South Korea’s Political Bifurcation Will Stifle Any Trilateral Agreement – The Diplomat

On August 18, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, and U.S. President Joe Biden met at Camp David for a trilateral meeting. Afterwards, they publicly stated they shared a vision for their partnership and the Indo-Pacific. They declared that this partnership was based ona bedrock of shared values, mutual respect, and a unified commitment to advance the prosperity of our three countries, the region, and the globe,” while resisting other unilateral attempts (meaning China) to change the status quo by force or coercion. The resulting Camp David Principles listed several liberal norms based on trust, respecting human rights, free and open economic economics, and other promises. 

These ideas sound pleasing in a briefing on the White House website, the South Korean Presidential Office website, or the Prime Minister of Japan’s website. Multiple journalists and scholars have noted that the agreement significantly shifted East Asian geopolitics; the summit has been described as historic and a new era in trilateral relations. Others have been skeptical for a number of reasons. 

Less discussed is how an important ideological bifurcation within South Korea – “South-South conflict” – and left-leaning nationalist populism will likely stifle any agreement being realized. 

The South-South Conflict and Leftist Populism

South Koreans have a penchant for aphorisms, with controversy over the Sunshine Policy in the 2000s leading to the creation of the term “South-South conflict.” South-South conflict is a term used to explain how political polarization in South Korea impacts foreign policy. In particular, the political left (liberals and progressives) and the political right (conservatives) have been locked in an ideological conflict that has resulted in different foreign policy preferences. 

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The foreign policy platform for the South Korean left has been clear: justice in relation to Japan, engagement with North Korea, and, when applicable, autonomy from other powers, including the United States. This approach contrasts with conservatives, who have favored more conditional engagement with North Korea, cooperation with Japan on security and other strategic concerns, and a reliance on the South Korea-U.S. military alliance. 

Many observers, including U.S. policymakers, journalists, and scholars, view South Korea more through conservative positions. However, a clearer understanding of South Korea’s domestic political bifurcation is required to fully comprehend how future left-leaning leadership will act toward the Camp David principles. Below, I offer two examples of how preferences have undermined security agreements in the past. 

On November 23, 2016, the governments of South Korea and Japan signed the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). GSOMIA allows more seamless intelligence sharing between Japan and South Korea, and the United States regarding North Korean activities in the region. This would be a bipartisan issue in most countries. Not in South Korea. 

In 2019, the left-leaning Moon Jae-in government terminated GSOMIA after spats over trade and historical matters soured relations. To the South Korean left, distancing itself from Japan was more important than the security benefits brought by the agreement. In March of this year, conservative leadership in South Korea and Japan formally agreed to reinstate GSOMIA. 

Anti-Americanism is also associated with the South Korean left. In late 2016, the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) was deployed to South Korea in response to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile threats. However, as a presidential hopeful, Moon Jae-in proposed to postpone THAAD deployment for the next president to decide. When elected, Moon “characterized the THAAD deployment as ‘temporary’. Moon also ordered the suspension of the additional deployment of the THAAD launcher, citing the need to conduct an ‘environmental impact assessment.’” 

This disappointed the United States. However, like the case above, Seoul’s position reversed and THAAD was fully deployed when Yoon became president.

Both examples highlight the divergence in how the Korean left and right tackle ideologically sensitive issues, particularly concerning independence and sovereignty. 

Lee Jae-myung Labels Japan and Yoon ‘Terrorists’ 

In 2023, the South Korean left remains anti-Japanese and willing to risk cutting security ties over ideational concerns. One issue highlights this topic quite clearly. The release of treated water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the ocean prompted discussions on why it was occurring and saw outrage from countries in the region, including China and South Korea.

There are, of course, legitimate concerns with the release of treated nuclear water. However, many responses, including South Korea, expose anti-Japanese sentiment and, in some cases, misinformation campaigns. 

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On August 25, Lee Jae-myung, current leader of the opposition Democratic Party, led an anti-Yoon Suk-yeol and anti-Fukushima water discharge demonstration through the middle of Seoul. Lee, who narrowly lost the 2022 election to Yoon, led the marching crowd through many anti-Japanese chants. Lee also used the Fukushima issue for a domestic political attack when he made the rather outrageous claim that Yoon was an accomplice in Japan’s environmental “terrorism.” Subsequently, Lee has gone on a hunger strike, protesting various government policies, including Yoon’s passive stance over releasing treated water from the Fukushima plant. 

There is no debate about the nuclear issue or the science behind what is happening. Instead, discussions are replaced by normative values of Japan being the proverbial bogeyman. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has clearly stated the water coming out of Fukushima is treated water; the Korean left has labeled it as waste. Scientists and the South Korean and Japanese governments have labeled the release of water as safe. Both Yoon and Kishida have also eaten fish from the waters around Fukushima. 

But the Korean left has already decided this action is a negative for the region. If another country conducted similar measures, the Democratic Party’s response might be very different.

When the Left Wins, Trilateral Cooperation is Finished

Trilateral cooperation between South Korea, Japan, and the United States is vital for the U.S.-centric security architecture in East Asia, especially with a more assertive China and a well-armed North Korea. 

However, the South Korean left and conservative Japanese governments mix like oil and water. Shunning cooperation with Japan has long been a linchpin of the South Korean progressive and liberal agenda stemming from historical human rights and decolonization issues. Cleansing South Korea from any Japanese influence has been a self-professed desire of the Korean left, including former President Moon Jae-in. Lee Jae-myung has firmly played by the Democratic Party playbook, seeking to bring back most of the policies Moon and Roh Moo-hyun promoted. 

The future of the Camp David principles depends on a range of issues. Not least, South Korea’s domestic politics will impact the newly minted agreement. Any trilateral agreement will be torn to shreds and discarded when the Korean left makes it into office, whether in 2027 or later in the future. 

The Democratic Party has proven it has a penchant for deferring security issues in favor of nationalist populist ideas. When the South Korean left re-enter the executive, all momentum will be lost. Understanding this domestic dynamic is essential. Without convincing the South Korean political left that various threats in the Indo-Pacific are more critical than perceived threats to their national identity, there is little chance that the Camp David Principles will institutionalize the trilateral alliance.

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