What You Should Know
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, elected in March 2022, has taken a harder line toward China than his predecessor.
Public hostility toward the People’s Republic of China has grown in South Korea since the THAAD missile defense system dispute in 2017.
Shifting attitudes toward China have created new opportunities for South Korean cooperation with the United States, Japan, and other regional partners.
Introduction and summary
In a February 2022 Foreign Affairs essay at the height of the South Korean presidential election, then-People Power Party (PPP) presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol took a strong swing at outgoing President Moon Jae-in’s approach to relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).1 He singled out President Moon’s response to PRC economic pressure following the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in 2017, characterizing Moon as succumbing to PRC economic retaliation at the expense of the ROK’s national security.
Yoon and his conservative PPP party pledged to adopt a new foreign policy approach that would pursue a “comprehensive strategic alliance” with the United States; actively promote a “free, open, and inclusive order in the Indo-Pacific,” improve relations with Japan; and seek a greater role for the ROK in supporting economic development and democratization in other Asian countries. Although Yoon also called for “high-level strategic dialogues” with the PRC, he suggested he would not let South Korea’s economic interests with China dictate the terms of the bilateral relationship or the ROK’s broader foreign policy. The sharp downturn in Korean public attitudes toward China after the THAAD crisis certainly gave Yoon the space for his harder line. Elected in March and inaugurated in May, President Yoon has now begun trying to translate these proposals into action.
This remarkable shift in the new ROK administration’s posture toward the PRC correlates with a shift in Korean public sentiment toward China. Furthermore, it has important implications for the United States in its alliance with the ROK and its strategic posture in the region. While President Yoon does not have carte blanche to approach China as an adversary—enduring economic ties with Beijing mean that President Yoon, like President Moon before him, still has to walk a tightrope between Washington and Beijing—the public may be more prepared to support efforts to further strengthen the U.S.-ROK alliance and assume greater leadership roles beyond the Korean peninsula.
This report considers how ROK-PRC relations reached this point and offers policy recommendations for the United States to consider going forward.
The impact of the 2017 THAAD crisis
Many observers cite 2017 as a critical inflection point in ROK-PRC relations and the spark that set changes in motion in South Korean public attitudes toward the PRC. As the threat of North Korea’s missile program grew over the course of the early-to-mid-2010s, the ROK and the United States jointly decided to deploy the THAAD anti-missile defense system on South Korean territory to defend against a potential North Korean missile attack.
The PRC, however, contended that THAAD posed a security threat by giving the U.S.-ROK alliance the ability to peer far into Chinese territory.2 The PRC called for the ROK to dismantle the system, and when the ROK did not, the PRC responded with a flurry of economically coercive tactics: It shut down Chinese tourism to South Korea, banned the sales of certain Korean products in China, closed an entire chain of South Korean supermarkets for purported fire safety violations, and restricted the South Korean entertainment sector’s access to the Chinese market.3 These tactics resulted in a $7.5 billion loss to the South Korean economy in 2017 alone, according to the Hyundai Research Institute.4
The Moon administration held the line on the original THAAD deployment but responded with the “three no’s” policy: no additional THAAD deployments, no participation in a U.S. missile defense network, and no establishment of a trilateral military alliance with the United States and Japan.5
Public opinion turns against the PRC
But even as Moon tried to smooth over relations with the PRC, Korean public opinion toward the PRC plunged dramatically. Before Beijing’s economic retaliation, South Koreans held a positive view toward China. In fact, according to a survey published by news magazine SisaIN, China’s favorability among South Koreans reached a high-water mark in 2016 at a score of 60 out of 100—second only to the United States (73) and higher than Japan (43) and North Korea (28).6 However, by 2021, China’s score had fallen by half to 26.4. That it has fallen below Japan is particularly remarkable, given long-standing historical disputes between Japan and South Korea, which are detailed below.
When asked in the 2022 poll which country South Korea should “strengthen ties” with if U.S.-PRC tensions continue, respondents favored the United States by an 85.5 percent to 9.9 percent margin.
