How President Yoon Suk-yeol is Reshaping South Korea to be a Bulwark of Global Democracy.
Article Written by Jett James Pruitt
On July 15, 2023, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and First Lady Kim Keon-hee made a surprise visit to Ukraine, meeting President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the capital city of Kyiv. While speaking with his counterpart, President Yoon pledged to provide more military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine still fighting against the Russian invasion. This event followed Yoon’s attendance last week at a NATO summit in Lithuania, where he met with other world leaders and expressed fervent support for Zelensky and his efforts.
Speaking to an international audience at a recent press conference, South Korean Deputy National Security Advisor Kim Tae-hyo told reporters, “We are thinking to expand support on mine detectors and demining equipment as Ukraine’s demand for them was assessed to be desperately huge.” After the meeting was over, Yoon said South Korea will provide “a larger scale of military supplies” towards the end of this year. On social media, he clearly stated “South Korea will be the companion of Ukraine’s freedom, peace, and prosperity.”
Currently, South Korea plans to grant Ukraine 150 million USD in humanitarian aid by the end of 2023, an increase from 100 million USD in 2022.
While the meeting between the two presidents may not seem particularly noteworthy to the average American prima facie, it signifies that Yoon is emerging as the foremost advocate of increased military diligence against foreign adversaries, and is serving as a new global champion for democracy.
For context, Yoon — who was inaugurated as president in May 2022 — centered his campaign on toughing South Korea’s stance against its northern counterpart, the DPRK (North Korea). Politically conservative, Yoon secured the nomination of the People Power Power (PPP) in July 2021 after a highly-contested primary race. He then narrowly defeated Democratic Party nominee Lee Jae-myung in the March 2022 general election.
After more than one year as president, Yoon has amplified the country’s defense mechanisms and increased cooperation with the United States to confront North Korean aggression. This approach is in stark contrast to his predecessor Moon Jae-in, who embraced the “Sunshine Policy” (i.e., détente) to reduce North Korea’s military development. Simply put, this foreign policy pivot has had major consequences in the realm of international relations.
On January 31, 2023, U.S. Secretary of Defense Llyod Austin delivered remarks alongside R.O.K. Defense Minister Lee Jung-sup at a news conference. Detailing the two country’s military alliance, Austin noted the United States and South Korea “have made great progress in deepening our cooperation. We strengthened our combined readiness and training. We expanded the scope and scale of our exercises.” He elaborated that the United States and South Korea increased trilateral cooperation with Japan to further deter North Korea.
Three months later, President Yoon met with American President Joe Biden in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the U.S.-R.O.K. partnership. During the summit, Biden and Yoon issued The Washington Declaration, which outlined the United States’ commitment to enhance nuclear military cooperation with South Korea, including by sending nuclear-armed submarines and nuclear-capable bombers to the country.
The Council on Foreign Relations further explains, “The declaration reaffirms South Korea’s intention to stay in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), indirectly pledging not to pursue an independent nuclear weapons capability. In this respect, the Yoon administration is pledging to set aside the prospect that South Korea would develop and deploy an independent nuclear weapons capability in favor of a robust alliance-centered response. Such an approach enhances the likelihood that North Korean efforts to provoke differences between the United States and South Korea due to its continued military advances, which could lead to the dissolution of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, will be unsuccessful.” In other words, South Korea is ‘teaming up’ with the U.S., rather than confronting the DPRK alone.
These joint statements are not just words on paper. On July 17, 2023, an American submarine armed with nuclear weapons docked in the city of Busan for the first time in four decades. Following this development, Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un and a prominent government official, derided the South’s actions and asserted the DPRK was “ready for resolutely countering any acts of violating its sovereignty.” As of this writing, North Korea has launched a total of 15 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) since the start of 2023.
In short, Yoon’s close engagement with the United States has received mixed views from the South Korean public. Some scholars praise the Yoon administration for effectively addressing North Korea’s threat to national security. Cheon Seong-whun, former head of the Korea Institute for National Unification, stated: “History will remember the Yoon government as the first South Korean administration to recognize the North Korean nuclear program as a present and urgent threat and begin preparing responses to the crisis.”
However, other entities such as the conservative publication Chosun Ilbo criticized the Washington Declaration for putting “more emphasis on the American concerns that South Korea could develop its own nuclear weapons than on the North Korean nuclear threats that prompts such aspirations.”
Meanwhile, some South Koreans are concerned that Yoon’s foreign policy is provoking even more aggression from the DPRK, with the left-wing newspaper Hankyoreh commenting “If South Korea is unilaterally sucked into the new U.S.-led Cold War system, it must face up to the reality that relations with China and Russia, both of which have a strong influence on North Korea, will become more dangerous, and the risk of a North Korean nuclear crisis and even war on or around the peninsula will increase.”
As reported by The Japan Times, a poll conducted by the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies found that 77% of respondents believe South Korea must develop its own nuclear arsenal, rather than rely on the U.S. for protection.
At this point, one may wonder what can we learn from these events? So far, Yoon has delivered on his promises to take a harder line against the DPRK, and his supporters view him as a pragmatic, yet tenacious world leader championing ‘peace through strength.’ International pundits agree that his approach to foreign policy is parallel to that of previous conservative world leaders, including U.S. President Ronald Reagan and U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during the 1980’s. Just as they increased defense expenditures and asserted political dominance (such as the U.S. invading Grenada in 1983 and the U.K. combatting Argentina over the Falkland Islands in 1982) to counteract the Soviet Union, Yoon is ‘fighting fire with fire’ in dealing with the bellicose north.
Despite this, Yoon’s approval ratings are consistently low, with only 36% of respondents viewing the president favorably in a June 2023 Yonhap News Agency survey. The poll also showed that the ruling People Power Party would merely receive 31.2% of the popular vote if the country’s parliamentary elections were held this year. Overall, Yoon faces pushback from voters and lawmakers in the National Assembly, who feel he has not done enough to address economic issues such as inflation.
Nevertheless, international pundits agree Yoon has been an effective and decisive leader regarding foreign policy. Victor Cha, a leading expert on inter-Korean relations who served as White House Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council between 2004 and 2007, commented “President Yoon in particular, unlike previous presidents, really has emphasized freedom and democracy as a core theme of his foreign policy.”
Luckily for him, Yoon has four more years to win the support of the South Korean people. Only time will tell whether if ‘Yoonism’ continues to have a lasting impact on South Korea’s relations with the world.
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Born in 2005, Jett James Pruitt is a Native American (Taino Arawak), Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of the book Through The Eyes of a Young American. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of TheGenZPost.com, and is a political strategist specializing in Generation Z voting trends. His next book The Progressive Conservative is due in bookstores in March 2024.