On Thursday, November 10, 2022, the Center for Korea Studies and the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in Seattle hosted the Korean Peninsula Forum 2022.
This year’s forum included two keynote speakers, Dr. Sang-hyun Lee of the Sejong Institute, and Mr. Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations. The two discussed how the United States perceives democracy in South Korea and vice-versa, the role of democracy in US-South Korea bilateral relations, and how US-South Korean relations are changing considering geopolitical turmoil.
Please see below for a report on our presenters’ remarks from this year’s Forum, or watch the event on our YouTube channel.
CKS Director Clark Sorensen opened the Forum, thanking the Consulate for their continued collaborations with CKS, noting the Peninsula Forum specifically. Sorensen also thanked our community members for their essential support of our Center and programs.
Professor Yong-Chool Ha next provided context for the Forum, declaring that US-Korean have entered a new phase. Coinciding with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ha explored how a newly emergent global order is forming along authoritarian and democratic lines. With this geopolitical shift, democracy represents the value which will continue to strengthen US-Korean relations.
Ha followed his remarks by introducing our presenters and discussants, and welcoming recorded remarks from Consulate General Eunji Seo.
Consulate General Seo addressed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the worsening climate crisis as definitive factors influencing international relations on the Peninsula. Most seriously, Seo stressed North Korea’s particularly active missile testing in 2022 as a precursor to likely nuclear tests and a rekindling of the Peninsula’s recurrent security concern: nuclear proliferation. Highlighting the summit between President Biden and President Yoon, Seo defined the importance of for solidifying US-Korean relations militarily and economically across a system of shared values highlighted by each nations democratic strengths.
Sang-hyun Lee’s Remarks
Before providing a review of the current state of South Korean democracy, Dr. Lee prefaced his comments by exploring global shifts away from democracy. The rise of greater authoritarianism and illiberal or incomplete democracy are clear instances of a less democratic world; however, increasing amounts of democratic backsliding characterized by increased political polarization and populism may prove to be the most virulent symptom of our less democratic world.
Lee turned to South Korea democracy by first identifying cycles of political rule by liberals and conservatives in Korea where presidential cycles tend to come in pairs: two conservatives followed by two liberals. The 2022 election broke this cycle, seeing Yoon Suk-yeol, a conservative, narrowly defeat liberal Lee Jae-myeong. Rather than illuminating all of the causes for this change, Dr. Lee explored what he called Korean-style “street democracy.” This “street democracy” is highlighted by frequent, size-variable public protests targeting diverse issues citizens have with their government. Lee identified these protests as a symptom of a polarized body politic with politics being framed as either good or evil by Korean politicians, amplifying feelings of politic double-standards or내로남불 (naero-nambul), an abbreviation of “romance if I do it, an affair if others do it” [내가 하면 로맨스, 남이 하면 불륜]. Political double-standards are only part of the story, however. Increasing social media usage and drifts away from traditional media outlets continue to polarize Korean society, and, as Lee explained, South Korea’s weak political institutions and weak party system appear to cause greater public frustrations.
Dr. Lee shifted to discussing Korea’s values-based foreign policy which was recently re-defined by President Yoon in his declaration that South Korea must “step up” and become a “global pivotal state.” Lee explained this term, GPS, as state that advances freedom, peace, and prosperity through liberal democratic values and substantial cooperation. Such an assertion clearly defines Korea’s path forward when pursuing a values-based foreign policy, particularly with its chief ally the United States; however, such values are often in direct conflict with Korea’s number one trading partner, China. Lee furthered Professor Ha’s points on the bifurcating state of the world, explaining how this bifurcation is forcing South Korea to be ever more creative in maintaining its international relations status quo of balancing the US and China.
Scott Snyder’s Remarks
Mr. Snyder approached South Korea’s foreign policy as a battle between values and interests: China as the realm of economic opportunity, interests, and the US as security partner, values. The Yoon administration has embraced its comprehensive strategic alliance with the US, and has put relations with the US at the center of its foreign policy on the basis of common values; however, Yoon found that the common values framing on policy does not eliminate conflicts with South Korea’s interests. Snyder focused Korea’s interest versus values calculations through the following three points: the issues of supply chain resiliency and the challenges that South Korea faces under US-China competition because of the extremely high volume of semiconductor trade between China and South Korea; the issues of how South Korea has navigated participation in regional security architecture; and the challenge that South Korea has already faced in terms of dealing with Taiwan.
