S. Korea needed by the West to foot the bill, not participate in decision-making
Published: May 12, 2024 07:51 PM
Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Recently, there has been a lively debate in South Korea about the success or failure of its foreign policy. The warming relations between the US and Japan have raised concerns in South Korea about the possibility of being marginalized, and not being invited to the G7 summit has made it feel embarrassed. In fact, South Korea should have long recognized that what the West, particularly the US, needs from South Korea is for them to foot the bill, not participate in decision-making. It is now time for South Korea to promptly adjust its imbalanced foreign policy.

Since the administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol took office, South Korea has pursued a foreign policy leaning toward strengthening relations with so-called like-minded countries such as the US, Japan, NATO and G7 states. South Korea perceives these countries as superior developed nations, and being able to sit down with them is seen as a reflection of South Korea's global status. Consequently, South Korea has spared no effort in catering to the needs of these small circles, most notably by firmly aligning against countries like China, Russia and North Korea, to demonstrate a clear pro-Western stance.

However, the reality of international politics is harsh. The US and other Western countries are more interested in having South Korea foot the bill rather than actively participating in decision-making. Japan, in particular, aims to keep South Korea beneath it and does not want South Korea to be on an equal footing. South Korea should have long recognized that members of these Western circles have no desire to dilute their power, and Japan, as the only Asian member of the G7, is proud of its position and does not want South Korea to challenge it. 

Although South Korea has gained some benefits in the process of footing the bill, overall it has not been worth it. Countries like the US only temporarily include South Korea when they feel their hegemonic power is at risk, but they continue to increase South Korea's bill.

Perhaps one day, South Korea may take a seat at the G8 or G9. But that will be precisely the moment the G7 will be on the decline. However, South Korea itself has been increasingly losing its autonomy in adjusting its policies toward China, Russia and on other major issues.

South Korea has different interests from the US, Japan, and other Western countries, especially in terms of its policy toward China, Russia, and North Korea. For South Korea, peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia is a prerequisite for ensuring its national security and development, which depends on South Korea's rapprochement with its surrounding countries, including North Korea, China and Russia. Successive South Korean governments since the Cold War have been clear about this. As a peninsular country, South Korea's advantage is to serve as a bridge connecting the continent and the maritime countries. However, the current South Korean government has given up its most advantageous geopolitical condition. Interestingly, even Germany and France, members of the G7, have not chosen a policy toward China as extreme as that of South Korea, and even the US is actively seeking to stabilize its relations with China.

Recently, South Korea is promoting a meeting among Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul in May. It would of course be a good thing if the trilateral meeting could be held as scheduled. It is long overdue for China, Japan and South Korea to take this opportunity to discuss how to strengthen relations and cooperation in this region, to make joint efforts to address various regional and global challenges, and to jointly take the lead in building a community with a shared future in the Asia-Pacific. Coinciding with the ruling party's resounding defeat in the recent parliamentary elections, the South Korean government should also take this opportunity to reflect on and adjust its lopsided foreign policy in response to the public's demand for balanced diplomacy.

The author is director and professor of the Center for Korean Peninsula Studies at the Shanghai University of International Business and Economics. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn