During the 2022 South Korean election campaign, then-presidential candidate Yoon Suk Yeol of the conservative People Power Party published an article in Foreign Affairs outlining his foreign policy vision titled “South Korea Needs to Step Up.” Policymakers in Washington took note as Yoon described the U.S.-South Korea alliance as the “central axis” of South Korean foreign policy. That line was reassuring to the U.S. Biden administration, but Yoon’s more consequential message was the idea of South Korea as a “global pivotal state.” As President Yoon articulated, “South Korea should no longer be confined to the Korean Peninsula but rise to the challenge of being what I have described as a ‘global pivotal state,’ one that advances freedom, peace, and prosperity through liberal democratic values and substantial cooperation.”
The idea of South Korea as a global pivotal state (hereafter GPS) may not seem new to followers of South Korean foreign policy, especially those who remember former President Lee Myung-bak’s (2008-2013) “Global Korea” campaign. GPS may therefore reflect a difference in degree rather than in kind in South Korean foreign policy. But GPS is also deeply motivated by shared principles and values as they intersect with strategic interests. Put into practice, Yoon has pursued a more ambitious, activist foreign policy agenda in his first two years in office relative to past South Korean presidents.
This policy brief explores the Yoon administration’s concept of GPS and its implications for South Korean foreign policy. Drawing on South Korean policy documents, speeches made by Yoon, and interviews and roundtable discussions with South Korean policy experts, three themes emerge undergirding the GPS concept: deeper values; greater strategic relevance; and increased global public goods. Having transitioned from a once war-torn, underdeveloped, authoritarian state to an economically developed, technologically advanced, democratic country, South Korea can indeed play the role of GPS by helping shape international norms, collectively enforce global rules, and bridge ties between developed and developing nations. The United States and like-minded allies and partners in Asia and Europe have also welcomed the Yoon government’s broader diplomatic, economic, and strategic contributions extending beyond Asia. Nevertheless, questions and challenges also remain on the domestic and international front as the Yoon government seeks to convert GPS from a foreign policy slogan to a long-term strategic framework.
Although the concept of GPS emerged under the Yoon government, its roots trace back to the 1990s and remain linked to the country’s identity as a middle power.1 South Korea’s rapid economic growth and democratic transition in the late 1980s enabled its leaders to promote a more “expansive and multifaceted” foreign policy in the 1990s. Development and democratization in particular provided South Koreans with “an important sense of legitimacy” as it transformed into a middle power over the next two decades. South Korea’s identity as a middle power contrasted with its traditional strategic identity as a “shrimp among whales” — that is, a small nation surrounded by great powers with limited means to shape its geopolitical environment.
In 1994, South Korea surpassed the annual GDP of Australia, the Netherlands, and India. That same year, President Kim Young-sam (1993-1997) promoted his policy of globalization (segyehwa). South Korean officials were beginning to embrace a more internationalist foreign policy agenda that extended past the Northeast Asian region and looked beyond its bilateral alliance with the United States. In addition to joining post-Cold War regional institutions, such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum, South Korea successfully gained membership into the more exclusive Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 1996.
The 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis and the fiscal austerity measures adopted by South Korea posed significant challenges in expanding Seoul’s foreign policy outreach. However, progressive leaders Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008) continued to reinforce South Korea’s identity as a middle power, primarily through their support for East Asian regionalism. As Foreign Minister Hong Soon-young argued in 1998, “Korea in the 21st century must stand as an Asian power and a middle power … it must also have a clear sense of what it can and cannot do as a middle power situated between the world’s most powerful nations.” Noteworthy here is Kim Dae-Jung’s role in establishing the East Asian Vision Group and the East Asian Study Group in the early 2000s to strengthen regional cooperation in the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis.
