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On May 10, 2022, Yoon Suk Yeol of the People Power Party became the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) next president. He won South Korea’s March 2022 presidential election by a margin of just 247,000 votes over Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party, the country’s closest election since democracy was restored in 1987. Yoon faces formidable challenges even though the People Power Party outperformed the Democratic Party in the critical June 2022 local elections. (The conservatives secured twelve out of seventeen gubernatorial and mayoral seats in another resounding defeat of the Democratic Party right after besting the rival party in the all-important presidential contest.) The key political problem for Yoon is that the opposition currently holds a majority in the National Assembly (169 seats to the People Power Party’s 115) and is determined to stymie Yoon’s legislative programs. However, until the next general election in April 2024, Yoon has no choice but to work with an increasingly intransigent opposition.

Although Yoon had a successful summit with U.S. President Joe Biden less than two weeks after the former’s May 2022 inauguration, followed by the South Korean president’s first international foray at the NATO summit in Madrid at the end of June, Yoon faces enormous headwinds. The government, but especially the National Police Agency, has been heavily criticized for the tragic deaths of over 150 people, including a number of foreign nationals, due to a crowd surge and stampede in the Itaewon district in Seoul on October 29, 2022. Multiple investigations are underway. Yoon also faces critical challenges stemming from weakened economic prospects in the face of surging inflation, unprecedented provocations by North Korea through a constant barrage of ballistic missile launches, and a deeply divided National Assembly.

Chung Min Lee
Chung Min Lee is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Asia Program. He is an expert on Korean and Northeast Asian security, defense, intelligence, and crisis management.
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To be sure, it’s far too early to forecast what Yoon will or will not achieve in his five-year term, and he shouldn’t be swayed by public opinion polls. But if a business-as-usual mentality persists in the president’s office, his ability to govern effectively will suffer, with key repercussions for the April 2024 National Assembly election. The stakes could not be higher for Yoon and South Korea. Politically, he must show why his policies will result in substantive results compared to the populism of his predecessor, Moon Jae-in (2017–2022). Although Yoon’s economic performance over the next few years is paramount, the need to transform South Korea into a major player in the Western bloc is pressing too.

On top of the urgent task of tackling high inflation and much slower growth, Yoon faces three additional major tasks. First, North Korea’s accelerating nuclear capabilities require a fundamental reassessment of South Korea’s defense requirements and strategies in addition to a revamping of the country’s intelligence community to handle China’s growing shadows over the Korean Peninsula. Second, rapid demographic shifts, such as a declining population for one of the world’s fastest-aging societies coupled with anemic economic growth and rising social welfare costs, will entail unprecedented budgetary pressures. And third, Yoon must grapple with critical foreign policy and national security challenges including supply chain realignments following the global pandemic, the ongoing war in Ukraine, and (most importantly for South Korea) worsening U.S.-China tension. If China attacks Taiwan or implements a naval blockade, South Korea will be pressured by the United States to provide some type of tangible military assistance. Simultaneously, China will do everything possible to dissuade South Korea from doing so. Each of these challenges calls for tailored responses with contrasting political requirements given the depth of political divisiveness across the South Korean political landscape.

What Yoon really needs to do is bolster South Korea’s global competitiveness by forging the country into a much stronger, more proactive member of the Western bloc. He can do so by helping build a democratic alliance with the United States and other key technologically advanced allies and partners including Australia, Japan, and the members of the EU. In this spirit, the Yoon administration should stress three key points: making South Korea a bona fide member of the broader Western intelligence community; laying the groundwork for more tangible security and defense cooperation with the EU and NATO; and upgrading trilateral security cooperation with the United States and Japan. Yoon supports South Korea’s entry into Washington’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework—the new regional economic cooperation proposal spearheaded by the United States—as shown during his first summit meeting with Biden. South Korea has said that it will join Biden’s Chip 4 Alliance—a partnership with the United States, Japan, and Taiwan focused on the semiconductor supply chain. While Seoul will align with Washington on critical technology supply chain issues, it also has to prepare for wide-ranging repercussions including growing pressures from China as U.S.-China tech decoupling and competition worsen.