The annual Asan Institute for Policy Studies’ “South Koreans and Their Neighbors” poll similarly recorded a significant drop in the Korean public’s favorability toward the PRC after the THAAD crisis.7 Until late 2016, the PRC consistently scored above 5 on a 0-to-10 scale, but its favorability grade fell to a range between 2 and 4 from 2017 onward. PRC President Xi Jinping’s favorability experienced a similar drop, from 4.25 (2017, pre-THAAD) to just below 2 (2022). In the same 2022 poll, U.S. President Joe Biden received a 5.89 rating, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida received a 2.38 rating.
Other time series data from the Asan poll suggest that not only did the South Korean public’s views of China change, but their views of the United States and the U.S.-ROK bilateral alliance changed as well. On the question of the “most important neighbor for South Korean security,” Koreans identifying the United States rose from 56.6 percent (2014) to 81.6 percent (2022), while those citing China fell from 15.5 percent to 5.4 percent—with the sharpest drop coming between 2016 and 2018. Separately, 83.1 percent of respondents in the 2022 poll said that the United States was stronger than China, and perhaps more importantly, 60.5 percent thought the United States would be stronger than China in the future. Finally, when asked in the 2022 poll which country South Korea should “strengthen ties” with if U.S.-PRC tensions continue, respondents favored the United States by an 85.5 percent to 9.9 percent margin, compared with a 59.5 percent to 32.6 percent margin in 2016.
A Korea Research poll conducted in January 2022 shows a generational divide on attitudes toward China, with Millennial and Generation Z voters at the forefront of rising anti-China sentiment. South Korean politicians will not miss the fact that Millennials and Gen Zers serve as an increasingly important bloc of swing voters.8
The THAAD crisis may also have amplified public anger over a number of cultural disputes that took place at the same time, further depressing China’s favorability. PRC efforts to claim South Korean culture and history go as far back as 2005, when the Chinese government claimed that Goguryeo, an ancient South Korean kingdom, was a Chinese dynasty.9 In 2020, the PRC pushed a narrative that kimchi, South Korea’s national food, had Chinese origins. And over the years, Chinese historical dramas have depicted hanbok, Korean traditional wear, as Chinese.10 A performer wearing hanbok carried the PRC flag in the opening ceremony of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.11 While of mostly symbolic significance, these incidents ignited outrage in South Korea.
How views of the PRC influenced the 2022 ROK presidential election
It is clear that Yoon read the increasingly sour South Korean popular mood toward the PRC and struck a decisively different rhetorical path than his opponent.
The behavior of the major presidential candidates over the course of the 2022 campaign and election reveals that they were taking seriously the public’s negative sentiments toward China. Initially casting himself as a pragmatist toward China, Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung increasingly embraced popular anti-China sentiment over the course of the campaign.12
Candidate Yoon campaigned from the start on a hard-line approach to China, ultimately prevailing with a platform that advocated joining U.S.-led multilateral initiatives such as the Quad; increasing cooperation with Western nations’ AUKUS trilateral security pact and the Five Eyes intelligence partnership; and collaborating more extensively with the United States on the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy to work with other democracies to advance shared values such as democracy, the rule of law, and international norms. Yoon and the PPP supported bolstering the U.S.-South Korea alliance and joining U.S.-led coalitions as the best way to counter China and advance South Korea’s national interests.
Although it is unclear how much foreign policy, including ROK-PRC relations, factored into Yoon’s slim victory over Lee, it is clear that Yoon read the increasingly sour South Korean popular mood toward the PRC and struck a decisively different rhetorical path than his opponent.
President Yoon’s approach to the United States, Japan, and China
Since his May 2022 inauguration, President Yoon has embraced the U.S.-ROK bilateral relationship. Less than two weeks after the inauguration, President Yoon hosted a May 21 visit by President Joe Biden. The two leaders issued a joint statement that declared the two governments were “unified in common determination to deepen and broaden our political, economic, security, and people-to-people ties.”13 They outlined new measures to strengthen security cooperation vis-a-vis North Korea; bilateral economic and energy security cooperation, including measures to increase supply chain resiliency; and cooperation beyond the Korean peninsula, including on public health, climate change, and trade and investment rules via the Biden administration’s new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
The joint statement also reiterated China-related messages from the 2021 Biden-Moon summit statement, stressing the “importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” and calling for upholding the rule of law in the region, particularly the freedom of navigation and overflight. Although the inclusion of these issues was clearly aimed at the PRC, the statement avoided explicitly mentioning China.