Fully embracing its middle power status by the late 2000s, President Lee Myung-bak launched his “Global Korea” initiative in the late 2000s. The Lee government leveraged the country’s resources and convening power to host several highly visible meetings on the global stage. Under Lee, Seoul hosted the 2010 G20 Summit and the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit. As the first non-G7 host of the G20, South Korea played a bridging role between developed and developing countries. South Korea also helped facilitate discussions related to the International Monetary Fund’s governance structure that might allow China and other developing countries to exercise more weight in the area of international finance. On environmental issues, the board of the Green Climate Fund recognized South Korea’s contributions toward green growth and sustainable development and selected Songdo, South Korea as its new headquarters location. These international milestones boded well for South Korean foreign policy, giving Seoul opportunities to exercise global leadership, provide global public goods, and bolster its international reputation. As Australian scholar Andrew O’Neil argues, South Korea’s growing middle-power identity has become “tightly integrated with the [Republic of Korea’s]’ global ambitions.”
What is a global pivotal state?
Building on South Korea’s middle power status, the Global Vision Committee, an advisory council for Yoon’s electoral campaign, first introduced the GPS concept in January 2022. Yoon’s foreign policy team described GPS as a shift away from the previous Moon Jae-in (2017-2022) government’s heavy focus on inter-Korea relations to a foreign policy strategy “embracing greater roles and responsibilities for resolving regional and global challenges in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.”
Politically then, the Yoon campaign coined GPS to differentiate Yoon’s foreign policy from that of President Moon and the Democratic Party’s (DP) candidate in the 2022 election, Lee Jae-myung. Whether accurate or not, Yoon portrayed Moon and the DP’s foreign policy agenda as too timid and inward-looking in its effort to engage North Korea. Although the Moon government sought to expand ties with ASEAN members and India through the New Southern Policy, its focus on inter-Korea relations somewhat limited South Korea’s broader regional and global agenda. In particular, several experts noted the lack of South Korean engagement with the evolving Indo-Pacific security architecture and the Moon government’s soft-pedaling on China due to fear of Chinese economic coercion.
Changes in the international system fueled by the intensification of U.S.-China competition, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and a growing awareness of geoeconomic risks in the age of “weaponized interdependence” also redoubled the Yoon government’s efforts to pursue a more activist foreign policy. The perception that South Korea had fallen between the cracks in an increasingly divided global order created a sense of urgency in the Yoon campaign to realign its foreign policy with the United States.2
Like most foreign policy initiatives at their outset, GPS represented a broad, aspirational vision for South Korean foreign policy. Drawing on the same GPS acronym for “Global Pivotal State” and “Global Positioning System,” Foreign Minister Park Jin stated in June 2022 that “Korea is now repositioning itself in the world to contribute to the future. Just as the GPS system provides users with the sense of direction and information on the path forward, I hope Korea can emerge as a country which offers valuable guidance to how we may wisely navigate these most challenging turbulences of times.”
For the Yoon government, then, GPS has meant playing a greater strategic role while embracing values and principles such as freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, in support of a rules-based international order. These characteristics of GPS were captured in South Korea’s 2023 National Security Strategy (NSS) which states, “As a global pivotal state grounded in the spirit of freedom and solidarity, the Republic of Korea endeavors to actively address the rapidly evolving security environment.” Additional insights into the GPS concept are also reflected in the Yoon government’s Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region (hereafter Indo-Pacific Strategy) and in several of Yoon’s major speeches. Although the Yoon government has yet to release a separate strategy paper conceptualizing GPS, three key elements appear to be emphasized and embraced: liberal values, strategic relevance, and global public goods.
Deepening values-based diplomacy
Yoon’s GPS remains consistent with the general direction of South Korea’s post-Cold War foreign policy in expanding the country’s diplomatic role throughout the world. What is new, however, is the Yoon government’s emphasis on values-based diplomacy and the infusion of liberal rhetoric within South Korea’s otherwise pragmatic approach to foreign policy. As Yoon’s first national security adviser, Kim Sung-han, contends, “GPS focuses on South Korea as a democratic country that contributes to the international community commensurate to its national status and capability.”3 Similarly, South Korean scholar Lee Sook-Jong argues that the Yoon government has “scaled up its middle-power ambitions to those of being a global pivotal state by highlighting South Korea’s international contributions and values-based diplomacy.” These insights reinforce the Yoon government’s own message in its NSS which espouses a “national security and foreign policy vision of becoming a global pivotal state contributing to freedom, peace, and prosperity.”
