June 10, 2022
SEOUL – President Yoon Suk-yeol faces his first test in multilateral diplomacy if his visit to an upcoming NATO summit is confirmed. It would also provide an opportunity for him to deepen South Korea’s relationship with the US and its allies amid diplomatic pressures with China and Russia.
If Yoon participates in the NATO summit held in Madrid in late June, he would be the first Korean president to attend the meeting.
NATO has invited leaders from four Asia-Pacific countries — nonmembers South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand — for the first time. It is interpreted that NATO aims to strengthen relations with Asian countries to target China, which is expanding its military influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
President Yoon said Thursday he is “preparing” to decide on whether he would attend the NATO summit in Madrid, although “it is difficult to say that (he has) confirmed it.”
Chance to mend ties with Japan?
For Yoon, one of the key points of the trip is whether to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who is highly likely to attend the summit.
The two countries’ leaders have not talked directly for 2 1/2 years since the Korea-China-Japan summit in Beijing in December 2019. Bilateral relations have been strained as conflicts deepened due to historical issues and Japan’s economic and trade retaliation measures in July 2019.
According to Japanese reports, Kishida is considering attending the NATO summit. Foreign Minister Park Jin is expected to visit Japan in mid-June to hold talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi to discuss the possible summit.
Yoon has consistently expressed his intention to improve Korea-Japan relations since he was a presidential candidate, raising hope to restore the relationship.
Korea-Japan relations are currently considered to be at their worst state since diplomatic normalization in 1965.
When asked about how he will handle wartime sexual enslavement issues at the possible Korea-Japan summit, Yoon told reporters, “We expect the issue to be solved smoothly between Korea and Japan in terms of cooperation on the future.”
But despite his remarks, experts doubt the challenges will be solved promptly through the summit. In addition to the historical issues such as comfort women and forced labor, challenges continued to emerge in recent years. They include the Fukushima water release, Japan pushing for the Sado mine to be designated a UNESCO heritage site, and most recently, a marine survey around the Dokdo islets.
Professor Yuji Hosaka of Sejong University said their meeting at the NATO summit could only end up accelerating cooperation in security to deter North Korea‘s provocations.
In response to Pyongyang’s continued missile launches, the two nations held talks to strengthen their military cooperation. Defense chiefs from Korea, the US and Japan met in Singapore on Wednesday to discuss ways to address North Korea’s provocations. The same day, the three vice foreign ministers agreed to strengthen security cooperation in response to North Korea’s sophisticated nuclear and missile threats.
“However, it seems difficult to find a solution to other issues,” professor Hosaka said. “Both show no intention of giving up on most sensitive issues.”
Earlier, Japan lodged a complaint against Seoul for conducting a marine survey in waters off the Dokdo islets, but the Korean government rejected a protest from Japan in late May.
According to a recent survey by Hankook Ilbo and Yomiuri Shimbun, eight out of 10 Koreans and six out of 10 Japanese people said that their country should not make concessions to the other country in the historical conflict between Korea and Japan.
Moving away from China?
Concerns have been raised that Yoon’s potential attendance could be a diplomatic burden on Korea’s relations with China and Russia.
On June 1, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said NATO members face challenges, including “the People’s Republic of China’s rapid militarization, its no-limits friendship with Russia and efforts to weaken the rules-based international order that is the foundation for peace and security around the world.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg then said NATO should “prepare for an age of increased strategic competition with authoritarian powers like Russia and China.”
The US position is likely to become more apparent at the NATO summit. It is expected that the US intends to build a united front by gathering allies to respond to the dual threats of China and Russia at the same time.
Under the situation, “the US and NATO, China, Russia and North Korea are highly likely to interpret South Korea’s participation in the summit as bloc logic, regardless of South Korea’s intentions,” Lee Soo-hyung, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy, said in a report.
“This interpretation may limit Korea’s strategic position and act as a diplomatic burden on its relations with China, North Korea and Russia in the future,” he said.
China has recently stepped up its rhetoric to warn about NATO and the US expanding presence in Asia.
“NATO, a military organization in the North Atlantic, has in recent years come to the Asia-Pacific region to throw its weight around and stir up conflicts,” Wang Wenbin, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in late April.
Korea has had a long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity in its dealings with the US and China. But Korea is increasingly in a position to choose a side in the changed international situation. With the US keeping China in check for its hegemony, President Yoon has already chosen “strategic clarity,” not “strategic ambiguity,” said Chung Jae-hung, a research fellow of the Sejong institute in Korea.
He said that by joining the US-led economic alliance, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, and contemplating attending the NATO summit — both of which are aimed at checking China — Korea has clearly shown its position between the two big powers.
“In this situation, it is not easy to maintain friendly relations with China as before. But there is also no need to make it worse considering economic relations with China,” Chung said. “While maintaining friendly relations with China, we should adapt to new changes in the international situation.”
Researcher Lee suggested that it would be better to “promote cooperation in the field of nonproliferation and cybersecurity” with the principle of promoting security cooperation with NATO in preparation for the North Korean nuclear threat “rather than the US-China competition.”