KIMS Periscope No. 306
South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy : Steps for lifting the veil of sea blindness
Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) King’s College London
The Yoon Suk Yeol administration published South Korea’s first-ever Indo-Pacific Strategy in the last days of 2022. This document is crucial because it is the most significant foreign policy strategic document of the Yoon administration and gives a comprehensive description of how Seoul intends to become a ‘Global Pivotal State’. The conceptual foundation of the document is partially based on maritime security emphasizing the relevance of sea lines of communication for South Korea.
The strategy highlights that Seoul is pursuing a ‘free, peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific’, where ‘all nations co-exist harmoniously’, and the Republic of Korea (ROK) intends to play a leading role in this process. Accordingly, the ROK wants to ‘uphold international norms and strengthen a rules-based order built on the universal values including freedom, democracy, the rule of law, and human rights’. The core theme and the golden thread that goes through the strategy is that South Korea will increase cooperation with other nations in several key areas.
This emphasis on cooperation is understandable for several reasons. First, as an open economy whose prosperity depends on seamless global trade, collaboration for Seoul with as many actors as possible is crucial. Second, as Zack Cooper has recently pointed out previously, South Korea’s new ambition of becoming a ‘Global Pivotal State’ clashes with the reality that the ROK is under-institutionalized on the global stage, and – compared to many other regional and global actors – it has fewer bi-, mini- and multilateral engagements with like-minded nations. The Indo-Pacific Strategy of South Korea does an excellent job of starting to solve this problem by cleverly and comprehensively explaining nine areas of cooperation Seoul is interested in, how it sees its role in them and its potential collaboration with specific partners. Furthermore, the document has a global outlook. Thus, it also discusses the relationship with countries from the Indo-Pacific and nations and organizations from other regions which are actively engaging with the Indo-Pacific region.
The White House praised the document as a reflection of the US-ROK ‘shared commitment to the region’s security and growing prosperity’. At the same time, Beijing’s response was lackluster and warned against establishing ‘exclusive coteries’. Indeed, many analysts pointed out that although the document depicts China as a ‘key partner for achieving prosperity and peace’ and avoids criticizing Beijing openly, Seoul highlights its alignment with Washington and, between the lines, expresses discomfort regarding China. For instance, previous administrations rarely mentioned sensitive issues involving Beijing. However, the current strategy touches upon the disputes in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea and also rejects ‘unilateral change of status quo by force’ in the Indo-Pacific.
This maritime focus is a prominent but not exclusive theme in the document and partially provides the conceptual starting point for the strategy. Early on, the strategy highlights that South Korea’s trade depends on sea lines of communication. For instance, the South China Sea is a crucial sea route for 64% of ROK’s oil and 46% of South Korea’s natural gas imports. Furthermore, Seoul also regards the Indian Ocean, the Malacca Strait and the Strait of Hormuz as key areas of maritime security. The document also reflects on the rising geopolitical competition, deepening arms race, democratic backsliding and challenges to universal values including the rule of law, protectionism, supply chain disruptions and North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities. The strategy does not explain the implications of these issues in more detail, but it intimates that if any conflict happens in the Indo-Pacific region that threatens the sea lines of communication, the South Korean economy will suffer significantly.
The ROK is a quasi-island depending almost entirely on sea trade, and although it has a land border with North Korea, goods cannot flow there. This quasi-island state is often not recognized by the South Korean public and politicians resulting in ‘sea blindness’, defined by Duncan Redford as ‘the inability to connect with maritime issues either at an individual or political level’. It is a severe problem in the ROK, hindering South Korea from achieving its full potential. However, the Indo-Pacific Strategy is moving in the right direction in discussing the relevance of maritime issues, including sea trade, maritime security, international maritime law, etc. This is an effective step to start lifting the veil of sea blindness in South Korea.
The strategy’s vision builds on President Yoon’s foreign policy goals where ‘freedom, peace and prosperity’ play a central role. As an open economy and a country that depends almost entirely on sea trade, South Korea can only prosper if there is peace in the Indo-Pacific and the sea lines of communication can be used freely. To achieve this, the ROK intends to widen and deepen collaboration with other countries. Among others, ASEAN nations are critical in South Korean maritime strategic thinking thanks to their central position in trade routes and as a key destination of ROK’s foreign investments. Thus, Seoul intends to increase naval ship transfers and provide military logistics to ASEAN countries ‘to counter maritime terrorism and enforcement of maritime laws’.
Furthermore, the ROK Navy will increase its cooperation with other navies in the Indo-Pacific. It will continue participating in the US-led RIMPAC biannual military exercises – the world’s largest international maritime warfare exercise – and intends to contribute to other multinational combined exercises to deepen bi- and multinational partnerships. Seoul is also committed to anti-piracy and counter-terrorism measures in the Indo-Pacific and other regions (e.g. East Africa).
Obviously, the strategic document’s focus is much broader than maritime issues. For instance, it discusses cooperation on norms and rules, supply chains, science and technology, climate change and energy security, traditional security, while it also cleverly considers the different levers of power the ROK possesses. For instance, Seoul consciously tries to use South Korea’s soft-power stemming from K-pop, Korean movies, TV series and video games. However, the maritime aspect provides one of the foundational blocks of the strategy, and this theme emerges in different parts of the document.
Concerns about Implementing the Strategy
Most analysts agree that South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy is a successful document that will enable the ROK to reengage many partners and help Washington to discuss the challenges of the Indo-Pacific Seoul ‘carefully identifies’. At the same time, some analysts are cautiously concerned about how effectively this strategy can be implemented. However, when discussing implementing a strategic document, we need to consider two aspects.
First, strategies are never implemented fully. One of the key insights of the strategic management discipline is that although organizations might have intended strategies and make deliberate moves based on them, every strategy will always have unrealized elements. Furthermore, organizations are reacting to the external environment and taking actions one by one, which will become a pattern that is called emergent strategy. The realized deliberate moves and the emergent strategy will create the realized strategy, which will always be somewhat different from the original intention. This will undoubtedly be the case with the Indo-Pacific Strategy too.
Second, different strategic documents can have different aims. For instance, some are planning documents others are primarily communicating intent. South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy belongs to the latter category and basically canonizes the Yoon administration’s policies situating it in a a coherent strategic framework. Thus, this document communicates a strategic vision to domestic and international audiences. The domestic audiences are the different ministries, agencies, companies and non-governmental organizations that will (or will not) follow the document’s guidelines. Internationally, key partners now have a much better understanding of what the Yoon administration wants to achieve and where the areas of further cooperation are for them with Seoul. In this regard, this document has already achieved its goal.
Accordingly, South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy is comprehensive, has a global focus, and its conceptual foundation is based on maritime security and the relevance of sea lines of communication. The latter elements are a particularly welcome development as they will help to raise awareness about the maritime arena for one of the the document’s core audience – South Korean domestic constituency. Hopefully, this will help to lift the veil of sea blindness that tends to dominate in South Korea.
- Ellen Kim, ‘Assessment of South Korea’s New Indo-Pacific Strategy’, CSIS, 19 January
- Jagannath Panda and Choong Yong Ahn, “South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy: Quest for Clarity and Global Leadership”, The Diplomat, 16 January 2023.
- Premesha Saha, ‘Decoding the Republic of Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy’, ORF, 06 January 2023.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of KIMS.