Yoon is certainly not the first South Korean president to advocate freedom and democracy. However, the degree to which Yoon has evoked liberal principles is unprecedented. For instance, Yoon used the word “freedom” no fewer than 30 times during his inaugural address, and 18 times during his short speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2022. Freedom and democracy were also core themes in Yoon’s address to the joint session of the United States Congress in April 2022. In that address, Yoon elaborated on South Korea’s own struggle for democracy and the sacrifices and support from the United States that enabled South Koreans to prosper and experience freedom. The Yoon government’s Indo-Pacific Strategy also exists as both a reflection and extension of GPS. For instance, the Yoon government states that South Korea “will continue to closely cooperate with all nations in and outside the region in order to realize common goals based on universal values.”
Beyond rhetoric, South Korea has taken a more visible and active role in promoting human rights in the region and globally. South Korea joined 17 other countries in the U.N. Human Rights Council to support a resolution to hold a debate on reported human rights violations by the People’s Republic of China against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang in October 2022. Although the resolution narrowly failed, South Korea’s vote was notable given that past South Korean governments had generally avoided publicly criticizing China on human rights issues.4 The Yoon government also (re)-elevated North Korean human rights as an important issue on its foreign policy agenda. Yoon’s decision to appoint a North Korean human rights envoy after the position remained vacant for five years and co-sponsor a U.N. resolution on North Korea’s human rights abuses reversed course from the previous government, which had downplayed human rights to avoid antagonizing Pyongyang amid inter-Korea negotiations.
South Korea also enthusiastically endorsed the Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy. During the second Summit for Democracy in March 2023, South Korea hosted the Indo-Pacific regional conference which produced the Seoul Declaration on “Challenges and Progress in Addressing Corruption” and reaffirmed the importance of promoting democracy. At the summit, Yoon also pledged to “repay the international community for its support for Korea’s liberal democracy and prosperity” by implementing $100 million worth of development cooperation projects in support of democracy related to e-governance, digital transformation and technology, transparency, and anti-corruption efforts. Finally, South Korea agreed to host the upcoming third Summit for Democracy in March 2024.
GPS also indicates South Korea’s commitment to a rules-based international order commensurate with its increased economic capacity and strategic capabilities. As Foreign Minister Park outlined in a speech at CSIS, South Korea in the past was a “rule-taker,” but “it is now taking a new shape and making an important step towards emerging as a rule-maker.” Park emphasized South Korea’s deeper commitment to upholding values and hoped that GPS “could guide us into the wider world and into a closer alliance with the United States to contribute to peace, freedom, and prosperity.” Moreover, he proclaimed that South Korea would strive to do its part “in preserving universal values including freedom, democracy, human rights, rule of law, and embracing greater roles and responsibilities for resolving regional and global challenges in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.”
Greater strategic relevance
Despite the emphasis on values-based diplomacy, values alone do not define GPS. Rather, values and principles serve as the basis for strengthening South Korea’s strategic position and forming new global partnerships in a rapidly shifting regional and global security environment. Yoon’s anchoring of South Korea’s foreign policy to the U.S.-South Korea alliance is no coincidence. The Yoon government studied the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy closely when drafting its own strategy. In fact, it was the North American Affairs Bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — not the Asian and Pacific Affairs Bureau — that took the lead in drafting South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. Much like the Biden administration’s approach to deepening and expanding the network of like-minded allies and partners, the Yoon’s government’s vision of becoming a global pivotal state demonstrates a broader commitment to working with other countries to build a stable world order. As South Korean scholar Chung Kuyoun argues, “The idea of a global pivotal state presented by the Yoon government includes expanding networks and cooperation with like-minded nations that share South Korea’s identity, values, and strategic interests.”
South Korea’s vision behind GPS is simultaneously strategic and normative. The notion of a principled security network in which states are “building connections for a common cause” is particularly apt as the Yoon government seeks to position South Korea more centrally within the evolving Indo-Pacific security network. Less than two years into office, the Yoon government has moved quickly to strengthen a number of bilateral relationships — particularly with other democratic countries — and participate in several minilateral and multilateral forums. This includes important high-level visits and meetings and enhancing partnerships with countries and organizations, such as the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, the European Union, ASEAN members, and Pacific Island countries.
