South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol and U.S. President Joe Biden had their first phone conversation on March 10, at the latter’s request five hours after the election result came out. Biden was the only head of state who had a phone conversation with Yoon on the election result day.
This implies that the new South Korean government’s top diplomatic priority will be its relations with Washington. Given his campaign pledges and recent remarks, the Washington-Seoul alliance is likely to be further strengthened and the current administration’s pro-China stance is likely to come to a halt.
The new South Korean government is expected to more actively join the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy by taking part in the vaccine, climate change and new technology working groups of the Quad, a security framework of the United States, Japan, Australia and India. Until now, the United States has expected South Korea’s participation in different Quad issues and the Moon Jae-in administration has kept its distance in order to avoid conflict with China.
The new South Korean government’s North Korea-related policies are likely to be opposite to those of the current administration, and the bilateral relations between South Korea and Japan are expected to improve. History issues, the Dokdo/Takeshima issue, and the like are predicted to be prerequisites for relationship improvement and the first diplomatic test on the part of the president-elect. How he deals with the issues will determine the near future of Seoul-Tokyo relations and, by extension, the strengthened cooperation among the United States, South Korea and Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida mentioned the importance of the alliance while sending his congratulations on March 11.
When it comes to Seoul-Beijing relations, the president-elect has stressed the importance of mutual respect. He is not against additional THAAD deployment in South Korea, its participation in the United States’ missile defense system, and a military alliance of the United States, South Korea and Japan, to which the Moon Jae-in administration has been opposed. New relations with China may become the most important diplomatic test for the new government.
In short, the key part is how to face China, the largest trade partner, while beefing up relations with the United States and Japan. Amid the war in Ukraine and the ongoing conflict between the United States and China, the fulfillment of campaign pledges such as Quad membership and THAAD deployment may make Seoul-Beijing relations very complicated. Required is a very prudent and well-planned approach.