On Japan policy, President Yoon has signaled a willingness to talk with Tokyo about how to break the chill in ROK-Japan relations. The ROK and Japanese foreign ministers have engaged in regular communication, including trilaterally with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, mainly focused on North Korea. Importantly, ROK Foreign Minister Park Jin traveled to Japan on July 18 to see his Japanese counterpart, Yoshimasa Hayashi, and the two agreed to seek an “early resolution” to the outstanding dispute around compensating Koreans forced to labor for Japanese companies during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean peninsula.14 Korean courts are positioned to approve the liquidation of assets seized from Japanese companies ordered to compensate a group of surviving laborers and their descendants who sued their former employers. However, the Japanese government has signaled this will lead to further deterioration in the bilateral relationship.15 While the countries’ willingness to discuss the issue is a small step forward, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has remained reluctant to offer concrete proposals to address Seoul’s concerns about not only redress for forced laborers but also South Korea’s removal from Japan’s “white list” for exemption from export controls. Both are signs that the right wing of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) may still limit Prime Minister Kishida’s freedom of maneuver in relations with South Korea.
On China policy, President Yoon has shown fewer signs of willingness to make major changes right away. Beijing and Seoul have proceeded cautiously to repair ties that have been damaged not only by the THAAD crisis but also by the more than two years of attenuation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. President Xi Jinping sent Vice President Wang Qishan to President Yoon’s inauguration and invited him to visit China at a “mutually convenient time.”16 After a period of chill in the relationship, PRC and ROK foreign ministers and defense ministers have held face-to-face meetings on the margins of multilateral conferences, and the PRC government has mostly overlooked what could be construed as anti-China behavior from the Yoon administration. For example, it did not stop the aforementioned ministerial meetings from proceeding even though it was displeased with President Yoon’s participation in the NATO summit that produced a communique that noted “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order.”17
While South Korean public opinion toward China has shifted dramatically in recent years, neither the administration nor the Korean public is prepared for confrontation, much less a sharp break, with Beijing.
The Yoon administration’s cautious approach to China in its first months in office reflects the reality that while South Korean public opinion toward China has shifted dramatically in recent years, neither the administration nor the Korean public is prepared for confrontation, much less a sharp break, with Beijing. While President Yoon has acknowledged that there are strategic consequences to South Korea’s economic dependence on China, he recognizes that his government cannot easily escape the fundamental balancing posture that the ROK has traditionally taken between the United States and China. President Yoon’s anti-China campaign rhetoric attracted media attention, but PPP campaign documents also called for improved and balanced ties with the country. As South Korean trade with China outpaces combined trade with the United States and the European Union, China effectively holds significant influence over the South Korean economy.18
Yet even if China-South Korea economic interdependence continues to constrain the ROK’s foreign policy choices, elevated and continued Korean public hostility toward China—and President Yoon’s recognition of that sentiment—creates new opportunities for Seoul to further align its foreign policy with the United States and its other regional partners as they seek to prevent PRC hegemony in the region and uphold a rules-based order. Korea can also work with the United States and other partners to reduce its dependence on China. This presents corresponding opportunities for the United States in its bilateral relations and regional cooperation with the ROK.
The Biden administration should consider the following recommendations as it looks to advance U.S. strategic interests in the region and leverage the Yoon administration’s desire to deepen bilateral cooperation. It should, of course, factor in the complex domestic political and economic circumstances the Yoon administration is navigating.
Bring South Korea into the Quad
The United States should persuade its partners in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad)—Australia, India, and Japan—to invite the ROK to join the coalition, which includes the region’s leading democracies countering PRC influence in the Indo-Pacific. President Yoon campaigned on a pledge to join the Quad. As a robust democracy, advanced economy, and long-standing security partner, the ROK has a rightful place in the group and would be a valuable partner as the Quad addresses transregional challenges. For example, the impressive state capacity that the ROK demonstrated during the pandemic make it a natural partner under the Quad Vaccine Partnership, one of the group’s most notable initiatives.
Certain Quad members—particularly Japan—and some foreign policy elites and opposition lawmakers in Korea may be hesitant about bringing the ROK into the Quad, as the action would certainly be symbolically provocative to China. However, the ROK’s regional security policy and diplomatic posture is fully aligned with Quad principles and would not materially alter the regional balance. The United States should persuade its partners not to let China dictate terms of the Quad’s engagement.