Of significance here are Yoon’s efforts to strengthen ties with the United States, the central actor in a network of like-minded democratic allies and partners, and his willingness to engage Japan, a key stakeholder behind a rules-based international order and a free and open Indo-Pacific, despite domestic political opposition. Notable highlights include Yoon’s state visit to Washington in April 2023 and a summit meeting between President Joe Biden and Yoon in Seoul just 10 days after the latter’s inauguration in May 2022.5 Yoon was also the first president in 12 years to be invited to Tokyo to meet the Japanese prime minister.
In addition to strengthening a number of bilateral ties, South Korea has also joined or actively participated in new minilateral and multilateral initiatives. As the Yoon government states in its Indo-Pacific Strategy, “our approach will be multi-layered and comprehensive as we pursue partnerships with minilateral groupings that are aligned with our principles of cooperation, as well as regional and international organizations.” Most noteworthy here is the accelerated pace of U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral cooperation over the past year. During their historical trilateral gathering at Camp David in August 2023, the leaders of the three countries released a “Spirit of Camp David” joint statement expressing how “shared values will be our guide and a free and open Indo-Pacific, in which our half-billion people are safe and prosperous, will be our collective purpose.” The statement very much resonated with Yoon’s own foreign policy vision and the narrative of GPS. Specifically, Yoon seeks to enhance South Korea’s strategic position by bolstering network ties with like-minded countries and increasing its contribution to global public goods.
Beyond the U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral, the Yoon government joined the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and the Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP). The PBP coalition includes other liberal states including Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Canada to increase diplomatic and economic ties with Pacific Island countries. The Yoon government also participated in discussions to secure global semiconductor supply chains through the Chip 4 (or Fab 4) with the United States, Japan, and Taiwan. In 2020, South Korea engaged the Quad in its brief “Quad-plus” format. Early in his tenure, Yoon expressed interest in joining the Quad if or when other members decide to expand its membership. In the meantime, the Yoon government has offered to engage Quad working groups, particularly in areas such as health, critical and emerging technologies, and space.
GPS also signals the Yoon government’s desire to “expand the geographical scope and breadth of cooperation.” This is apparent in South Korea’s broad understanding of the Indo-Pacific region which encompasses Latin America, Europe, and parts of Africa along the Indian Ocean. Relations with Europe have factored more prominently in Yoon’s first two years in office. For instance, South Korea participated in a NATO summit for the first time in 2022 and again in 2023 along with Japan, Australia, and New Zealand as part of the “AP4” (Asia-Pacific 4). On global economic cooperation, Yoon attended the 2023 G7 Summit in Hiroshima as an observer in 2023. South Korea’s representation at the G7 reignited discussion among policy experts regarding G7 expansion and the addition of South Korean membership.6
In 2023, Yoon held a summit in Seoul with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel. South Korea and the European Union (EU) called to strengthen security ties and address global challenges created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s belligerence in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. Highlighting both the strategic and normative angle to their relationship, Yoon described South Korea and the EU as “important partners that share universal values of freedom, human rights, and rule of law.” By creating deeper ties on the bilateral and multilateral front beyond the United States, South Korea is not only enmeshing itself within a principled security network but also diversifying its foreign policy strategy. Whereas reliance on the U.S. alliance and greater foreign policy autonomy have often been pitted as contrasting policy options, the Yoon government’s embrace of values has enabled South Korea to enhance ties with the United States while also carving out its own diplomatic path as it builds ties with other U.S. allies.
Boosting global public goods
Since embracing its middle-power identity, South Korea has expanded its efforts to provide global public goods. This includes providing development aid, contributing to international missions supporting peace and stability, and convening and hosting international conferences and forums.
Like his predecessors, Yoon has proudly noted South Korea’s achievement as one of the few countries to transition from an aid recipient to an aid-giving development partner. South Korea received around $13 billion in aid between 1945 and 1995 as it transitioned from a war-torn, rural economy to a modern industrial nation. By investing heavily in human capital and avoiding the middle-income trap, South Korea provided a compelling story for other nations seeking technical advice and economic support toward development goals.
