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Panel 7. South Korea’s foreign and security policy under Moon Jae-in

Chair: Antonio Fiori (University of Bologna)
Discussant: Antonio Fiori (University of Bologna)

Date: Saturday  9.00 - 10.45
Room: Aula L (Complesso Belmeloro)


The election of the progressive President Moon Jae-in in South Korea, in May 2017, after a seven months-long political and social crisis, led to a reshaping of the country’s priorities for what concerns foreign and security policies. After a decade of conservative governments, the new president decided to prioritize a more conciliatory approach toward North Korea and a more cooperative regional environment, without undermining the alliance with the US.
These changes in managing the country’s foreign policy can be considered as largely informed by the traditional strategies of South Korea’s progressive parties, which emphasize regional cooperation, inter-Korean relations and a more independent foreign policy. This reappraisal is also motivated by the need for a clear change with the previous government of Park Geun-hye, which ended in disgrace after weeks of massive public demonstration and a process of impeachment. Against the traditional perspective which considers South Korea’s foreign policy as largely dominated by the alliance with the US and the constant threat of North Korea, the role of these crucial domestic factors demonstrate the importance of the internal dimension and also of the agency of South Korean policy-makers in determining the country’s foreign policy.
This panel explores the recent developments in South Korea’s foreign policy through the lens of domestic politics which emphasis the primary role of the South Korean government. In doing so, the panel will analyse three crucial aspects for the future of the country’s foreign and security policy: the relations with North Korea and the alliance with the US; its role as a regional and global middle power; and the recent rebalancing of South Korea’s foreign policy towards Southeast Asia.

Key words: South Korea, North Korea, Inter-Korean relations, East Asia, foreign policy.


Confirmed Papers: 

1) Moon’s new ‘Sudpolitik’ and the rebalancing of South Korea’s foreign policy towards Southeast Asia
Andrea Passeri (University of Bologna)

With the election of President Moon Jae-in 2017, South Korea’s regional diplomacy has experienced a gradual yet substantial shift from a traditional emphasis on Northeast Asia as its key geopolitical domain to an almost unprecedented degree of political activism towards ASEAN states, under the banner of a brand-new ‘Southern Policy’. The strategy – firstly unveiled by the Korean delegation at the APEC summit held in Vietnam in November 2017 – seeks to establish the so-called ‘ASEAN-Korea Future-oriented Community Initiative’ (AKCI) as a key avenue to further boost economic exchanges, joint-development programs, as well as multilateral cooperation among the two sides, revolving around the ‘three Ps’ principles of ‘People, Prosperity, and Peace’.
To a large extent, the switch pursued by the current government mirrors an ambitious response to years of faltering and wavering commitment displayed towards Southeast Asia by the previous administrations of Roh Moo-hyun, Lee Myung-bak, and Park Geun-hye, which delegated to private and economic stakeholders the task of making inroads into ASEAN, in order to concentrate their foreign policy agendas on the Korean peninsula and the northern portion of the region. Additionally, Seoul’s southern push appears also consistent with a series of shared and long-terms strategic interests that characterize both South Korea and the vast majority of ASEAN states, ranging from nuclear proliferation to the dilemma of how to deal with an increasingly influent and assertive China, while also keeping the U.S. committed to the region as an indispensable security provider. In Southeast Asia, moreover, the Moon presidency can finally raise and add substance to Korea’s credentials as a dynamic and effective middle power, thus fulfilling its aspirations and role perceptions in the international community. In light of such drivers, the following paper analyses Seoul’s ongoing attempt to diversify its diplomatic reach beyond Northeast Asia and the regional major powers, such as China, Japan, the U.S. and Russia, arguing that this unprecedented engagement with ASEAN countries reflects a strategy implemented by the Moon administration to enhance South Korea’s room for maneuvering amidst mounting great power rivalries.

2) Solving the ‘South Korean dilemma’: Moon Jae-in new-old policy towards North Korea and the United States
Marco Milani (University of Sheffield)

