South Koreans hold an American flag at a conservative political rally in a file photo. Image: Twitter

SEOUL – As war rages and dangerous red lines are drawn in Ukraine, the seismic decoupling underway between East and West is also coming into focus on the flashpoint Korean peninsula.

A new, middle-of-the-road conservative administration in Seoul is making all the noises that Washington likes to hear in terms of bilateral and regional alliances.

And while many have commented on the new President Yoon Suk-yeol’s shaky popular support, a survey published today (May 31) showed that the Korean public is strongly on his side when it comes to international relations, including his plans to firm up relations with the US, support the emerging Quad and even engage more with national bete noire Japan.

But it is not all plain sailing for Washington in the wake of the first trip to Asia by President Joe Biden. After visiting Seoul and Tokyo, Biden unveiled his Indo-Pacific Economic Framework plan and sought to rally support for the Quad comprised of the US, Japan, Australia and India as a counterweight to China’s rising regional influence.

Last week, Beijing and Moscow extended unusual support to Pyongyang at the UN Security Council, frustrating Washington-led efforts to add more pressure on the isolated state. China and Russia’s diplomatic support for North Korea follows signs of what could have been trilateral aerial-missile drills coinciding with Biden’s visit to the region.

It all suggests that while Washington rallies the West against Russia and tightens its alliances against China, Beijing and Moscow are not sitting still and are reaching out to oft-overlooked Pyongyang – adding a volatile new piece on the fast-moving geopolitical chessboard.

The results of a new 60-page survey conducted by the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies think tank and released to reporters on May 31 looks almost like a post-election gift to President Yoon, who entered office on May 10.

New President Yoon Suk-yeol has very different ideas than his left-leaning predecessor. Photo: Tasnim News Agency

Questions have hovered over both Yoon’s mandate – he won by the narrowest margin in Korea’s democratic history – and his ability to wield power – he faces a hostile parliament, while the civil service, as seen by voting patterns in the administrative city of Sejong, voted against him.

But when it comes to foreign policy, at least, the citizenry appears to have Yoon’s back. Standout items on his campaign platform included upgrading the bilateral alliance with the US and repairing ties with Japan.

A survey of 1,000 Korean adults conducted by Asan found that 88.9% are confident of US reliability in the event of a military conflict. Support for US forces stationed in Korea stands at 82.1% while 62.3% of respondents believe American GIs should remain on the peninsula even after unification (should that happen). 

Moreover, 60.2% of South Koreans support the idea of expanding the bilateral alliance to include fundamental values such as democracy and human rights – topics Yoon raised in his inaugural speech.

With a score of five being neutral, Biden had a favorability rating of 5.89 – significantly higher than that of President Xi Jinping, who scored just 1.99.

Previous President Moon Jae-in kept South Korea at arms-length from any China-facing security alliance. Now, the Asan survey finds that 86.1% support South Korea’s participation in the Quad.

But perhaps the most surprising survey finding was that 83% of respondents favored South Korea-Japan-US trilateral cooperation.

Given the soaring levels of public distrust of the former colonial power seen since 2017, when Moon and then-Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe massively escalated perennial clashes over historical issues, that is a huge turnaround.

Positive sentiment toward the US is “nothing new,” said Asan’s James Kim, who led the research. “What was kind of surprising was the change of mood about China and Japan.”

“Another report coming out this week looks at the positioning of different countries,” in South Korean perceptions, Kim said. “What you find there, is that Japan’s favorability has risen significantly over the last one or two years to become the second most favored country after the US.”

Kim cited the retirement of Abe from the premiership in 2020 as one issue that improved South Korean perceptions of Japan.

As for China, its reputation has been negatively impacted by Covid-19, raging battles on the Internet over Chinese appropriation of icons of Korean culture and the perceived “second-class treatment” Korea has suffered from China’s leadership.

But while South Korea moves closer to its democratic allies, North Korea, too, is feeling some love from its neighbors.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and US President Joe Biden during their joint visit to the Korea Air and Space Operations Center at Osan Air Base – a key site from which North Korean missiles are tracked. Photo: president.go.kr

On May 30, the G7 condemned in a statement North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test – launched just hours after Biden had left Tokyo – and lamented the failure of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to apply additional sanctions upon North Korea last week.

Under UNSC resolutions, North Korea is banned from possessing ballistic missile technologies. Pyongyang routinely flouts those resolutions.