Responding to a Shifting Threat Landscape

Between January and October 2022, North Korea conducted over 40 missile tests including an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IBM) over Japan on October 4—the first time in several years. Earlier, in mid-April, North Korea announced that it has successfully tested a new tactical nuclear-capable ballistic missile, a claim that the South Korean military seemed to confirm soon after. On May 12, just two days after Yoon was inaugurated, North Korea fired three short-range ballistic missiles. Unlike under the Moon administration, when National Security Council officials downplayed North Korea’s missile tests, calling one of them an “unidentified projectile,” Yoon’s National Security Council staff strongly condemned North Korean missile tests. Yoon stated in October 2022 that “if North Korea uses nuclear weapons, they will face our forces’ resolute and unsurpassed response together with our American ally” (author’s translation).

Importantly, the evolving threat posed by a nuclearized North Korea is compounded by the Chinese military’s growing capabilities. For the first time, the People’s Liberation Army can contest U.S. military supremacy in the Western Pacific, partially deny American reinforcement capabilities, and counter South Korea’s responses to North Korean provocations. Meanwhile, although the war in Ukraine is not likely to result in a fundamental resetting of South Korea’s security priorities, it will trigger key adjustments. Building more resilient national security supply chains, enhancing intelligence sharing and cooperation with allies and partners, shoring up critical defenses for maritime chokepoints like the Malacca Strait and the Taiwan Strait, and emphasizing value-based multilateral diplomacy are all areas where the Western bloc (especially technologically advanced democracies) have advantages.

On the campaign trail, Yoon stated that South Korea should play a more active part in the various working groups of the Quad, the security-focused grouping that includes Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. And although the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangement is limited to the original members—Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the United States—it would significantly bolster South Korea’s global intelligence footprint if it strengthened collaboration with these countries. But as the front-line state facing North Korea, the only U.S. ally that houses U.S. troops on the Asian continent, and one of the world’s leading high-tech economies, South Korea can make significant intelligence and defense technology contributions. The impetus for strengthening the defenses of the strategically vital European and Asian theaters falls on the shoulders of the NATO alliance in Europe and critical U.S. allies in Asia including South Korea and Japan.

Despite the urgency and gravity of the growing threats of North Korea’s nuclear missiles and weapons of mass destruction, it’s also true that South Korea confronts a different security outlook compared to just a decade ago. The cumulative impact of accelerating climate change, mounting cyber attacks, vulnerable supply chains, and the spillover effects of game-changing technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) are going to grow exponentially in tandem with worsening with traditional security threats. In all these areas, South Korea can’t do it alone. It must pool resources, strategies, and policies with key global partners.

As for the U.S. commitment to South Korea’s defense, the May 2022 joint statement noted that “President Biden affirms the U.S. extended deterrence commitment to the ROK using the full range of U.S. defense capabilities, including nuclear, conventional, and missile defense capabilities.” It also stated that the two allies agreed to “further strengthen deterrence by reinforcing combined defense posture” and to “initiate discussions to expand the scope and scale of combined military exercises and training,” while the United States also reiterated that it would “deploy strategic U.S. military assets in a timely and coordinated manner as necessary . . . to reinforce deterrence in the face of [North Korea’s] destabilizing activities.”

This was among the strongest affirmations of Washington’s commitment to South Korean defense since the end of the Cold War. But South Korea must also contemplate the possibility of former president Donald Trump’s return to the White House in 2024 or the emergence of another American president with similar worldviews, who may contest U.S. commitments to key allies, threaten to withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea, and perceive U.S.-ROK military exercises as threatening to North Korea. In more ways than one, Trump did more damage to the U.S.-ROK alliance than any other U.S. president. While Seoul (and other key U.S. allies) have recovered from the repercussions of his presidency, these developments also planted deeply rooted uncertainty about the long-term credibility of U.S. extended deterrence just when North Korea’s nuclear threat begins to grow exponentially.

Modernizing South Korea’s Approach to National Security

Economic security and technological issues are garnering more attention as countries continue to weather the coronavirus pandemic and seek to enhance their national resilience. Like other advanced economies, South Korea is just starting to digest the growing importance of high-tech innovation for national security. These ripple effects extend to the country’s national security apparatus and intelligence-gathering capabilities.

The convergence of geopolitics, geoeconomics, and technological innovation necessitates a different approach to national security policy planning with greater attention to the growing role of the private sector. In November 2021, for instance, Samsung announced a $17 billion investment in Texas to build a semiconductor factory—the firm’s single largest investment in the United States. General Motors unveiled a partnership with LG in January 2022 to build a new battery plant for $2.6 billion. Without the active participation of South Korean technology firms, Seoul’s ability to help build more resilient post-pandemic global supply chains could falter. The Yoon government should significantly bolster its support for South Korean investment in the United States and strive to ensure that South Korea plays a role in creating new supply chains in strategic industries such as space, biotechnology, and AI.

