The announcement that South Korean technology giant Samsung will build a $17 billion semiconductor manufacturing facility in Texas is a bellwether for the future. The move is a win-win for Texas and Samsung. Even more important, it plants a milestone in U.S.-South Korean attempts to transition the bilateral alliance away from a near-exclusive focus on North Korea and towards a market democracy bulwark in the long-term competition with China.
As South Koreans prepare for another presidential election, the two leading contenders once again represent political opposites. Yet, no matter who wins, South Korea and the United States are likely to remain united over North Korea but often at loggerheads in managing China. That’s what has happened after past elections. As Beijing continues to push its preferences on the international order, it is time for South Korea and the United States to look beyond Pyongyang and assert more significant influence throughout the Indo-Pacific region.
The disparity between Seoul and Washington’s relations with Pyongyang and Beijing may seem an artifact of contrasting national security and economic interests. While South Koreans see inter-Korean ties through a domestic lens, the United States guarantees “extended deterrence using its full range of capabilities” to keep the peace. In contrast, although China is a top foreign policy issue, South Koreans are protective of their largest trading partner. South Korea is also China’s fifth-largest provider of imports, and despite disruptions from Covid-19, trade has been resilient in recent months.
Still, the South Korean presidential election in March affects how Seoul and Washington deal with North Korea and China. Governor Lee Jae-myung, the progressive standard-bearer for the ruling Democratic Party, has noted North Korea’s “inhumane” regime. Despite this, he would follow a variation of Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy, including President Moon Jae-in’s effort to establish a peace regime on the peninsula. He is also apt to tread lightly over relations with China.
Meanwhile, populist former prosecutor Yoon Seok-youl, the rival People’s Power Party candidate, would seek a firmer posture toward North Korea, which he has dubbed a “failed” state with an “obsolete” system. Less clear is to what extent Yoon Seok-youl might align more closely with the United States in standing up to China’s sometimes brazen behavior.
A Turning Point
North Korea’s arms buildup and China’s assertiveness make the March 2022 South Korean presidential election a turning point. These deleterious trends are likely to force the next occupant of the Blue House to make more explicit choices about how far to work with the United States in shoring up deterrence on and off the peninsula and preserving an international rules-based order.
Moon is finishing his single five-year term in office without securing a durable North-South rapprochement. Even if he could agree on a statement about peace (aka “an end-of-war declaration”), North Korea continues to modernize and expand its nuclear and missile forces. Kim Jong-un’s desire to possess a nuclear-armed missile threat to the U.S. homeland poses an insuperable obstacle to meaningful peace. Similarly, America’s need to counter North Korea’s weapons with even greater offensive and defensive capabilities ensures a dynamic that will impede the best intentions of South Korean peacemakers.
It is a tribute to Moon that he remained in strategic lockstep with leaders as distinct as Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Of course, Seoul and Washington’s harmony is a product of many factors. The shared sacrifices of the two sides’ defense establishments keep them bound together. The unwillingness of Kim Jong-un to sacrifice his nuclear ambitions also keeps them close. Kim’s demands at the Hanoi summit in early 2019 fell far short of the grand-bargain reciprocity envisaged by the Trump administration. Now the Biden administration’s willingness to pursue pragmatic, calibrated baby steps hold little interest for the Kim regime.
A major impediment to arms control with North Korea appears to be a structural problem. Whatever modest concessions the United States might make in exchange for North Korea constraining its weapons programs can be more than compensated by America’s main competitor, China, without relinquishing any nuclear capability. Of course, Kim Jong-un wants a robust nuclear arsenal to protect his regime and project power. However, South Korea’s fixation on North Korea comes at the expense of South Korea’s deeper impact in the world.
South Korea’s next president should preserve a tight-knit alliance for ensuring peace with North Korea. But he should also seek to deepen cooperation with the United States to mold a rules-based order congruent with their interests and values.
Three Domains for Cooperation
Moon’s successor might focus on three key areas in its relationship with the Biden administration. Closer alignment on these issues would avoid decoupling South Korea from America’s regional policy without forcing Seoul to jeopardize relations with its major trading partner and most prominent neighbor.
First is strengthening the rules-based order, including in the highly contested maritime, air, and cyber domains. Second would be promoting innovation in crucial high-technology sectors and securing vital supply chains. Finally, they could advocate for democracy and human rights at a time when oppression and authoritarianism appear on the rise.
If even the existing level of U.S.-South Korean cooperation gives China “heartburn,” then tighter alignment in these three realms will undoubtedly give Beijing some indigestion. After all, Xi Jinping was recently pronounced a “living historical figure” by the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, and the region is suffering from his growing overconfidence. But China would have little choice but to court South Korea to prevent an even sharper hard power alignment with a U.S.-led coalition. A South Korea working more vigorously with the United States and others to uphold a rules-based order would only further enhance Seoul’s status as a major middle power.
Indeed, a deeper U.S.-South Korean alliance and cooperation on issues beyond Pyongyang would include South Korea aligning more closely with other U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific, including Australia, India, Taiwan, and others. Among these countries, a better working relationship among the United States, South Korea, and Japan will provide the clearest indication that Seoul is ready to enhance its support for a democratic rules-based order.
The first and broadest new direction for U.S.-South Korean cooperation is over rules of the road governing key dimensions of regional and international order. Deputy Assistant to the President and Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell refers to order as an international operating system. However, whatever one label one applies, Seoul and Washington hold a common vision over international law, trading rules for an open but fair system, and norms of behavior that militate against unilateral changes to the status quo through force and coercion.
Korea has a clear interest in defending the freedom of navigation and overflight permitted under international law, as well as ensuring its ability to defend against unwanted intrusions into the Korea Air Defense Identification Zone (KADIZ) and territorial waters. Even if South Korea is reluctant to join international shows of force in the South China Sea, it should muster the political will to affirm the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and support regional norms such as the peaceful resolution of disputes.
Another dimension in the national interest of both South Korea and the United States and speaks to the need for transparent and equitable rules concerns trade and development. Seoul and Washington should work with others on forging a broader accord on high-standard digital trade and rules of governance. Similar transparency is needed in official development assistance, including telecommunications. Presidents Biden and Moon have already announced their intention to deepen cooperation, for example, over 5G and 6G telecommunications. But much more can and should be done.
The second area where Seoul and Washington should be to ensure that these and other like-minded countries retain a competitive edge in critical technologies at the heart of commercial and military power in the twenty-first century. Presidents Biden and Moon have stepped up efforts to cooperate on supply chain security in critical areas, including semiconductors, telecommunications, and rare earth minerals.
For some, a technology alliance will sound like Seoul and Washington have blurred the distinction between security and economics. But the nature of most emerging technologies is that they are inherently multi-use, a fact hardly lost on China as it pursues military-civil fusion. Although massive decoupling of economies would be detrimental to all concerned, South Korea and the United States need to collaborate more systematically in specific critical sectors of technology and supply chain security, from artificial intelligence to semiconductor chips.
Indeed, semiconductor chips make it difficult for Seoul to ignore that it has a growing stake in Taiwan’s security. South Korea and Taiwan account for 43 percent of all semiconductor chips vital to the contemporary digital age. One can quickly surmise why President Moon and President Biden agreed on the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. These democracies already lag behind China’s level of effort in semiconductor research and development. Coupled with the fact that open societies remain more susceptible to intellectual property theft, and it is clear that South Korea and the United States can ill afford to be complacent about leading-edge technological innovation and production.