It is generally understood that nuclear-armed UNSC permanent members China and Russia are against the proliferation of atomic arms. Likewise, they do not favor North Korean actions that offer the United States and regional allies excuses to upgrade their own militaries.

These factors explain why the two capitals, despite being at odds with US foreign policy, have largely gotten behind sanctions on Kim Jong Un’s regime in recent years.

But, on May 26, China and Russia broke that long-standing habit by vetoing a new UNSC resolution seeking to impose tougher sanctions on North Korea over its range of missile tests this year.

According to Japan’s Kyodo News, it was the first rejection of a UNSC resolution aimed at preventing North Korea from developing weapons of mass destruction since 2006.

The other 13 countries on the 15-member UNSC voted in favor of the resolution, which had been drafted by the US. The draft targeted exports of crude oil, other fuel sources and tobacco, and would have sanctioned Pyongyang’s ownership or development of cruise missiles and other platforms capable of delivering nuclear arms.

Currently, North Korea is banned from owning ballistic missile technologies

“We deeply regret that the Security Council has failed to adopt the draft resolution aimed at condemning the series of recent ballistic missile launches by [North Korea] and strengthening measures against it despite support from 13 members,” the G7 statement said.

Pyongyang’s actions demand “a united response by the international community, including a united stance and further significant measures by the UN Security Council.”

The G7 is firmly within the Western orbit. The G7 statement was endorsed by the foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US, as well as the High Representative of the European Union (EU).

The Donald Trump administration started an agonizing process of “decoupling” the US-led West from China in multiple economic and corporate sectors. Further fuel has been poured onto that dynamic under Biden while its political dimension has been massively inflamed by Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, given the Beijing-Moscow axis and their statement of “unlimited partnership.”

To nobody’s surprise, North Korea has taken Russia’s side in the Ukraine conflict. But while Beijing and Moscow fly cover for Pyongyang at the UN, there are also signs that the three nations are flying in cooperation – physically.

Asia Times has learned that China and Russia have coordinated fly-bys in South Korea’s air defense zone, or KADIZ, multiple times this year. Those drills are not banned by international law and are not in of themselves especially noteworthy.

But twice this year an identical sequence of events has taken place. First, Chinese aircraft have entered the KADIZ, then Russian aircraft have followed – and then North Korea has conducted an intercontinental ballistic missile test.

Taken in sum, these military and diplomatic events point to a new, higher level of coordination between Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang.

A North Korean ballistic missile is fired from the bed of a train on September 15, 2021. Unamity on the issue of North Korea’s WMD has been torn asunder at the UNSC. Photo: KCNA via AFP

The deepening coordination between China, Russia and North Korea, on the one hand, and Japan, South Korea and the US on the other, has not escaped the eye of the South Korean public, whose sentiments toward the former group have plunged.

“There has been an interesting turn of events around Russia,” Kim said of his research findings. “When it comes to the relative positions of Russia, China and North Korea versus the US and Japan – the gap has widened.”

Asan describes itself as a non-partisan, independent think tank. Because it was founded by Hyundai Heavy Industries scion Chung Mong-joon, who was formerly active in conservative politics, some accuse it of having a right-leaning bias.

Kim rejects that categorization and insists that Asan’s research is unbiased. It operates to the standards set by the American Association for Public Opinion Research, Kim said, and has been vetted by the US Congressional Research Service. Its data is publicly released after two years and it has faced no quibbles with accuracy or bias thus far.

Yet however strongly Asan research hints at the state of current public opinion, Yoon would be well-advised to tread carefully when formulating foreign policies – especially toward Japan, another expert advised.

“It is so difficult to restore or improve relations: the “comfort women” and forced labor issues are urgent problems,” Lim Eun-jung, who teaches international studies at Kongju National University said. “Public opinion can be improved by what the new leadership does but my real concern is, in Korean society, civic groups are very strong and mobilized and have very strong leverage.”

Civic groups, particularly those lobbying for the rights of former comfort women, have been tremendously successful at raising the highly emotive issue not just domestically but internationally.

Their influence and profile is strong enough to undermine policies – such as a 2015 agreement struck between Seoul and Tokyo on the comfort women issue, which a prominent lobby group furiously opposed.

Lim, who was speaking at a webinar last week, added, “We see a gap between real public opinion and some specific groups, but these groups are stakeholders in decision making. How to narrow that gap is a huge challenge to the government.”

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