Yoon Suk-yeol Dips a Toe in the Taiwan Strait

Yoon Suk-yeol Dips a Toe in the Taiwan Strait

TaiwanROK Mast
Yoon Suk-yeol Dips a Toe in the Taiwan Strait

Despite their shared status as US-aligned democracies facing nominally communist invasion threats, South Korea has for decades kept Taiwan at arm’s length. But as second-year South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol moves his country even closer to the United States and adopts a wider Indo-Pacific approach than his predecessors, he has made forward-leaning remarks regarding Taiwan that have drawn the ire of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Yoon’s comments track with a South Korean public that has grown increasingly sympathetic toward the island and more sharply critical of Beijing. Beyond the rhetoric, however, do not expect Seoul to get directly involved in any potential Taiwan contingency. Nevertheless, the shift in attitude is a plus for Taiwan and indicative of South Korea’s evolving position in the region.

Early Bonds

After the United States, Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) Republic of China (ROC) was the first country to recognize the newly formed Republic of Korea (ROK, otherwise known as South Korea) in 1948. As tragic as it was, the Korean War (1950-53) benefited Chiang’s displaced government on Taiwan perhaps more than it did any other. At the time, Taipei held the China seat in the United Nations and voted for the UN resolutions that authorized the use of force in Korea. 

However, Washington declined Chiang’s offer of 33,000 troops for the effort out of concerns that the conflict could morph into a proxy Chinese civil war, as Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) “volunteers” were fighting on North Korea’s side. Chiang was, however, able to provide meaningful aid and interpreters, who interrogated captured Chinese troops. This was a huge public relations coup for his island regime, especially when 14,077 of these prisoners of war eventually chose to relocate to Taiwan instead of returning to the mainland.  

For the United States, the war clarified Taiwan’s strategic value as a frontline shield against communism, which ultimately led Washington to sign the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty with Taipei in 1954. In short, the Korean War ended up guaranteeing Taiwan’s security. Despite these events, Seoul and Taipei themselves were never formal defense treaty allies, merely signing a “treaty of amity in 1964.  

Coolness after the Cold War

Imperfectly modeled on former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik (“Eastern Policy”) of the 1970s, ahead of the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics then-South Korean President Roh Tae-woo began reaching out to the communist world through his own initiative of Nordpolitik (“Northern Policy”), designed to indirectly engage North Korea and ensure Soviet Bloc participation in the Games. [1] Roh could not then have known the Cold War would end the very next year with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nevertheless, he made the most of his opportunity, establishing formal diplomatic relations with Moscow in 1990.  

After the PRC agreed not to block South Korea’s accession to the UN in 1991 (in tandem with North Korea’s joining the body), Seoul—without informing Taipei—chose to recognize Beijing in 1992. Taipei’s then-ambassador in Korea, Charles Shu-chi King, said of the abrupt move: “It was like killing somebody and explaining the reason later.” Just as it did more recently in Nicaragua, Beijing assumed ownership of Taipei’s USD $200 million embassy in Korea. Seoul had only the previous year urged Taipei not to sell the property, assuring then-President Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) government that it had no intention of recognizing Beijing. Outraged Taiwanese subsequently burned South Korean flags, and no Taiwan or South Korean airline serviced either market for the next 12 years, with third-market carriers picking up the slack. (As a result, the author first flew Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific between Seoul and Taipei in 1998.)   

Other perceived insults and slights followed. In 2010, Taiwanese again burned South Korean flags and boycotted Korean products when Taiwan’s Yang Shu-chun (楊淑君) was disqualified from that year’s Asian Games taekwondo tournament in Guangzhou, China. (Yang was accused of having extra sensors in her socks.) Taiwanese directed their anger at South Korea because they saw Koreans, both at the match and in positions of power in the Asian Taekwondo Union, as complicit in the disqualification. This unfortunate public reaction to a taekwondo match spoke to anti-Korean sentiment lurking just beneath the surface in Taiwan. By contrast, were a Japanese umpire to rule against Taiwan in their shared and cherished sport of baseball, Taiwanese would likely never think to turn on Japan or its people.  

The issue of Japan itself has long provided another disconnect between South Koreans and Taiwanese, as many Koreans struggle to understand why Taiwanese have such strong affinities for anything associated with their common former imperial master. While Taiwanese regularly label Japan their favorite foreign country, Jeong Han-wool of South Korean polling firm Hankook Research told the New York Times in 2021, “You know you’re a real Korean when you feel hatred toward Japan for no particular reason.”  

A Shift, Courtesy of Beijing

Times change, however—and Beijing’s actions in recent years are a major reason why. In 2016, South Korea decided to host a deployment of America’s Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense (THAAD) system, meant to defend ROK territory and US forces based there from incoming North Korean missiles. Beijing’s reaction was furious, seeing THAAD’s radar capabilities as a threat to Chinese security. China mercilessly punished ROK interests, harassing South Korean companies in the PRC, blocking K-Pop entertainment, and stopping Chinese tourists from going to South Korea. 

South Korean views of mainland China plunged as a result. In 2016, before the effects of Beijing’s THAAD retribution took hold, the Asan Institute for Policy Studies found that 56 percent of South Koreans viewed the PRC as the most important country for their country’s economy, with only 32 percent saying the same about the United States. But by 2018, the results were reversed, with only 34 percent stating that the PRC was the most important and 53 percent saying so about the United States.      

