The Future of South Korea’s Foreign Policy
South Korea has the capacity for a robust international presence, but the nature of Seoul’s involvement abroad will be shaped by how it responds to a multitude of existing or potential inductions into multilateral alliances and ad-hoc groups.
It is critical for the United States to be actively involved in this process, reduce China’s ability to coerce South Korea to abstain from multilateralism, and prevent nuclear and ballistic missile programs by North Korea from forcing the ROK’s hand.
This endeavor is supported by South Korea’s growing economy, critical role in global supply chains, and powerful cultural capital. Other assets include strong democratic credentials and a nonaggressive history.
At least four expanded or new initiatives could play a role in South Korean foreign policy: the Quad, Five Eyes, G7, and a Democracy-10. After the development of AUKUS, a similar grouping for South Korea is also not beyond the realm of possibility.
Composed of Japan, the United States, India, and Australia, the Quad was revived in 2017 as a forum for strategic alignment on freedom of navigation, connectivity, maritime security, and more. For the United States, securing South Korea’s participation would undercut Chinese efforts to target the ROK as the “weakest link” in the U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral.
Recently, the Quad agreed to work together to create safe supply chains for semiconductors, making it even more vital for Seoul to find a spot at the table. Reflecting this change, limited engagement in Quad working groups on vaccines, advanced technology, and climate change was raised as a possibility ahead of the U.S.-ROK summit in May 2021. South Korea also joined ad hoc Quad+ meetings alongside New Zealand and Vietnam in 2020. Going forward, the United States should continue to promote these arrangements to lay the ground for rapid integration if South Korea does pursue full membership.
The U.S. House of Representatives has submitted a draft bill to formally expand the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing program to include Japan, India, Germany, and South Korea. South Korea and the United States already share intelligence with each other, and the almost-aborted GSOMIA agreement allows the ROK to share intelligence with Japan on North Korea’s military and nuclear activities. In 2013, it was revealed that South Korea and other countries have been informal partners in larger “Nine Eyes” and “14 Eyes” programs, but formal membership in Five Eyes would greatly expand the breadth and scope of South Korean involvement in intelligence sharing.
China has predictably derided Five Eyes in the past, calling it an “axis of white supremacy,” so South Korea will have to consider admittance carefully. Such a large expansion would also require significant information security and leak-prevention efforts. As Ankit Panda wrote in 2020, “Intelligence-sharing networks can only be as effective as their most vulnerable nodes.”
Promoted by the Atlantic Council’s D-10 Strategy Forum and recently by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, D-10 initiatives share a common outlook that joint democratic efforts to bolster the rules-based order are necessary. For South Korea, joining a D-10 would be an affirmation of its democratic credentials and capabilities on the world stage. While the D-10 would not be an anti-China alliance, its formation would likely sharpen China’s belief that the United States is attempting to contain and suppress its rise.
The United States should increase the likelihood of South Korea’s participation by directing the D-10’s focus to issues of joint strategic interest to democracies, such as bolstering election security, reducing the spread of misinformation, and jointly developing next-generation technology. South Korea would also likely appreciate assurances that a D-10 would not be a vehicle for overt democracy promotion—a goal that is also not a priority for the U.S. public.
In June 2021, Boris Johnson invited Australia, India, South Korea, and South Africa as guests to the G7 Summit in Cornwall, reflecting plans for a potential expansion to the body. Securing induction into an expanded G7 would offer a new multilateral forum for South Korea to expand its international engagement and a prestigious place alongside other world leaders. For the United States, this expansion also rebalances the G7 towards the Indo-Pacific.
It is not clear, however, whether both creating a D-10 and expanding the G7 is optimal or necessary for all countries involved. If a D-10 is created, it could allow the G7 to refocus on addressing international economic and financial crises. It is equally possible that an expanded G7 and D-10 would closely resemble each other and create an unnecessary multilateral overlap.
As the United States maps out its multilateral engagement, it should continue to solicit the views, concerns, and preferences of South Korea and other U.S. allies. Doing so will provide critical information that can be used to ensure the effectiveness of these new or reformed multilateral forums and indicate the United States’ commitment and leadership to the effort.
The development of AUKUS has immediately created calls for the United States to support a similar deal with South Korea, but during a background call, a senior U.S. official emphasized that AUKUS is viewed as an “exception” and “one-off” deal. While the most discussed aspect of the pact is the provision of nuclear-powered submarines, the agreement also covers issues such as artificial intelligence and cyber warfare.
Given China and North Korea’s expanding military capabilities, as well as South Korea’s recent development of a submarine-launched ballistic missile, it may make sense for the United States to make additional exceptions. U.S. engagement is also necessary to integrate South Korea’s new defense capabilities into plans for a safe and prosperous Indo-Pacific.
Questions surrounding South Korea’s international presence will be heavily influenced by the outcome of the South Korean presidential election in March 2022. In April 2021, the conservative opposition won two resounding victories over the ruling Democratic Party in the Seoul and Busan mayoral elections. In those elections, foreign policy was clearly not the deciding factor and it is unlikely to be in 2022. Nonetheless, differences between South Korean progressives and conservatives on relations with North Korea, China, and the United States will have a direct bearing on the evolution of the ROK’s international presence.
In the meantime, diplomacy by the United States can improve the likelihood of positive outcomes, but it must be consistent and account for South Korea’s frontline presence in U.S.-China competition. Doing so successfully will set the stage for a new era of U.S.-ROK cooperation beyond the confines of the Korean Peninsula.