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Hunting for a Bigger Slice of the American Pie

President Yoon

Editor-in-Chief Fintan Hogan discusses the shifting geopolitical situation of South Korea and the changing aspirations of its politicians. Stuck between China and the USA, how will South Korea hedge its bets?

South Koreans don’t tend to think of their country as very important. It’s long been popular to refer to the peninsula as ‘a prawn amongst whales’. Trapped between China and Japan, it’s easy to understand why. Others, too, tend to know little and care less. Despite the 140,000 American casualties, the Korean War (1950-53) is still known as the ‘Forgotten War’ in the US. Closer to home, the nation is dwarfed by their Chinese neighbour, whose GDP grew more in 2020 than the total size of South Korea’s economy. In Europe, it’s probably best known for K-Pop and barbeque. A cultural influence maybe, but an important international actor? Insignificance beckons.

Indeed, in the 1950s the Republic of Korea (ROK) was a rural, corrupt and impoverished vassal state of the US. But economic development under the dictatorial president Park Chung-Hee in the 1960s and 1970s was so impressive that it was dubbed ‘the miracle on the Han River’. This economic revolution laid the groundwork for a democratic one; after student-led protests swept the country in 1987, the Sixth Republic was declared. South Korea had achieved what many thought was impossible – in half a century it had gone from military occupation to liberal democracy. GDP per capita is now equivalent to Italy’s. Life expectancy is the fifth highest in the world. It has over half a million active soldiers. Quite the prawn.

So as the world begins to split in half once again, things are unlikely to play out in the twenty-first century how they did in the twentieth. During the Cold War, America had the final word on most things in South Korea. Out of the rubble of World War Two, an American security guarantee was the gold standard for dictators and democracies alike. The 1953 Mutual Defence Treaty gave the Americans carte blanche to request whatever they wanted from South Korean leaders. The South knew that it depended on America’s support and on its soldiers to prevent attack from the (at the time) more powerful North. While retaining some independence, it was a de facto proxy state. Not so any more. 

In its emerging conflict with China, America is scrambling for allies. As it begins to lean on friendly countries to cut out the Chinese state, it may face bigger difficulties than it expects. Nations are now accustomed to being hooked into a global economy with relatively free trade, but the US is trying to push its allies to close their doors, ports and wallets to cheap Chinese goods. This has notably alienated the European Union (EU), which is upset by the protectionism now endorsed by both Democrats and Republicans

South Korea feels the same way. Having become a global force through export-oriented industrial policy, it begrudges America trying (once again) to tell it what to do. America is yet to realise that its Sinophobia is not as popular elsewhere – even in East Asia. While public opinion in South Korea is strongly sceptical of the Chinese government, the US is asking too much, too fast. Pressuring Korean firms not to sell extra microchips to China and yet subsiding American firms which will directly compete with ROK imports is no way to win friends. China may be politically unpopular, but as South Korea’s biggest trading partner there is little public appetite to stop the hugely successful economic partnership. Washington should realise that there is little incentive to put South Korea between a rock and a hard place. If it continues to strongarm Seoul, it may find that Beijing is more than happy to put out a welcoming hand to a disgruntled US ally. 

America currently enjoys a shrinking window of political opportunity. China is still more-or-less the only ally of North Korea, which is a huge stumbling block to ROK-China relations. North Korea’s nuclear threats are keeping the South Koreans close enough to Washington to squeeze under its nuclear umbrella. It currently has a conservative president in Yoon Suk-yeol and there is enormous public support for the American military alliance. 

Yet even the hawkish, conservative Yoon is reluctant to bash China, and more cautious than many of his predecessors about ever upsetting Beijing. He has backtracked on a pledge to host more US-provided weapons since this unsettled Chinese diplomats. After Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, President Yoon refused to meet her (contrary to the norm that conservative politicians usually crave showing the public they are ‘forging closer ties’ with the US). Despite reaching a rapprochement with Japan over a lingering reparations dispute, there is little desire to aggravate China by joining a broader regional alliance. To further their desire for autonomy, 70% of South Koreans now support the creation of an indigenous nuclear arsenal, removing the last important piece of leverage held by the US.

President Biden should therefore be a little more considerate in handing out prizes to his friends. Yoon’s recent trip to Washington made few headlines – save one. Much to the apparent delight of President Biden, Yoon gave a rather impressive rendition of the 1971 smash-hit ‘American Pie’.

The US will have to offer a bigger slice to its erstwhile allies if it wants to keep them on board in the future. Beijing will not hesitate to frame the US as a reactionary, protectionist power if it continues to drive down imports and raise up tensions. Even as America tries to drive a wedge in the region, finance ministers from China, Japan and South Korea are pictured holding hands and promising goodwill. Even as China rallies against a new American commitment to defend South Korea in case of a nuclear war, Seoul is making it very clear that it would like Beijing’s help in dealing with North Korea. If China can – and this remains to be seen – reign in Kim Jong-un, the allure of America grows duller still.

If both Democrats and Republicans continue to insist on splitting the global economy down the middle, they will have to make a more compelling case for joining their side. A good start would be to stop punishing firms for importing from South Korea by subsidising their US-based competitors. This will offer President Yoon, who has been criticised for returning home largely empty-handed, something to show for quite literally singing the praises of the US. Korean politics tends to swing like a pendulum between left and right. Only three years remain until it’s quite likely that an America-sceptic liberal is elected – better act fast, before China starts handing out goodies.

The biggest asset still enjoyed by American diplomats is the lingering goodwill for its support during and since the Korean War – last week marked the 70th anniversary of their formal military alliance. However, since South Korea’s political maturity has made this relationship less important, even conservative groups are struggling to justify the high price America now puts on its friendship. It’s time to offer them something a little sweeter – a bigger slice of the American pie.

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