Figure 1 below indicates South Korea’s official development assistance (ODA), or government aid that promotes developing countries’ welfare and economic development, from 1990 to 2022. In the decade since joining the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee in 2010, South Korea’s ODA increased by 76%. The Yoon government has increased South Korea’s contribution to ODA in line with GPS. At the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) meeting in October 2022, Yoon announced his intent to raise South Korea’s ODA budget in 2024 by a whopping 43% to $5.2 billion.7 As one Ministry of Foreign Affairs official stated, “We are hoping that with our expanded ODA budget, the Korean government will be able to serve the international community better as a Global Pivotal State.”
One specific example of the Yoon government’s increased provision of global public goods is South Korea’s outreach towards the Pacific Island countries. The Yoon government hosted the inaugural Korea-Pacific Islands Summit in Seoul in May 2023 to address climate change, sustainable development, maritime security, and cybersecurity among other issues. Following the summit, Yoon pledged to double the amount of ODA to the Pacific Islands countries to $39.9 million by 2027.
South Korea has also made significant contributions to support Ukraine, providing non-lethal military support and up to $250 million in humanitarian aid since Russia’s invasion in February 2022. For 2024, South Korea pledged $394 million to Ukraine to go toward humanitarian aid and reconstruction. Although not necessarily a public good, South Korea has also helped backfill weapons to European countries as the latter have shipped their existing stockpiles of weapons and ammunition to Ukraine. Poland, in particular, has been a major recipient of South Korean weapons, reaching agreements worth $12.32 billion for tanks, howitzers, fighter jets, and multiple-launch rocket systems. Arms sales have not only indirectly contributed to the defense of Ukraine, but have also brought greater recognition to South Korea’s growing arms industry, ranked in 2022 as the ninth-largest arms exporter in the world.
Finally, as Yoon said in his 2022 UNGA speech, South Korea seeks to leverage its advances in the emerging technology and digital space to “play a leading role in bridging the digital divide” and address challenges faced by developing nations. According to Yoon, “Korea will support the digital transformation of countries with limited digital penetration and utilization. This will enhance their citizens’ access to education, healthcare, and financial services.”
Yoon also reiterated his proposal for establishing a U.N.-based agency to address digital ethics, especially in the areas of artificial intelligence (AI) governance. To help build consensus and collaboration on digital and AI norms, South Korea plans to work closely with the U.N. Advisory Body on AI and co-host the AI Safety Summit in the first half of 2024. Additionally, South Korea helped the Netherlands co-host the conference on Responsible AI in the Military Domain (REAIM) in 2023. South Korea has also set an early bar for other governments to follow by drafting its first “Digital Bill of Rights” to promote a “new digital order” based on shared principles and values promoting mutual prosperity. In keeping with GPS’s support for values and principles, the document bears the official title, “Charter on the Values and Principles for a Digital Society of Mutual Prosperity.”
To date, most countries including the United States have welcomed South Korea’s increased global engagement. South Koreans have also given their president slightly more credit on foreign policy over other issues. However, GPS is not without its critics. Challenges on both the domestic and international front will continue to create obstacles for Yoon in promoting GPS, especially if Seoul is looking to translate GPS from a vision to an executable strategy.
Yoon’s perpetually low domestic approval rating (under 40%) and his lack of majority support in the National Assembly will continue to create political stumbling blocks for him. Hyperpolitical partisanship and the willingness of opposition party members to use foreign policy issues to undermine the president further undercuts the GPS narrative. For instance, Yoon’s diplomatic rapprochement with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and the trilateral Camp David Summit are to date Yoon’s crowning foreign policy achievements, winning accolades from much of the West. However, the Democratic Party (DP) remains highly critical of Yoon’s Japan policy; DP officials described Yoon’s handling of a Supreme Court ruling on Japanese companies’ use of forced Korean wartime labor as the “most humiliating moment” in South Korea’s diplomatic history.
