Hopefully, South Korea won't turn itself into a pawn of the US while it could be a geopolitical player
Published: Mar 02, 2023 10:58 PM
Yoon Suk-yeol Photo: Xinhua

Yoon Suk-yeol Photo: Xinhua

South Korean government is "sleepwalking" again. In a speech yesterday on Japan-related issues, President Yoon Suk-yeol neither urged Japan to reflect on its history of aggression nor mentioned compensation for forced labor and "comfort women" during World War II. Instead, he claimed that "Japan has transformed itself from a militaristic aggressor of the past into a partner that shares universal values with us [South Korea]." Yoon's speech has been fiercely criticized by South Korean public opinion and opposition parties. Yesterday was the 104th anniversary of the Korean independence movement against Japan, and Yoon's speech was the most "pro-Japanese" among all the speeches delivered by South Korean presidents on this day. The speech earned praise from Tokyo and Washington as a result.

The foreign policy of the Yoon administration does seem to have entered a "sleepwalking" state, and the continued strengthening of the US' Indo-Pacific strategy is an effective lullaby for Seoul. It is worth noting that South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin recently mentioned the Taiwan question in an interview with CNN, and his tone was very unfriendly towards Beijing. He said that "we are opposed to unilateral change of (the) status quo by force," and that any conflict in the Taiwan Straits could have a "direct impact" on South Korea.

Since this year, South Korea has participated in the trilateral economic security dialogue among the US, Japan, and South Korea, as well as the virtual conference of the "Chip 4" alliance, which is a US-led chip supply chain restructuring alliance conference of the US, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan island to promote the US' strategy of containing China's chip industry. "Friendly to Japan" and "distant from China" are strategic expectations of the United States for South Korea, and regardless of what the Yoon administration says, these have become the actual direction of South Korean diplomacy.

The conservative faction in South Korea has found a greater sense of belonging. By the way, Yoon was invited to attend the NATO summit last year. However, the relationship between North Korea and South Korea has become highly tense again, and North Korea has conducted intercontinental ballistic missile tests as well as tests involving multiple rocket launcher system, which could be armed with "tactical" nuclear weapons for battlefield use, causing South Korea to become the "frontline" again. South Korea's trade with China grew by 3 percent last year, reaching a record $310.4 billion, but its exports to China in January this year were only $9.17 billion, down 31.12 percent year-on-year, with a sharp drop in chip exports. Working-day shipments dropped by 15.9 percent year-on-year, and semiconductor sales in January fell by 46.6 percent. If such a decline becomes a trend, what will be the driving force for South Korea's continued prosperity in the future?

Both South Korea and Japan are US allies, so even if their relationship is bad, nothing major will happen. However, Japan's refusal to reflect on its history and refusal to compensate for forced labor and apologize for the "comfort women" issue, means that the South Korea-Japan relationship won't get any better either. In 2019, Japan imposed sanctions on South Korean crucial supplies for the semiconductor industry, using economic stick to pressure South Korea over its stance on historical issues, which caused a great humiliation for South Korea.

In the past, South Korea was very careful to maintain a balance between China and the United States, and as a result, it reaped huge economic benefits. The trade volume between South Korea and China exceeded the total trade volume between South Korea and the United States and between South Korea and Japan. Last year, exports to China accounted for 25 percent of South Korea's total exports, and 22.5 percent of imports also came from China.

Moreover, Seoul should be well aware that while the US provides direct military protection to South Korea, China is an important force for maintaining peace on the Korean Peninsula. If South Korea only embraces the US and ignores the rest, its security will be tied to the waist of the US and may even become an insole in the boots of the US, and it will lose its autonomy completely.

In fact, South Korea's diplomacy has always been swinging between getting close to its major neighbors and sticking closely to the US. The Moon Jae-in government was a driving force in easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, while the current Yoon administration has shifted towards a different direction and resonated with the US Indo-Pacific strategy. "Pro-Japan" is just one of the manifestations of this big swing. Hopefully, South Korea can stay stable and not become a pawn of the US, as it should be one of the players in the complex chess game in Northeast Asia.

The author is a commentator with the Global Times. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn