The Moon Jae-in presidency: key foreign policy legacies


By Ramon Pacheco Pardo


Moon Jae-in has entered his last few weeks as South Korean president. A new president will be elected on March 9th and take office in May. Arguably, his foreign policy legacy will be defined by his outreach to North Korea and the way that South Korea navigated the growing rivalry between the US and China. As prominent as these two issues have been, however, they have only been part of Moon’s foreign policy. Moon’s foreign policy has also had other important aspects.


What are the key foreign policy legacies of the Moon Jae-in presidency?


Arguably, the main long-term foreign policy legacy of the Moon presidency will be its growing involvement in global discussions. Certainly, this is not new. South Korea has become an increasingly important foreign policy actor as a result of its economic development, military build-up, democratic credentials and, it should be noted, geographical location. However, South Korea’s involvement in global discussions has grown during the Moon presidency as the Sino-American rivalry has grown and, in politico-diplomatic terms, Seoul has sided with its fellow democracies. Thus, South Korea was invited to attend the 2020 and 2021 G7 summits, even if the 2020 one was cancelled. Furthermore, Moon was one of the speakers at the Summit for Democracy convened by US President Joe Biden. And South Korea has also been part of meetings and discussions about global supply chains or technology involving fellow democracies. Seoul also convened the P4G summit and the UN Peacekeeping Ministerial in 2021. In recent weeks, South Korea has also been part of discussions with partners about the design of sanctions to be imposed on Russia if it invaded Ukraine, as Moscow has finally done. Once the invasion has taken place, Seoul has gone ahead and joined sanctions. The next South Korean president will no doubt seek to build on this legacy to continue to position Seoul as a key global actor.


The way in which the Moon government has navigated US-China rivalry will inevitably be part of the president’s legacy as well. After initially taking a middle-of-the-ground position early in the Donald Trump administration, the Moon government quietly shifted towards siding with the US later on and, especially, since Biden took office. This is reflected in the New Southern Policy/New Southern Policy Plus (NSP/NSP Plus) being used to engage with Washington’s Indo-Pacific approach, Seoul cooperating with the US and the Quad on issues such as vaccine delivery or tech discussions, and the ROK Navy participating in a host of joint drills with navies from other Indo-Pacific countries and beyond. Furthermore, Moon and Biden signed a joint statement highly critical of China, in all but name, and Seoul boosted security cooperation with Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, European countries and the European Union. On the other hand, the Moon government worked hard to resolve the dispute with Beijing over the deployment of the US’ THAAD system, hesitated to be openly critical of China and made clear that economic decoupling from China was not an option. Thus, Moon sought to avoid a complete breakdown in relations with Beijing.


It can be said that Moon’s NSP, later rebranded as NSP+, was his signature foreign policy initiative — leaving his North Korea policy aside. The focus on Southeast Asia was certainly not new for South Korea, and previous presidents also pursued stronger relations with the region. But Moon was the first president to visit all ASEAN countries plus India, pushed forward with FTA negotiations with a host of countries across the region, and boosted security ties through arms sales and other initiatives. His main goal was to diversify South Korean relations away from China, especially, and the US. Indeed, Beijing’s response to the THAAD deployment was one of the drivers behind NSP. Other key drivers were Southeast Asia’s and India’s growing middle class, infrastructure needs, and increasing importance as politico-diplomatic actors.


The Moon government also focused on helping to maintain global governance structures weakened by Sino-American rivalry, especially during the Trump years, and by China’s growing assertiveness more generally. To this end, South Korea was one of the countries that launched an alternative WTO dispute-settlement mechanism in 2020, hosted the UN Peacekeeping Ministerial in 2021 as mentioned above, and expressed its interest in bidding to host COP28 and, after being unsuccessful, COP33. More generally, the Moon government regularly expressed its political support for multilateralism. After all, this has been a long-standing South Korean policy for decades.


What have been the main foreign policy shortcomings of the Moon Jae-in presidency?


Certainly, Moon’s approach towards relations with North Korea was his most talked about foreign policy initiative. After a period of great hope between the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games of February 2018 and the Trump-Kim Jong-un Hanoi summit exactly one year later, there was no significant breakthrough in inter-Korean or US-North Korea relations. Certainly, tensions between the two Koreas and between Washington and Pyongyang have decreased compared to 2017, Moon’s and Trump’s first year in office. And North Korea has not conducted any nuclear or ICBM test since then. But South Korea was unable to implement the economic projects and people-to-people exchanges that the Moon government had planned. Plus, Seoul was unsuccessful in its bid to obtain exemptions from the sanctions regime on North Korea to create goodwill with Pyongyang. Ultimately, Pyongyang’s inability to grasp the opportunity that Seoul and, to an extent, Washington offered to implement a sustainable diplomatic process between the three of them has been a setback to potential similar initiatives in the future.


Relations with Japan have also been a black sport for the Moon administration. Arguably, bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo reached a low point last seen when President Lee Myung-bak visited Dokdo/Takeshima in 2012. There has been working-level cooperation between the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defense and Economy and Finance, as well as between the militaries of both countries. But political relations at the highest level have been essentially frozen since 2019, when Tokyo removed Seoul from its trusted trade partners lists and the latter retaliated with the same measure. Neither South Korea nor Japan seem to have really tried to solve the diplomatic spat, with Seoul first waiting until Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo left office and Tokyo now in turn waiting until a new South Korean president is inaugurated. Relations with Japan will indeed be a priority for the incoming president regardless of his political affiliation.


Less discussed but also relevant has been the Moon government’s minimal, and disappointing, increase to South Korean aid and funding of international organisations. South Korea continues to be among the lowest providers of aid as a percentage of GDP among OECD members. And its contributions to multilateral funds on a range of issues from climate change mitigation to peacekeeping continues to be below the level provided by similar countries, especially from Europe. In the past, South Korea could point out that it offers extensive training and expertise to developing countries and that it was relatively a newcomer to global governance. But the expectation of the international community today is that South Korea will offer both its experience and expertise—along with funding.




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