Friday, March 25, 2022

New South Korean President set to strengthen US presence on divided peninsula


Written by: (Contributed) on 25 March 2022

 The US has lost no time following the election of their preferred candidate in South Korea's recent presidential elections to begin to consolidate its traditional dominant position in the South.

Statements of political intention about preferred diplomatic positions have not been ambiguous, and leave little to the imagination. The Korean peninsula is now set to return to one of the Indo-Pacific's most troubled and problematic Cold War hotspots.

In early March the conservative People Power candidate Yoon Suk-yeol won the presidency by a narrow margin of 0.8 per cent over centre-left Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung in a bitterly contested election campaign. The ROK (South Korea) has become bitterly divided in recent years between those who seek to maintain the traditional status quo of pro-US political positions and those who recognise a changing balance of forces across the region; the two political parties have been noted as 'ideologically poles apart'. (1) The outgoing Moon Jae-in presidential administration, for example, had chosen to pursue a 'more accommodating attitude toward Beijing … and to ensure good relations with Pyongyang', in a largely pragmatic foreign policy toward its largest trading partner with the former, and defence and security considerations with the latter. (2)

China's diplomatic position toward the Moon Jae-in administration had a tendency to be straightforward; last year, for example, Beijing noted that 'given the Blue House's reluctance to be involved in anti-China campaigns … Seoul is sober-headed … and that … South Korea has refrained from following Washington's fanatical path'. (3) Moon Chung-in, a special adviser to the ROK presidency, likewise, emphasised that 'South Korea is an American ally, and we maintain a strategic co-operative partnership with China … we are structurally dependent on China'. (4)

Relations with the northern DPRK were a particularly popular part of Moon Jae-in's presidential policies; his high-level diplomatic visit to Pyongyang and elsewhere in the country were well received by his supporters. Moon Jae-in himself, is of DPRK ancestry. Many other families in the ROK have members in the DPRK and friendly relations between the two parts of the Korean peninsula is viewed in a personal manner, apart from usual political positions.

Within hours of the announcement of the election result Yoon Suk-yeol, nevertheless, issued what was noted as a 'bold foreign policy that would bring South Korea into closer alignment with the US and its partners in the region … . and … promised to take a tougher stance on North Korea'. (5) Lee Jae-myung, during his election campaign had, however, pursued a foreign policy position similar to Moon Jae-in where there was 'reluctance to join efforts to push back on pressure from Beijing … which had … created frustration in Washington, Tokyo and Canberra'. (6) Regional US-led defence and security provision, historically, since the earliest days of the previous Cold War, has rested upon triangular diplomatic links through the three capital cities. In recent years military ties between Japan and Australia have been systematically upgraded to the level of a 'quasi-alliance', in preparation for US-led regional hostilities. (7)

The ROK would now appear set to return to traditional US-led hegemonic positions, with all the problems, difficulties and risks with which that entails.

Successive presidential administrations in the Blue House in Seoul have traditionally hosted US military personnel in the ROK as part of rapid deployment forces for the defence of Japan, linked to other similar facilities based in Guam. The roots of US-led political and related influence lie deep inside the ROK system. The US, in recent years, has, nevertheless, watched with unease as the ROK has been drawn closer to China as its largest trading partner and close neighbour.

Pro-US forces around Yoon Suk-yeol have, therefore, focussed their Cold War political efforts upon China in an attempt to reassert traditional US positions of domination, with some success; a recent opinion poll established about 80 per cent of South Koreans now had a negative view of China, as opposed to 37 per cent a year ago. (8) The ROK remains, nevertheless, politically volatile: previous opinion polls, nearly two decades ago, for example, found about twenty per cent of the ROK sample said 'they would support North Korea if it came under attack by the US'. (9)

Matters, in recent years, can be noted as coming to a head with the controversy over the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) where the Moon Jae-in administration were reluctant to sign the agreement until placed under direct pressure from Washington by Defence Secretary Mark Esper 'to push forcefully for a GSOMIA extension' in 2019. (10) It was noted that 'the US key aim is to get South Korea to participate fully in its Indo-Pacific strategy, and it needs to keep GSOMIA in place'. (11) The Moon Jae-in position, to the contrary, was that 'South Korea needs to first demand a concrete list from the US in terms of how it is supposed to participate in the Indo-Pacific strategy, examining it closely and choosing only those areas that are acceptable'. (12)

Such political positions did not make the Moon Jae-in presidential administration popular with the Trump administration in the White House. Those associated with the present Biden administration have also been extremely quiet about the ROK; little has changed with US foreign policy and diplomatic positions toward the Korean peninsula in a very long time. Within hours of the presidential election results, for example, the US suddenly announced 'it was intensifying its intelligence, readiness and surveillance activities in the Indo-Pacific following the two tests', drawing reference to the northern DPRK testing two rockets on 26 February and 4 March. (13) Until the election results the US had not officially commented about the DPRK military program.

The Korean peninsula now looks set to return to a position of being a Cold War hotspot, with all the previous fears of volatility leading to 'real-war scenarios' being very real. Recent developments in the ROK have also shown how the US will respond to perceived threats to their regional influence from governments elsewhere which question tutelage from Washington and the Pentagon:

                                           We need an independent foreign policy!

1.     South Korea poll goes down to the wire, Australian, 10 March 2022.
2.     Editorial, China hardens its rhetoric over support for Taiwan, Australian, 14 March 2022.  
3.     Seoul's balancing act between Beijing and Washington set to remain,  Global Times (Beijing), 6 May 2021.
4.     Ibid.
5.     S Korea elects a China hawk, Australian, 11 March 2022; and, N Korea 'escalates' tests of new missiles, The Weekend Australian, 12-13 March 2022.
6.     Australian, ibid., 11 March 2022.
7.     Ties with Japan amount to quasi-alliance, says Tokyo, The Age (Melbourne), 27 October 2014.
8.     Australian, op.cit., 11 March 2022.

9.     Uneasy Korea braced for America's big squeeze, The Guardian Weekly (U.K.), 10-16 December 2004.
10.   The reason behind Washington's push for GSOMIA, Hankyoreh, 12 November 2019.
11.   Ibid.
12.   Ibid.
13.   N Korea 'escalates' tests of new missiles, The Weekend Australian, 12-13 March 2022.

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