The election of President Moon Jae-in marked a clear change in South Korea’s foreign policy, in particular for what concerns relations with North Korea. Following the progressive political tradition, from the onset of his presidency Moon implemented a conciliatory approach that was aimed at reinstating inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation, and at enhancing cooperation in the region. This new policy was largely considered as an attempt to restart the so-called ‘Sunshine Policy’ which was pursued by his progressive predecessors Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.
In just a few months, this shift in managing the country’s foreign policy brought about relevant results in terms of relations with North Korea. After the first conciliatory gestures during the Pyeonchang Winter Olympics, the leader of the two countries met in April for the third inter-Korean summit. A few weeks later, the first historical meeting between the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the American President Trump took place in June. Furthermore, South Korea has rebuilt good relations with China, after several months of tensions related to the deployment of the American anti-missile system THAAD on the peninsula. At the same time, unlike his progressive predecessor – and political mentor – Roh Moo-hyun, Moon has been able to pursue this conciliatory approach without undermining the alliance with the US, thus ensuring a higher degree of efficacy to his policy.
This paper analyses Moon Jae-in’s policy toward North Korea and the United States in his first year in office, focusing on the existing dilemma between a conciliatory approach toward Pyongyang and a strong alliance with the United States. After having examined the historical roots of the current administration’s approach, the paper argues that Moon’s strategy of combining cooperation and reassurance, can represent a viable option to reduce tension on the peninsula without undermining South Korea’s alliance with the US.

3) South Korea’s foreign policy stuck on the ‘emerging’ middle power puzzle
Francesca Frassineti (University of Bologna)

The victory of the liberal candidate Moon Jae-in in the 2017 presidential elections saw the third transition of power between the opposition and the government since South Korea’s democratization in 1987, which had marked a watershed moment also for the country’s foreign policy reconfiguration towards domestic and international audiences. As a matter of fact, it brought about a contestation process among foreign policy elites regarding the roles the country should play to overcome the dominant Cold War narrative which had framed Seoul’s foreign policy as heavily reliant on its alliance with the United States and almost exclusively engaged with the ‘Peninsula question’. Since then the country has used its growing capabilities to pursue a more autonomous course in its foreign policy under the leadership of progressive and conservative presidents at the regional and global level respectively, finally succeeding in being acknowledged as an emerging middle power.
So far Moon’s foreign policy agenda has been inevitably dominated by the ‘North Korea issue’. The president has invested much political and reputational capital on brokering talks between Washington and Pyongyang, but most of all on reviving inter-Korean relations. Against this backdrop, Moon’s regional vision has come into focus as well. While the ‘New Southern Policy’ shows a certain degree of novelty, the ‘New Northern Policy’ stems as a rebrand of similar initiatives carried out by previous administrations. President Moon shares with both his liberal and conservative the aim of bolstering Seoul’s middle power credentials since middle power has become the concept with which South Korean contemporary practitioners want the country to be associated. Nevertheless, his administration’s bandwidth for an ambitious middlepowermanship is severely reduced by the hurdles pertaining to the domestic realm and the volatile geostrategic environment which have prevented South Korea from fully translating its aspirations into coherent and consistent foreign policy initiatives at either levels, leading to the current slowdown in the middle power diplomatic momentum.
The paper draws a connection between the domestic and the international arenas to evaluate the degree of continuity in Moon Jae-in’s foreign policy initiatives with a focus on the limitations related to the institutional and bureaucratic inner workings of South Korea’s foreign policy making which are likely to hamper the country’s further efforts to graduate from being the always ‘emerging’ middle power of the Asia-Pacific context.

4) China’s Foreign Policy Strategy under the shadow of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal
Sergio Miracola (ISPI)

After the conclusion of the Singapore Summit on June 12, it seemed clear that China was one of those few countries that benefited the most from the outcome. Why was this the case even if Beijing did not formally participate at the summit? What did China achieve from the summit? Besides answering these questions, the present paper also argues that China’s diplomatic success can be explained, methodologically, by looking at the actual Chinese diplomatic strategies that the government adopted in order to achieve its foreign policy objectives. What have been, then, those Chinese strategic tools which paved the way for Beijing’s success and which still play a relevant role within Chinese foreign policy conduct? And how has China successfully implemented them? In order to answer these questions, this paper argues that China has heavily relied on its historical political traditions, which still play a relevant role in shaping today’s Chinese foreign policy conduct. In other words, the objective is to demonstrate how the past still exerts a deep influence on Chinese foreign policy, by looking specifically at the centrality of past successful foreign policy strategies such as the yi yi zhi yi or the fen er zhi zhi. The additional objective of this paper is to demonstrate how the correct application of these two strategies has contributed to shape China’s overall success over the North Korean nuclear issue. That is, China’s ability to artfully play a deterministic role between the US-DPRK confrontation. A role which allowed China to get on one hand North Korea closer and willing to align itself with the Chinese overall security vision for the region, while on the other project to the United States an image of itself as a responsible stakeholder, eager to contribute to solve the North Korean nuclear issue.

Keywords: China, North Korea, USA, diplomacy, political tradition, yiyizhiyi, fenerzhizhi, Singapore Summit, nuclear weapons, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un.