Stimson: South Korean Angle on the Taiwan Strait: Familiar Issue, Unfamiliar Option

February 23, 2023

by: Seong-Hyon Lee

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The issue of Taiwan was catapulted to center stage among U.S.-China issues in 2021, and Washington’s allies are examining their geopolitical calculus accordingly. In May 2021, after a summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Joe Biden, the two leaders issued a joint statement that emphasized: “the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” While this phrase, in particular, has drawn considerable attention from security experts about its meaning, it seems premature to declare it evidence of a “shift” in the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) foreign policy.

President Moon has been perceived as playing a careful balancing act between the U.S., which is South Korea’s key military ally, and China, which is its largest trade partner. The joint statement has been interpreted as the Moon administration having finally come around to aligning itself with Washington’s thinking in the U.S.-China rivalry.

The joint statement also included pledges to extend the scope of the U.S.-ROK alliance, which has been primarily centered on deterring North Korean hostilities, to “far beyond the Korean Peninsula.” This included increased economic cooperation in the areas of semi-conductors, supply chain resilience, cyber security, and advancing 5G and 6G technology. It also included phrases such as the “Quad,” “a free and open Indo-Pacific,” “freedom of navigation,” and other terms promoted by the U.S. in its strategic competition with China.

The joint statement thus reflects a departure from the ROK’s usual ambiguity about its relations with both China and the U.S., indicating a clearer favor of Washington over Beijing. “It is highly likely that China will see that as South Korea’s completely tilting toward the United States, especially the mention [sic] of the Taiwan Strait,” said Wi Sung-lac, a retired career diplomat, underscoring the fact that the wording about “Taiwan” was included for the first time.1 “Even compared to a joint statement from a previous conservative government, the joint statement [this time] made considerable progress in terms of the U.S.-ROK alliance,” noted Kim Sung-han, a former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs under the conservative Lee Myung-bak government.2 It is also worth noting that the Taiwan matter was included in the joint military communique, again, for the first time, at the annual Security Consultative Meeting (SCM), which is the highest-level defense dialogue between the ROK and the U.S.

Diplomatic Optics and Reality

However, after returning to Seoul from the Washington summit, President Moon’s top diplomats quickly backtracked from the spirit of the joint statement regarding the Taiwan issue. “The Taiwan-related expressions [in the joint statement] are ‘very general expressions’(아주 일반적인 표현),” responded ROK Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong, when asked about the significance of the first-ever inclusion of the Taiwan Strait issue in a U.S.-ROK joint statement, during a press conference in Seoul on May 22, 2021. ROK Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-gun echoed that sentiment: “What we talked about [in the joint statement] were general matters.” Seemingly, in a further attempt to appease China, Choi added: “China will highly appreciate the fact that South Korea did not directly mention China.” On the other hand, Japan’s joint statement with the United States, which was issued a month earlier, explicitly mentioned China regarding the Taiwan issue and criticized China for its violation of human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

This apparent backtracking raises the question of why the Moon administration included the Taiwan issue in the joint statement in the first place? Contrary to the joint statement’s dramatic wording, ensuing events and remarks from the Moon administration indicate that the ROK’s pre-existing foreign policy stance between the U.S. and China remains firmly in place. For instance, during a summit press conference with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in December 2021, a journalist asked President Moon: “The Australian Defense Minister recently said it would be inconceivable for Australia not to join the U.S. in some kind of operation to defend Taiwan. As a U.S. ally, would it also be inconceivable for South Korea not to join in some kind of defense of Taiwan, were that to be needed?” Moon refused to be drawn into the question but instead read from a pre-prepared memo in his hand, merely noting the importance of “a peaceful management of the Cross-Strait issues.”3  Regarding the ROK’s position on the U.S. and China, President Moon explained: “We want a [harmonized] relationship.”4

Furthermore, if the Moon administration attached real significance to the wording on Taiwan, then it would be reasonable to expect Seoul to have informed Taipei about its decision. However, interviews that the author conducted with diplomatic sources possessing direct knowledge of the matter indicate that no such notification took place.