Other South Koreans from the progressive camp have criticized Yoon’s foreign policy as subordinating South Korean national interests to those of the United States. As one reporter from a South Korean progressive news outlet stated, “The question is whether South Korea will be able to pull itself away from the US’ diplomatic blueprint and establish an autonomous diplomatic plan.” Yoon’s critics claim that by rigidly aligning South Korea’s values-based diplomacy with the Biden administration’s liberal narrative, South Korea ultimately reduces its flexibility to navigate between U.S.-China tensions. DP leaders have blamed Yoon for causing South Korea-China ties to deteriorate, thus hurting South Korea’s economy. The progressive camp will continue to ramp up its attacks on Yoon’s policies as South Koreans approach an important midterm election in April 2024.
Questions also remain whether the Yoon government, and South Korea more generally, has the capacity to fulfill its new ambition as a global pivotal state, or the ability to sustain the pace of Yoon’s diplomatic engagement. In 2023, Yoon traveled abroad nearly every month, visiting up to 20 foreign countries. The budget for the president’s international travel included an additional supplement of $24.8 million, and the total budget for summits more than doubled the previous record set in 2022. South Korea’s key partners have welcomed GPS and South Korea’s diplomatic engagement. At home, however, questions have surfaced about diplomatic excesses. For example, Yoon’s high-profile bid and the immense political capital expended to promote Busan as the host city for the 2030 World Expo only garnered 29 votes to Riyadh’s (the winning host city) 119 votes. Critics took the lopsided outcome as indicative of an existing gap between Yoon’s ambition for South Korea to be a GPS and Seoul’s limited influence.8
Lastly, GPS’s emphasis on values may enable opponents to rhetorically entrap the president, pointing out instances of alleged hypocrisy if the conservative government takes measures that appear undemocratic at home. Recently, critics on the left have raised concerns about the Yoon government’s silencing of journalists critical of the president by labeling their media stories as “fake news” and disinformation and filing defamation charges against reporters. Additionally, GPS may also put South Korea in a strategic bind when confronted with trade-offs between values and interests. For instance, the Yoon government may feel greater pressure to support human rights activists and dissidents, even if it means upsetting relations with important nondemocratic partners. The case of Kwon Pyong, a Chinese activist of Korean descent who illegally entered South Korea to seek political asylum, may serve as an example should Beijing demand Kwon’s return.
Conclusion and policy recommendations
Since embracing its middle-power identity in the 1990s, South Korea has expanded its global agenda each decade. However, the Yoon government’s GPS marks a critical juncture in South Korean foreign policy. Beyond the country’s rapid economic growth and rising soft power in the form of K-pop and K-dramas, the Yoon government’s effort to make South Korea a GPS represents an upgrade and rebrand in South Korean foreign policy. Under the current government, principles and values play a more central role in South Korean foreign policy similar to the way that liberal values have shaped U.S. foreign policy since the 1970s.
The Yoon government has also been much more intentional in building strategic partnerships and networks with other like-minded countries. Although South Korea has always engaged with regional institutions as an active participant in East Asian regionalism, it tended to eschew minilaterals and coalitions focused on traditional defense and security issues. The Yoon government, by contrast, seeks to elevate South Korea’s role as a reliable security partner and major arms exporter. The Yoon government is making a long-term bet that its interests will be better served and protected by leaning on the United States and enmeshing itself within a network of harmonious partners.
Finally, like his predecessors, Yoon is keen to show that South Korea can give back to the international community at a level commensurate with its growing status. The sharp increase in ODA budgeted for 2024 is perhaps the most visible manifestation of GPS. No longer content with being simply a rule follower, the Yoon government appears intent on carving out a niche where it can help set standards and shape rules and norms. Given South Korea’s advances in emerging technology and the digital space, the Yoon government has been proactive in providing its input and hosting summits on issues ranging from AI to the green energy transition in global forums.
South Korea’s increased contribution to the international community should be welcomed as geopolitical divisions continue to undermine global governance. Nevertheless, challenges including budgetary pressures, domestic political constraints, and a rapidly shifting strategic environment will continue to confront the Yoon government. To sustain GPS in the face of ongoing challenges, the Yoon and Biden governments should consider the following steps.
- Forge a stronger domestic consensus around GPS. South Koreans, whether progressive or conservative, remain proud of their own nation’s economic and political achievements and growing international recognition. Differences in foreign policy vision notwithstanding, some acknowledgment of the international contributions made by past progressive governments would illustrate how GPS transcends the partisan divide.