Even if full ROK participation hits a roadblock, the Biden administration should seek opportunities for South Korea to participate in Quad initiatives on an issue-by-issue basis. South Korea would bring significant capabilities to the Quad Vaccine Partnership and the Quad Vaccine Experts Group, as well as the Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group. Engaging South Korea in these areas would complement efforts in existing U.S.-ROK bilateral initiatives.
Press Japan to strengthen relations with the ROK
President Yoon has departed from his predecessor’s more confrontational posture toward Japan and signaled interest in repairing relations. As discussed above, however, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida has been less forthcoming in finding a path to resolve the lingering historical tensions between the two countries. Recognizing that Tokyo and Seoul will ultimately have to work out a resolution themselves, President Biden should press Prime Minister Kishida to acknowledge President Yoon’s willingness for dialogue and make the first move, perhaps by agreeing to a binational commission to discuss compensation for forced laborers and their descendants and by offering to restore South Korea’s place on Japan’s export control white list.
Reducing political tensions on the Japan-ROK front would open the door for the United States, Japan, and the ROK to further leverage the trilateral relationship to maintain a balance against a rising China, including removing a hurdle to ROK participation in the Quad. Tokyo and Seoul are key allies in the United States’ broader work with democratic partners to solve regional and global problems. Japan and the ROK share concerns not only about China’s rise, but also about energy security, the future of the rules-based trading system, and North Korea’s burgeoning nuclear arsenal, but bilateral friction continues to forestall cooperation on these issues.
With Prime Minister Kishida fresh off an electoral victory and President Yoon’s approval ratings sinking, Prime Minister Kishida has more domestic maneuvering room to work toward a diplomatic breakthrough. It will not be easy, as the right wing of Prime Minister Kishida’s LDP will resist any diplomatic compromise with South Korea, but the Biden administration should press Prime Minister Kishida and his cabinet ministers to tackle the issue as a matter of national security—and should press President Yoon to respond to any Japanese offer in good faith.
Launch a dialogue on countering economic coercion
A lesson of the THAAD crisis is that as long as South Korea remains highly economically dependent on China, Seoul will remain anxious about the potential for PRC economic pressure on South Korea. The United States, as a strategic ally and economic partner and an economy with similar—if less acute—vulnerabilities, has a critical interest in working with the ROK to address the latter’s concerns. One tangible step would be for the two countries to begin talking about an anti-coercion mechanism. The notion of a mechanism to counter economic coercion is a relatively new concept. While the EU is exploring an anti-coercion instrument that would facilitate targeted economic retaliation, an anti-coercion mechanism could also be used more defensively, enabling partners to pledge to provide emergency market access, aid, or other relief in response to boycotts or other short-term trade impediments.19
The ROK’s and others’ vulnerabilities to PRC economic coercion exist now, and supply chain diversification and “friend-shoring” are necessarily longer-term projects. Nevertheless, U.S. and South Korean counterparts should begin discussing how a bilateral—and perhaps, eventually, a regional—anti-coercion mechanism could function, perhaps first by bringing together experts in a nonofficial Track 2 setting.
China’s use of economic coercion in response to South Korea’s deployment of THAAD in 2017 was a major turning point for South Korean foreign policy, forcing not only South Korean policymakers but also the South Korean public to reevaluate the risks of South Korea’s economic and strategic relationship with China. While South Koreans may not be prepared to decouple from their neighbor, the 2022 presidential election campaign showed that Korean voters and their elected officials are more interested in working with the United States and other democracies in the region to address common challenges and uphold a rules-based order.
As a robust democracy with an important role to play in regional efforts to combat climate change, ensure energy security, and promote public health, the United States should encourage South Korea’s participation in Quad and other “minilateral” initiatives on these and other issues. However, fears of Chinese economic coercion in retaliation for South Korean foreign policy decisions remain salient, and it is imperative that the Biden administration work to improve South Korea’s relationship with Japan, find a role for it in the Quad or its working groups, and discuss options for countering or limiting the impact of future economic coercion to lay the groundwork for a broader regional role for Seoul.