These shifts have institutional implications as well. While South Korea’s national security apparatus has been modified since the end of the Cold War and every single South Korean government since 1987 has emphasized defense reforms, the country’s overarching national security, defense, and intelligence structures have remained largely intact. Some improvements have been made, such as the creation of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration in 2006 and the establishment of the Korea Research Institute for Defense Technology Planning and Advancement in 2021. Even so, South Korea has to strive to exploit new opportunities driven by AI technologies, keep abreast of the growing prevalence of open-source intelligence and widening intelligence sharing across the national security domain, and significantly boost its foreign intelligence capabilities.

If South Korea misses this chance to rethink its national security paradigm, the long-term opportunity costs are likely to be significant. On the defense front, the Yoon administration must emphasize a South Korean offset strategy or countervailing capabilities in response to North Korea’s expanding nuclear arsenal and missile assets. While it makes imminent sense to strengthen the U.S.-ROK alliance for the reasons noted above, it is also crucial for South Korea to bolster its own strike capabilities against North Korea’s growing nuclear and conventional arsenals. North Korea’s nuclear arsenal continues to grow—as the South Korean joint chiefs of staff noted in October 2022, by 2027 North Korea could have more than 200 nuclear warheads—so the ROK must develop its own strategic capabilities to counter North Korea’s growing nuclear threat.

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine has reinforced the importance of real-time, cross-domain intelligence gathering, which will become even more relevant as security dynamics in East Asia worsen. Washington continues to provide critical strategic intelligence to Seoul, and bilateral intelligence cooperation is likely to deepen during the Yoon administration. As South Korea prepares to eventually assume conditions-based full operational control of its military forces, however, one major area that it is seeking to augment is its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. In a blueprint published by the South Korean Ministry of National Defense in December 2021, ministry officials stressed the importance of bolstering the country’s defense posture with AI, big data, and cloud computing capabilities and engaging in more robust intelligence sharing.

But it is equally important to facilitate a greater flow of information among key intelligence agencies; national security bodies; and various ministries with portfolios related to economics, commerce, and science and technology. Overcoming built-in bureaucratic resistance to deeper and wider private-sector engagement and significantly improving the qualitative output of government-run think tanks remain essential tasks if South Korea wants to retain an information edge. As the war in Ukraine continues to demonstrate, private-sector intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance firms are playing outsized roles in providing real-time intelligence and situation updates to Ukrainian forces.

Although there will be intense institutional resistance, South Korea could also consider creating an office of the director of national intelligence akin to the United States and Australia. Such a move would foster greater institutional cooperation between various intelligence agencies and to the extent possible, strengthen government and private sector information cooperation. As South Korea faces wide-ranging and deepening intelligence challenges, putting into place key structural reforms today will enable it to better meet over-the-horizon national security threats. And serious thought must also be given to whether it is time to create a dedicated intelligence organization that focuses exclusively on foreign economic and technology intelligence. 

Becoming an Essential Global Player

As one of the world’s leading trading powers and the tenth-largest economy ($1.6 trillion in 2020), South Korea’s economic prowess is well-established, and its soft power profile is also growing. But a key condition for boosting the country’s global competitiveness, mitigating the fallout of worsening U.S.-China relations, and revitalizing the U.S.-ROK alliance for the twenty-first century is redrawing Seoul’s national security framework and strategies.

South Korea stands at a crossroads. If inertia once again wins out, Seoul will have a harder time building up its core defense, technological, and intelligence capabilities over the next decade. Boosting South Korea’s capabilities and strategies in these core areas will not result in headline-grabbing achievements. But these efforts are likely to have outsized influence in shaping South Korea’s place in the emerging constellation of regional powers, particularly with regard to how the West perceives South Korea as a critical partner. Alongside other regional actors like Australia and Japan, South Korea is on the cusp of contributing much more tangibly to common security and defense.

While the Moon administration opted not to provide lethal military assistance to Ukraine, the Yoon administration should reflect deeply on the opportunity costs if Seoul continues to provide only humanitarian assistance. The circumstances today are very different from those of the past, but if the international community only chose to provide Seoul with nonlethal assistance when the Korean War broke out in 1950, South Korea’s own trajectory, the status of the U.S.-ROK alliance, and the postwar Asian security order would have been profoundly different. Becoming a more responsible member of the international community was a major theme Yoon stressed in his inauguration speech. It is time to show that South Korea can match this rhetoric with corresponding action.