- Manage expectations. South Korea is actively seeking to strengthen global governance in a world of increasing disorder. However, GPS may falter under the weight of its own ambition unless carefully paced and managed. This requires creating feedback mechanisms between the domestic public and the ruling government to calibrate appropriate messaging on foreign policy, including foreign trips taken by the South Korean president. To draw lessons, South Korea may look to the critiques of former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Global Britain strategy which flamed out following his tenure. South Korea must manage expectations, avoid diplomatic overextension, and translate policy ambition into “workable foreign policy outcomes.”
- Emphasize the strategic utility of GPS. Progressives have attacked the values-based foundation of GPS as lacking in prudence and pragmatism. Seoul (and Washington) can do more to highlight the strategic value of aligning with like-minded partners and allies. Even as South Korea remains open to an inclusive foreign policy, there are tangible benefits to enmeshing one’s strategic and economic priorities with countries that share a broader vision to support existing global rules and norms. This is especially important should a future U.S. administration advocate a “strategy of restraint” or if U.S.-South Korea relations experience a downturn. Additionally, reiterating GPS’s strategic dimension will provide Seoul with more political space to work with nondemocracies.
- Leverage new and strengthened partnerships to bring attention to North Korean issues. NATO and ASEAN are outlets where South Korea can reach new audiences in Europe and the Global South and project its concerns regarding North Korea on a range of issues, including nuclear and missile proliferation, cyberattacks, illicit arms sales, human rights, and humanitarian needs.
- Continue to prioritize and build on early diplomatic gains and cite them as achievements under GPS. This includes building on the Yoon-Biden and Yoon-Kishida summits in 2023 and the Spirit of Camp David trilateral joint statement which serve as anchors for South Korea’s regional and global strategic engagement.
- Provide greater focus on emerging issue areas where South Korea already carries comparative advantages and/or firsthand experience. This includes taking the lead in areas related to digital governance, human development, economic security, and green growth (among others) as opportunities arise.
- Institutionalize South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. Although GPS in name may not extend beyond the Yoon government, the principles behind GPS as a grand strategy can persist through the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Steps can be taken to create a bureaucratic office within the MOFA to address Indo-Pacific issues. Other nations with an Indo-Pacific strategy such as the United States, France, and the Czech Republic have a point person coordinating their Indo-Pacific strategies. South Korea might consider creating such a position.
- Allies such as the United States should continue to encourage South Korea to promote its GPS vision and support minilateral and multilateral initiatives, particularly in the economic security and digital space where South Korea has the potential to play a pivotal role.
Acknowledgements and disclosures
The author is grateful to Hanna Foreman for research assistance, and to two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions. The author would like to thank Adam Lammon for editing and Rachel Slattery for layout.
- “Middle power” here is defined as a country that possesses the capacity and desire to shape outcomes in “niche areas of global governance“ in concert with other like-minded states. In the 21st century, middle power leadership entails behaving as a responsible global citizen, “acting cooperatively with others in solving international problems,” and contributing to global public goods.
- As one South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs official told the author, “South Korea faced increasing threats from China, but was also losing its relevance relative to other U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific, thus undermining South Korean national security.”
- Email correspondence with Kim Sung-han, November 17, 2023.
- China has thus far exercised considerable restraint in its response to South Korea’s more vocal position on human rights, as well as South Korean engagement with U.S.-led initiatives such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, the Chips 4, and NATO meetings. At most, Beijing has issued only diplomatic protests to South Korea when the Yoon government stated that tensions on the Taiwan Strait were a global issue, and caused by “attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by force.”
- Describing their relationship as a “Global Comprehensive Strategic Alliance,” the two leaders also produced a long list of deliverables and pledges for expanded cooperation on issues ranging from defense and global security cooperation to economic, commercial, and environmental cooperation, and also technology, digital, and space cooperation.
- Yoon’s participation follows President Moon’s attendance at the G7 Summit in 2021.
- This amounts to an annual increase of $2.18 billion in ODA. Others have calculated this increase at $1.51 billion.
- Yoon had even hosted a Korea National Day dinner reception for the voting representatives in Paris on the eve of their vote under the theme “Korea’s capabilities as a global pivotal nation.”