East Asia Compass

South Korea's Foreign Policy: More Rhetoric, Less Content?

03 Nov, 2014    ·   4723

Prof Sandip Kumar Mishra comments on the direction of policy-making under the current administration

South Korea’s foreign relations especially in East Asia are in a state of impasse under the current President Park Geun-hye. During the last President Lee Myung-bak, it was clear that South Korea gave priority to its alliance with the US and resultantly drifted away from its closest economic partner, China. The current President Park Geun-hye from the very beginning wanted to balance this over tilt. She tried to implement a two-leg policy, and made her first ‘official visit’ to the US and first ‘state visit’ to China, emphasising the importance of both in the foreign policy calculus of the country. It was indeed a very perceptive move. Similarly, South Korea under the current administration declared the initiation of ‘trust politik’ towards North Korea, which was a correction to the unconstructive hard-line policy of the previous South Korea administration. It was considered to be the right choice to pacify North Korea and engage it in meaningful dialogue towards denuclearisation, economic reform, and ultimately, bringing about a peace regime on the Korean peninsula.

However, it seems that in both of these foreign policy objectives, South Korea has not been able to move forward as expected. South Korea appears to put more emphasis on rhetoric and showmanship and less on content. South Korea sought Chinese support in its dealings with North Korea, and as a quid-pro-quo, showed its agreement with Chinese objections to Japan’s assertive behaviour. However, this was not considered sufficient by China. China expects more from South Korea based especially on Shinzo Abe’s approach towards Japan’s historical and territorial disputes with the former.

China was expecting South Korea to show restraint in the process of partnering with the US’ strategic games in the region. South Korea has recently announced its part in the US THAAD missile defence system in East Asia and also declared that it would not take over the operational command (OPCON) of the joint forces during the war-time until 2020s, which was supposed to be taken over in 2015. There are reports that this has led China to re-contemplate its relations with North Korea. Reports also say that the Chinese Ambassador to North Korea has become more active in his engagement with North Korea.

The foreign policy objective of the current South Korean government might be different than the previous one, but it appears to be gradually but surely moving on the same path and towards the same destination. For the first time there have been confirmed reports that China was decisively unhappy with North Korea and was ready to work with South Korea to resolve the North Korean issue. If China drifts away from South Korea, it would be a huge loss for Seoul.

South Korea’s North Korean policy has also been more rhetorical and less pragmatic. The ‘trust politik’ seems to have got the sequencing wrong as North Korea is expected to make a gesture first. There are lots of activities to begin inter-Korea talks, and South Korea has recently constituted the Presidential Committee for Unification Preparation. However, one of the two Vice-Presidents of the Committee states that South Korea should ‘wait out’ North Korea. Basically, the current South Korean government’s emphasis on a ‘principled engagement’ with North Korea is not very different from the previous government’s hard-line policy. So, the result of this ‘trust politik’ has also been a deadlock. Basically, it seems that South Korea, rather than reaching out to North Korea and Japan, is making proclamations meant for its domestic audiences.

Regarding South Korea’s estranged bilateral relations with Japan, the blame could largely be attributed to the ‘indiscriminate’ assertiveness Japan under Shinzo Abe. Japanese assertiveness vis-à-vis China does have some reasonable explanations but it does not make any sense to distance South Korea and push it towards China. However, South Korea has also been inflexible and the Park Geun-hye has deliberately avoided any meeting with Shinzo Abe. This gesture might be useful for evoking popular sentiment in South Korea but it cannot be called strategic in terms of foreign policy. It would definitely be more productive to talk and with Japan and try to persuade it to moderate its stand.

From the Indian perspective, it seems that South Korea’s foreign policy is equally dissatisfactory. The previous South Korean administration under Lee Myung-bak had the ‘New Asia Initiative’ policy to reach out to the Asian neighbourhood including India in a more proactive manner. It was an important departure from the past when South Korea was more involved with big regional players such as China, Japan, the US and Russia. President Park Geun-hye tried to carry forward this policy and visited India in the very first year of her office. However, her attempts to reach out to Southeast Asia have been weak or at least inconsistent. For example, she decided to visit India at the wrong time: when the UPA government was about to end its term. More than anything else, Park Geun-hye has been too complacent in reaching out to the new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India and Japan have forged several new ties and strengthened old ones in the past few months but there have not been enough proactive South Korean attempts to reach out to the new Indian government.

The Park Geun-hye administration still has more than three years of office. During this time, South Korea can learn from its non-achievements and become more comprehensive and strategic in its foreign policy making, and also detach itself from domestic political demonstrations.