The narrow election victory by conservative South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol this week sets the stage for what analysts say could be a major reorientation of the country’s foreign policy, including dramatically increased coordination with Washington to counter North Korean nuclear and missile threats and a tougher line against China’s pressure tactics targeting smaller countries across Asia.
While it remains to be seen how Washington and Seoul will navigate the sharp policy turns promised by Wednesday’s result, there were signs Thursday that the White House is eager to be done with outgoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s persistent outreach policies toward Pyongyang and Beijing.
Mr. Biden phoned Mr. Yoon on Thursday to invite him to Washington and “looks forward to working together to deepen cooperation on key global challenges,” according to a White House statement released hours before the administration announced another U.S. push to disrupt North Korea’s ballistic missile program.
Mr. Yoon used his first postelection press conference to confirm that he intends to beef up South Korea’s military in response to growing nuclear and ballistic missile provocations from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who has resumed an aggressive missile testing schedule reflecting his frustration with the absence of direct talks with the U.S. in more than two years.
“I’ll establish a strong military capacity to deter any provocation completely,” said Mr. Yoon, a 61-year-old career prosecutor who has never held elective office before. “I’ll firmly deal with illicit, unreasonable behavior by North Korea in a principled manner, though I’ll always leave the door for South-North talks open.”
Mr. Yoon, whose single five-year term will begin in May, said on the campaign trail that he would make an enhanced alliance with the United States the center of his foreign policy. He also signaled a desire to repair strategic ties between South Korea and Japan — America’s other major security ally on China’s periphery — and accused the leftist Mr. Moon of tilting Seoul away from Washington in hopes of better ties with Pyongyang and Beijing.
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North Korea has yet to offer a public reaction to Mr. Yoon’s victory in the South but spent recent weeks test-launching a wave of increasingly sophisticated, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in what experts call an attempt to modernize its weapons arsenal and pressure the Biden administration into offering sanctions relief amid stalled diplomacy.
China reacted with caution. An editorial in one of the main newspapers of the ruling Chinese Communist Party said Beijing congratulates Mr. Yoon and “respects the independent foreign policy of South Korea,” but it warns that “Seoul has no room to gamble in the so-called game between Beijing and Washington.”
The editorial, published by the Global Times, expressed particular concern over what it described as indications that Mr. Yoon favors an expanded deployment to South Korea of sophisticated U.S. missile defense technology. Beijing said the policy is less about countering North Korean threats than about containing China.
At issue specifically is the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. The Global Times editorial said the president-elect’s “senior adviser” indicated that Mr. Yoon “supported an additional THAAD deployment” to South Korea. “We hope that this is a misinterpretation of Yoon’s opinion,” the editorial said.
The U.S. military began deploying THAAD to South Korea before Mr. Moon became president in 2017. Mr. Moon engaged in efforts to block further deployments of the system after China imposed economic sanctions on South Korea for accepting a first installment of the system.
Mr. Moon’s efforts to block further deployments are widely seen to have been driven by a desire to assuage the anger from China, South Korea’s top trade partner. At the same time, Chinese officials claim America’s goal in deploying THAAD was to use the system’s advanced “x-band radar” to potentially neutralize China’s ballistic missile capabilities.
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U.S. officials have sharply denied such claims, although the THAAD issue could enhance U.S.-South Korean strategic alignment once Mr. Yoon takes office.
Most notably, the president-elect has indicated a desire for South Korea to be included in the “Quad” security dialogue with the United States and the other most powerful democracies in Asia: Australia, Japan and India. China has also fiercely complained about the dialogue.
The Quad, which has been aligned for more than a decade, gained fresh momentum during the Trump era. The administration used the grouping to counter what U.S. officials say is China’s increasingly aggressive economic and military moves in the Indo-Pacific. The Biden administration has picked up on the Trump initiative in promoting the potential of the Quad.
Regional experts predict the Biden administration will seize on Mr. Yoon’s interest in the Quad and any efforts to repair relations between South Korea and Japan. Tokyo and Seoul are both key allies to Washington and closely linked economically and culturally, but their relations sank to postwar lows during Mr. Moon’s presidency over unresolved issues related to Japan’s 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.
“The Biden administration will welcome Yoon’s foreign policy emphasis and will look forward to strengthening South Korean contributions in the multilateral context of the Indo-Pacific and in the trilateral context of U.S.-Japan-South Korea relations,” said Scott Snyder, who heads the Council on Foreign Relations’ program on U.S.-Korean policy.
“Yoon’s election poses a challenge for China, in particular in terms of how Beijing positions itself in the face of stronger South Korean alignment with the United States and what tools it might use in response,” Mr. Snyder said in an interview with Voice of America.
Japan’s government welcomed Mr. Yoon’s victory. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters that “Japan-South Korea relations are in a very severe condition, and we cannot leave them as they are.”
“Healthy ties between Japan and South Korea are indispensable for the peace, stability and prosperity of the world,” he said, and “cooperation among Japan, the United States and South Korea is also important.”
Mr. Yoon, representing South Korea’s main opposition People Power Party, won the election with 48.6% of the vote, edging out Lee Jae-myung of President Moon’s ruling center-left Democratic Party by a margin of only 0.8 percentage points.
It was South Korea’s 20th presidential election and the closest in its history. Mr. Yoon and Mr. Lee attacked each other personally in one of the most bitter political campaigns in recent memory, aggravating the country’s bitter domestic divisions.
Mr. Lee and his allies attacked Mr. Yoon over his lack of experience in foreign policy. They said his hard-line stance on North Korea would unnecessarily provoke Pyongyang and that picking a side between Washington and Beijing would pose more significant security threats to Seoul.
Mr. Yoon was never hostile toward Beijing on the campaign trail but clearly emphasized a desire to emphasize relations with the United States. Roughly 30,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed in South Korea and provide a nuclear shield to deter an attack from the North.
Mr. Yoon has not been overtly hostile toward Beijing, which will celebrate 30 years of diplomatic relations with Seoul this year.
During a November meeting with China’s ambassador to South Korea, Mr. Yoon said he would “work for a further upgrade of South Korea-China relations” if elected. “I hope that the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations will serve as an opportunity to understand each other better and really grow closer,” he said, according to a report at the time by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
Some viewed Mr. Yoon’s razor-thin victory as a referendum on South Korea’s liberal government, whose popularity has waned in recent years because of failures to deal with stark economic inequalities, a troubled job market and soaring housing prices that have left many younger South Koreans facing uncertain futures.