Ironically, Taiwan praised South Korea’s unprecedented move. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs openly expressed “gratitude” via Twitter to President Moon for emphasizing the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. The tweet said Taiwan will “keep working with” South Korea in this regard. It would appear that Taiwan expected some form of follow-up from South Korea that did not happen.

When Taiwan approached the South Korean government to inquire about the matter, the response was nonchalant, with Seoul saying it was just “a diplomatic statement.” The Taiwanese side was also told that the joint statement’s wording of “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” was something that even China regularly uses, advising against overinterpretation. Seoul-Taipei ties, instead of improving, turned sour soon afterward.

In December 2021, for instance, the South Korean Presidential Committee on the Fourth Industrial Revolution invited Taiwan Digital Minister Audrey Tang to give a virtual speech. However, just hours before the conference, its organizers abruptly informed Taipei, via email, that Tang’s scheduled address had been canceled. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs lodged an official protest over the discourtesy. It was speculated that the Moon administration canceled the speech by the Taiwanese government official for fear of offending China. The South Korean government said only that the decision was based on “a comprehensive review of all related aspects.” This incident was widely condemned even by South Korean media, and the manner in which the South Korean government handled this issue was reminiscent of a similar incident in 1992 when South Korea severed its diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

The Connect and Disconnect in 1992

South Korea established its diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1992. However, doing so came at a high price—one of mainland China’s primary conditions was for South Korea to sever its diplomatic ties with Taiwan. This event aroused strong emotions in both Seoul and Taipei.

After South Korea launched its current statehood as the Republic of Korea in 1948, Taiwan was the second country, after the U.S., to recognize the ROK.5 Taiwan aided South Korea and the U.S. during the Korean War by dispatching soldiers who dealt with the Chinese prisoners of war and intelligence. During the Cold War era, South Korea and Taiwan were both staunch anti-communist and divided nations aspiring for reunification. At that time, South Koreans referred to Taiwan as “Free China” (jayu jungguk), in contrast to the communist PRC.

In 1992, when South Korea was preparing to establish diplomatic ties with China, Seoul kept it secret until the last minute, honoring China’s request. In fact, the South Korean government, under President Roh Tae-woo at the time, denied doing so when Taiwan’s then-President Lee Teng Hui sent his Secretary-General Tsiang Yien Si to Seoul in May 1992 to inquire about Seoul’s intentions.6 Three months later, in August 1992, South Korea officially informed Taiwan authorities of its decision to change its diplomatic ties to China, giving Taiwan officials a three-day period to vacate its embassy in Seoul.7

Taiwan reacted angrily. “The government of Roh Tae-woo has violated the trust and trampled on international justice,” said Taiwan’s then-Foreign Minister Fredrick Chien.8 Taiwan lowered its flag at its embassy in Myeongdong in the late summer of 1992. About 2,000 Taiwanese gathered to observe the flag-lowering ceremony, many of them sobbing. The ambassador Charles Shu Chi King comforted them, saying, “We’ll come back.”9 South Korea was the last Asian country to have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

A majority of South Korean citizens, including former South Korean diplomats who were involved in the China-Taiwan diplomatic transfer matter at that time, later expressed remorse about the abrupt and clumsy manner in which the whole matter was executed by South Korean leadership.10 Due to this checkered history, some older Taiwanese citizens still harbor bitter feelings toward South Korea.

A Taiwan Contingency: Familiar Topic, Unfamiliar Strategy

South Korea is currently in a transitional period as incumbent President Moon Jae-in’s term is winding down. In March 2022, a new president will be elected.

So far, despite Taiwan’s geopolitical situation featuring heavily in South Korean media, the Taiwan Strait issue has yet to enter the country’s mainstream policy agenda. Moreover, some pockets of South Korea’s policy community feel uneasy when the U.S. begins to place greater emphasis on the issue of Taiwan than on the issue of North Korea.

