with like-minded countries.
Becoming a “Global Pivotal State”
South Korea, particularly in the previous administration, had aimed to play the role of a balancer in the region, avoiding involvement in the minilateral frameworks advocated by the United States and Japan. Instead Seoul focused on seeking synergistic effects in bilateral regional strategies while utilizing its limited strategic space, resulting in a limited regional presence.
In contrast, the foreign policy of the Yoon administration can be appreciated for its goal of positioning South Korea as a global pivotal state, which strives to accomplish two main objectives. First, it aims to promote global cooperation rooted in the values of liberal democracy and work toward achieving peace on the Korean Peninsula. Second, it seeks to implement a value-driven diplomacy that prioritizes the rule of law and human rights issues, in collaboration with liberal democratic nations. This approach suggests that South Korea intends to enhance its influence by expanding its network.
However, considering the past pattern of emerging and disappearing global strategies, it would be more realistic for South Korea to aim to become a global pivotal state after working in collaboration with other countries striving to shape the order in the Indo-Pacific region and gradually establishing recognition as a “global player.” In this sense, it is necessary to establish a cooperative framework with Japan, which shares similar aspirations in the Indo-Pacific region, within a multilateral framework.
First, South Korea should utilize the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) as a means of strategic cooperation with Japan to overcome the historical tensions that have destabilized bilateral cooperation. Addressing shared economic and security interests with Japan via IPEF would greatly contribute to strengthening the vulnerable security situation in the region.
It is true that there is criticism that the United States has not provided sufficient concrete benefits to IPEF member countries, and if it continues to be unable to offer tangible rewards to member countries, the realization of a new regional order will become extremely challenging. However, IPEF has the potential to function as a platform that goes beyond historical recognition and differences in foreign policies between countries like South Korea and Japan, promoting common strategic interests and shaping the regional order in the Indo-Pacific.
At the same time, on the economic front, it is indeed a fact that the South Korean economy relies on countries like China. Therefore, the Yoon administration needs to concretize its own strategy involving South Korea, China, and Japan, based on common understanding with various frameworks beyond the Japan-South Korea relationship, such as ASEAN+3, while leveraging South Korea’s strengths in science and technology. As the 10th largest economy in the world, South Korea can effectively engage in the international order of the Indo-Pacific region and gain diplomatic support from regional countries, including China and ASEAN, by utilizing the ASEAN+3 framework.
In Yoon’s opening speech at the Asian Development Bank Annual Meeting held in Incheon, South Korea, in May 2023, the president stated that the South Korean government is going to actively contribute to the economic development cooperation in the Indo-Pacific based on the three principles of inclusiveness, trust, and reciprocity. Furthermore, Yoon mentioned South Korea’s world-class production technology and manufacturing capacity in new industries such as semiconductors, secondary batteries, and bio-medicine, demonstrating a proactive attitude toward development cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. This view of the South Korean government aligns with Seoul’s Indo-Pacific strategy, aiming to contribute to regional stability and prosperity through multilateral regional trade and investment routes using the ASEAN+3 framework.
Such a globally oriented approach contributes to the effective management of development cooperation and financial cooperation within ASEAN+3 and enhances mutual respect. ASEAN+3 has functioned as an organic framework for supporting and coordinating regional cooperation in the development and financial sectors between South Korea and Japan, even during periods of strained relations. Discussions on regional cooperation under ASEAN+3 are a common area of interest for the two countries, and it also serves as a platform that contributes to strengthening bilateral cooperation – such as the upcoming Korea-Japan Financial Dialogue scheduled for June 29, after a hiatus of approximately seven years.
South Korea’s pursuit of an Indo-Pacific strategy faces not only the China-U.S. rivalry but also challenging issues such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the longstanding North Korean nuclear missile problem. In that sense, it is reasonable for South Korea to strategically cooperate with countries like Japan that share the same aspirations. Additionally, if South Korea truly aims to become a global pivotal state, it must deeply and actively engage in shaping the order in the Indo-Pacific region with a long-term perspective.
This does not mean that South Korea needs to form its own regional framework, but rather, it can be achieved by pursuing a sustainable middle diplomacy that goes beyond the Korean Peninsula, a challenge that successive South Korean administrations have faced, in order to expand common interests in the Indo-Pacific region. This aligns with Yoon’s three principles of inclusiveness, trust, and reciprocity, and it underscores the steady implementation of an Indo-Pacific strategy.