On supply chain issues, Snyder stressed that while maintaining a shared values technology alliance with the US is desirable, South Korea’s material interests in terms of a significant billions of dollars of bilateral trade with China simply cannot be ignored. Beyond semiconductors, electric vehicle development poses an additional barrier between Korean material and values-based interest, particularly as the recent Inflation Reduction Act passed by the Biden Administration actively limits Korean investment in the United States to the opposite of Biden’s May 2022 pledge in Seoul. Snyder asserted that “these are specific areas where values and interests need to align and where the US carries with its policy assumptions about what South Korea might be willing to choose that don’t always align with South Korea’s material interests.”
Regarding regional security issues, the QUAD looms large on South Korea’s mind; however, the Chinese publicly tried to discourage South Korea from joining. Korea has seemingly decided on its QUAD ambitions; however, the QUAD continues to be uncertain of South Korea’s ability to join. Snyder posited that of Korea were to join the QUAD, what may happen if China retaliated in some way and tried to impose tangible costs?
Finally, on Taiwan Snyder highlighted the recent travels of Speaker Pelosi to Taipei followed immediately by a trip to Seoul. Pelosi arrived in Seoul as the PRC began extensive military drills in the Taiwan Strait. Interestingly, President Yoon did not meet with the speaker. Snyder explored this curiosity as a challenge to the US and Korea align statements of common values, actions, and policy coordination on issues where we have common values with areas where interests might not align. “South Korea has a different geography, it has a different risk exposure, and it has actually a different history in terms of how it has tried to manage” its relationship with China. While the US and South Korea may need to coordinate more closely on China policy, the two nations also “need to work harder to understand the contours of the relationship and to understand what is behind the decisions that both sides are likely to make even whilst sharing a framework that is bound by common values.”
For full commentary from Mr. Snyder and Dr. Lee, contributions by our discussants, and more, please view this year’s Forum below or on our YouTube channel.
Sang Hyun Lee is President of the Sejong Institute in Korea. He also serves as President of the Korea Nuclear Policy Society (KNPS). His main research interests include international politics and security, Korea-U.S. relations, inter-Korean relations, nuclear security and nonproliferation, and East Asian security issues. His recent publications include: Biden Administration’s Foreign Policy and the Korean Peninsula (2022, co-authored), New Global Order and South Korea’s Foreign Policy Strategy (2021, co-authored), Prospects for the Biden Administration’s Foreign Policy (2021), South Korea’s Foreign Policy in the Era of U.S.-China Strategic Competition (2020, co-authored), Trump Administration’s Nuclear Policy: Implications for Global Nuclear Energy and North Korean Nuclear Issue (2019), Trump Administration’s National Security Policy and Its Implications for Global Order and Korean Peninsula (2018), Trump Administration and ROK-US Relations (2017, co-authored), North Korea under Kim Jong-un: Evaluating Past Five Years (2017, co-authored), and so on.
Scott Snyder is Senior Fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). His program examines South Korea’s efforts to contribute on the international stage; its potential influence and contributions as a middle power in East Asia; and the peninsular, regional, and global implications of North Korean instability. Mr. Snyder is the author of South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers (January 2018) and coauthor of The Japan-South Korea Identity Clash: East Asian Security and the United States (May 2015) with Brad Glosserman. He is also the coeditor of North Korea in Transition: Politics, Economy, and Society (October 2012), and the editor of Global Korea: South Korea’s Contributions to International Security (October 2012) and The U.S.-South Korea Alliance: Meeting New Security Challenges (March 2012). Mr. Snyder served as the project director for CFR’s Independent Task Force on policy toward the Korean Peninsula. He currently writes for the blog, “Asia Unbound.”
Kenneth B. Pyle is the Henry M. Jackson Professor of History and Asian Studies Emeritus at the University of Washington. He is Founding President of The National Bureau of Asian Research and Founding Editor of the Journal of Japanese Studies. His most recent book is entitled Japan in the American Century (2018).
James Lin is Assistant Professor of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. His research examines international agrarian development, beginning with rural reform and agricultural science in China and Taiwan from the early 20th century through the postwar era, then its subsequent re-imagining during Taiwanese development missions to Africa, Asia, and Latin America from the 1950s onward.
Yong-Chool Ha is Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Social Science at the University of Washington. His primary academic interests have been comparative politics and society with a particular focus on late coming nations (Korea, Japan, Prussia, China and the Soviet Union), Soviet and Russian politics, Russian Far East Korean domestic and international politics, inter-Korean Relations and East Asian regional politics and international theories in East Asia.