North Korea may also find the diversion of U.S. attention from the Korean Peninsula to the Taiwan Strait to be an opportunity to engage in more military adventurism against South Korea. Seventy years ago, the North invaded the South when it saw the U.S. exclude South Korea from its strategic defense line in Asia, called the Acheson Line. In December 2021, a survey by a Washington-based think tank, the Institute for Corean-American Studies (ICAS), of American security experts on Asia noted that 84 percent of respondents said they believe that a “two-front conflict” (i.e., Taiwan Strait and the Korean Peninsula) was possible.

It is plausible that Pyongyang and Beijing may form a joint stance against a joint move by Washington and Seoul in simultaneously dealing with two crises in the Taiwan Strait and the Korean Peninsula. However, in regard to the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. is more likely to procure South Korea’s involvement in policy rather than military matters for now, until the ROK’s existential concerns about North Korea and China are addressed.

The Next South Korean Government’s Stance on Taiwan

Much of South Korea’s foreign policy positions will depend on the next president, who will take office in May 2022. The main contenders are Lee Jae-myung, the ruling Democratic Party’s pick, who until recently was the governor of Gyeonggi province, which surrounds Seoul; and Yoon Seok-youl, who was the ROK’s chief prosecutor until March 2021 and is the presidential candidate for the main opposition party—the conservative People Power Party (PPP).

As of mid-February 2022, neither of them had yet to publicly mention the Taiwan Strait issue, despite the amount of international attention on the subject. Yet, based on their political party lines and domestic discussions, it is possible to glean a few defining differences and commonalities.

Lee’s foreign policy is likely to be “Moon Jae-in foreign policy version 2.0,” centered on the issue of North Korea. His foreign policy team, which is mostly comprised of those advisors from the Moon administration and its extended circle of academic experts, would prefer that the thorny Taiwan issue does not outstrip the North Korea mandate. Overall, Lee is likely to be tuned into the argument that South Korea should not be dragged into military disputes abroad, such as in the Taiwan Strait. The tendency of South Korea’s progressive wing, to which Lee belongs, to not undermine its ties with China, will be a factor too.

Yoon is likely to approach the Taiwan issue from a stance more aligned with the U.S., a signature political predisposition of his party, the PPP. He will also likely display more clarity in siding with the United States over China in their rivalry when it comes to overall ROK foreign policy postures, including democratic values and human rights.

However, when it comes to the Taiwan issue, it should be emphasized that the matter has yet to become a mainstream discussion among South Korea’s political elite, including at the National Assembly. The majority of emerging discussions are raised by a handful of security experts and are limited to the scope of the United States Forces Korea’s possible deployment in the event of such a contingency.

Even Yoon, the conservative pro-American candidate, will approach the Taiwan issue from a deterrence angle as an extension of the geopolitical security of the Korean Peninsula. Against that backdrop, a debate about possible military involvement abroad, especially near the Korean Peninsula, such as in the Taiwan Strait, will easily become a domestic political firestorm in South Korea.

This is understandable, given that the nation was plunged into a war 72 years ago. The ensuing decades-long inter-Korean military tension and North Korea’s notorious nuclear and missile adventurism continue to keep the nation on high alert to this day. Furthermore, South Korea’s geographical proximity to an increasingly assertive China makes it quite vulnerable in the case of its outbound military deployment for a Taiwan contingency.

Looking ahead, regardless of whoever becomes the next president, South Korea is not in a position to exaggerate its current ability to intervene in case war breaks out on the Taiwan Strait. On the other hand, South Korea’s future ability will rest upon its deterrence capability vis-à-vis North Korea and China—its immediate two neighbors. Only once its own security concerns are assuaged through the enhancement of its offensive capabilities and with a stronger U.S.-ROK alliance will it set the ROK military free to go beyond the Korean Peninsula.

Seong-Hyon Lee a is a senior fellow with the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. The views expressed in this interview are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S. China Relations.