South Korean Navy special forces in a military drill re-named 'East Sea territory defence training' at the easternmost islets of Dokdo. Photo: AFP / Handout

SEOUL – During his keynote speech at this week’s Asia Leadership Conference in Seoul, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol presented his nation as a confident and constructive “global force” whose time has arrived.

After decades of rapid economic growth and technological innovation, Yoon reiterated South Korea’s commitment to contribute to international peace and stability like never before.

Among other speakers at the major conference, dubbed as “Asia’s Davos”, were Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

The South Korean president’s buoyant and self-assured speech echoed his inauguration address earlier this year, where he maintained, “[i]t is incumbent upon us to take on a greater role befitting our stature as a global leader,” and that “[w]e must actively protect and promote universal values and international norms that are based on freedom and respect for human rights.”

Just weeks earlier, Yoon made the unprecedented decision to attend a NATO summit in Madrid where South Korea and Japan were invited as partner nations. During the June 29-30 summit, the South Korean leader emphasized his commitment to foster “a cooperative relationship between NATO and the Indo-Pacific” as “a cornerstone of a coalition defending universal values.” 

He also held meetings with several European countries that are keen on purchasing advanced defense equipment from South Korea, which has become a major global arms exporter.

Earlier this year, South Korea also joined the US-backed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which aims to counter China’s growing economic influence in the region. Yoon has also vowed to repair frayed ties with neighboring Japan in order to strengthen US-Japan-Korea trilateral relations.

Crucially, the new South Korean president has also made it clear that his country is now ready to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), whether as a partner nation or to form a new “Quint” alliance along with Australia, India, Japan and the US altogether.

So far, however, the Biden administration has proven lukewarm to the idea, despite growing calls at home, especially in the US Congress, for a “Pacific NATO” poised against the resurgent authoritarian powers of China and Russia.

A new Korea

Despite being a US treaty ally, South Korea has traditionally pursued a “multi-vector” foreign policy doctrine, which ensured the Northeast Asian country maintained relatively cordial and economically fruitful ties with all major powers, especially China and the US, but also with Russia and Japan.

Under former president Moon Jae-in, this long-established tradition gained greater salience in light of his tireless efforts to end the Korean Peninsula conflict, which requited the buy-in of rival powers such as China and the US.

But given the difficulty of the task, the liberal Moon administration, which faced heavy criticism at home for its pro-engagement policy towards North Korea, scaled back his country’s global profile.

His conservative successor, however, has adopted a far more assertive foreign policy, which befits South Korea’s emergence as a leading industrial economy and arms producer.

President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol gives a speech at the construction site of a nuclear power plant. Image: Twitter

In an oft-cited piece for the Foreign Affairs magazine in February, Yoon argued “for clarity and boldness, and for a commitment to principles. South Korea should no longer be confined to the Korean Peninsula.”

Describing his country as a “global pivotal state,” he underscored South Korea’s unique set of capabilities as well as moral obligation to advocate for “freedom, peace and prosperity through liberal democratic values and substantial cooperation.”

To this end, the Yoon administration has recalibrated his country’s foreign policy by adopting a tougher stance on both China and North Korea, while welcoming closer defense cooperation with the US, including through the hosting of American-made advanced missile defense systems, submarines and nuclear-capable bombers.

He has also stepped up his country’s defense policy by pursuing large-scale arms deals with partners from Eastern Europe to the Middle East to Southeast Asia.

Two decades earlier, South Korea wasn’t even among the top 30 nations in terms of global arms exports, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Last year, the country ranked eighth in the world, as major arms exports increased by 177% over the 2017-2021 period.

This year, defense exports are expected to transcend $10 billion – a figure that is almost three times larger than the country’s total arms exports in the preceding decade.

Among South Korea’s customers are India, Australia and Egypt, which have purchased K9 self-propelled howitzers, as well as the Persian Gulf nations of United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which have purchased Korean-made air defense systems.

South Korea is also keen on exporting its next-generation KF-21 fighter to Arab, Southeast Asian, African and Latin American countries. During the latest NATO summit, Yoon held meetings with Central European counterparts who are seeking to replenish their arms inventories amid the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

US Skepticism

Cognizant of South Korea’s growing international profile, Yoon has signaled his country’s commitment to institutionalized participation in not only the expanded G7 grouping of industrialized democracies, better known as G11, but also the Quad strategic grouping.

Earlier this year, the South Korean president announced that he will “positively review” any invitation to join the much-vaunted grouping.

The announcement came at a particularly crucial time for two reasons. On one hand, there are growing calls in the US for the formation of a “Pacific NATO” to counter Chinese influence in the region. South Korea, for instance, is already a major node in the US-led integrated deterrence strategy in the Indo-Pacific.

The Northeast Asian country has also been a regular participant in Quad-related working groups which aim to enhance multi-dimensional security cooperation, including on supply-chain resilience and climate change among like-minded regional powers.

Australian, US, Indian and Japanese leaders all convened in person for the Quad’s second summit held in Tokyo. Photo: Screengrab / BBC

Moreover, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also exposed fault lines within the Quad grouping, which often bills itself as an alliance of democratic nations. India’s insistence on maintaining robust defense and energy ties with Moscow has drawn the ire of the Biden administration, which has even questioned New Delhi’s human rights record and threatened sanctions against any major purchase of Russian military equipment.

Still, the Biden administration has remained lukewarm to Yoon’s overtures to join the Quad or form a new Quint. To begin with, there are doubts as to whether South Korea can significantly project power overseas amid the escalating tensions with Pyongyang following the virtual collapse of Moon’s “Sunshine Diplomacy.”

The US is also wary of turning the Quad into a more ostensibly anti-China alliance. After all, India is technically a “neutral” nation and has constantly emphasized that the Quad is not an “Asian NATO”, but instead a flexible cooperative arrangement among like-minded powers.

The inclusion of an additional US treaty ally such as South Korea, aside from Australia and Japan, would inevitably make the Quad look more like an “Indo-Pacific NATO”, thus exacerbating structural tensions with Beijing as well as belie India’s non-alignment strategic posture.

Instead, the Biden administration is more interested in expanding bilateral cooperation with South Korea as well as trilateral cooperation among its Northeast Asian allies, with a special focus on supply-chain resilience, joint technological innovation, and sustained upgrade of defense cooperation across a range of military dimensions with both Seoul and Tokyo.

At least for now, the US is primarily interested in less provocative yet consequential cooperative regimes, which will leverage South Korea’s emergence as a major industrial, technological and military power in the Indo-Pacific.

“There are many ways that we engage with South Korea. It’s an incredibly important partnership, relationship. But the Quad will remain the Quad,” then-White House press secretary Psaki said in a press briefing earlier this year, immediately shutting down any speculation about an expansion of the Quad grouping.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @richeydarian