Since then, anti-PRC feelings among South Koreans have only grown, especially among Korean youth. This growing distrust has been linked to issues such as cross-border air pollution, Beijing’s crackdown in Xinjiang, and even charges of cultural appropriation. Simultaneously, Japan’s relative standing has risen in their eyes as a result. In fact, more South Koreans now view China more negatively than they do Japan (unthinkable only last decade).  

This turn against the PRC creates an opening for Taiwan, allowing South Koreans to see the island anew on its own merits, without concern for Beijing’s admonishments and distortions. Academics suggest that South Koreans increasingly value Taiwan as a bastion of free speech and assembly, and worry for its fate after what has happened in Hong Kong. These warm feelings are having a positive bottom-line impact, as Korean travelers have been Taiwan’s biggest source of tourists so far this year.  

Elections have Consequences

Blunt—and sometimes profane—former prosecutor Yoon tapped into South Koreans’ changing world views when he won the presidency by less than one percentage point last year. Housing and jobs were the biggest issues during the election, but Yoon’s tough talk on North Korea and Beijing did nothing to hurt his cause. Yoon promised he would not engage in what he labeled his predecessor’s “equidistant diplomacy between Washington and Beijing. Instead, he vowed to clearly stand with Joseph Biden over Xi Jinping (習近平). South Korea has since taken part in trilateral military exercises and intelligence sharing with the United States and Japan, while Yoon himself has trumpeted universal values and called out North Korea on human rights. 

Yoon’s first major Taiwan-related move was regrettable, however, as he refused to meet then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Seoul last summer (presumably out of fear of upsetting Beijing) after her much-covered Taiwan visit. (For his part, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un sent Xi Jinping a letter of solidarity in response to Pelosi’s Taiwan stop.) Yoon’s Indo-Pacific strategy also leaves more room than expected for cooperation with Beijing, and he still has not indicated whether South Korea will formally join the “Chip 4 technology alliance with the United States, Japan, and Taiwan. 

Just before his state visit to the White House in April, Yoon told Reuters the increase in Taiwan tensions was due to attempts to change the status quo by force, and that he opposes any such change. He most pointedly said, “the Taiwan issue is not simply an issue between China and Taiwan but, like the issue of North Korea, it is a global issue.” In response, Beijing accused Yoon of “third party meddling,” but he did not back down. And, just like when former South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited Washington in 2021, Yoon’s joint statement with Biden called for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.   

But What Does It All Mean?

Sympathies and statements aside—and Yoon’s more regional outlook notwithstanding—Seoul continues to prioritize peninsular affairs, and will always hope against hope that Beijing will one day help bring around North Korea. Koreans have historically seen their nation as a “shrimp among whales,” wary of getting dragged into larger nations’ squabbles. While South Korea assisted the United States in Vietnam and Iraq, Seoul still refuses to even send weapons to Ukraine, citing legal concerns—and would likely seek to avoid directly intervening in any conflict over Taiwan.

Insofar as they would help at all, ROK forces might limit themselves to supporting logistics operations at existing US bases in South Korea. In an August 2022 Jong-Ang Ilbo and East Asia Institute poll, 42 percent of South Korean respondents favored such a rear-area role, while only 23 percent favored actual joint military operations with the United States over Taiwan. With this in mind, Washington should seek to avoid re-purposing Korea-based US troops for use in Taiwan, as many South Koreans already worry about Washington’s long-term commitment to their security. If the most the ROK ever does in the event of a hypothetical Taiwan contingency is to help keep North Korea at bay, so as to prevent any conflict from growing into a wider regional war, that would be contribution enough.  

Either way, Kim Jong Un may not see a Taiwan contingency as the right time for an attack on the South, wanting to be sure the Chinese leader of the day would be ready to bail him out if necessary, just as Mao Zedong (毛澤東) did for his grandfather in 1950. And so long as the PLA is at war over Taiwan, it would be hard to imagine Beijing having much appetite for anything else. After all, the first Korean War arguably cost Mao the island. No Chinese leader would ever let that happen again.    

Good Enough for Now

South Korea’s approach to Taiwan is not nearly as defined as that of Japan. But South Korean public sentiment and some official statements are moving in Taiwan’s direction. (And for what it is worth, President Yoon suffered enormous backlash at home for not meeting Speaker Pelosi.) Taipei should make the most of these improving ties, encourage Seoul to speak up for it in various international fora, and do whatever it can to foster even more frequent and closer people-to-people contacts. In the meantime, thousands of Korean tourists are returning home with new Taiwan friends and positive impressions of Ilha Formosa. That is not insignificant.

The main point: While South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has proven more willing to speak out against China than his predecessor, Seoul is likely to remain focused on its own security concerns on the Korean Peninsula. Nevertheless, Taiwan has a unique opportunity to improve its relationship with its fellow East Asian democracy.

[1] Ostpolitik, or “Eastern Policy,” was then-West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s policy of recognizing Germany’s postwar borders, expanded commercial ties with the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies, and effective normalized relations with East Germany.