January 05, 2023 13:35
When I ask people in Washington for their impression of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, I will usually hear three responses. He is seen as strongly in favor of consolidating ties with the U.S.; he is seen as tough on North Korea, unlike his predecessor, who was singularly focused on engagement with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un; and he stresses the core values of freedom and democracy.
These impressions are not far off the mark. Yoon's pro-alliance stance was on display during his first summit with U.S. President Joe Biden shortly after taking office. Yoon's desire to consolidate bilateral relations with the U.S. as well as trilateral relations with Japan was also evident at a trilateral summit in Cambodia earlier this month.
Impressions of Yoon as a hardliner on North Korea stem not so much from any specific actions the president has taken. Indeed, he has offered a plan of economic and humanitarian engagement with North Korea. Rather, it has been his emphasis on denuclearization that lends to this view.
In contrast to the previous administration, the focus on complete and irreversible denuclearization aligns with Biden's views but also elicits furious reactions from the North. Yoon's desire to resume military exercises with the U.S. as well as his unwillingness to make obsequious overtures to Kim add to the perception by Americans of Yoon being a hardliner.
However, it is his commitment to freedom and democracy that has garnered a lot of interest in the West. The international press emphasized how the new president used the word "freedom" 35 times in his inaugural address last May. In Yoon's own words, his presidency seeks to build "a country that truly belongs to the people; a country based on the pillars of freedom, human rights, fairness and solidarity." "The most important core value is freedom," he added.
In a message on Liberation Day on Aug. 15, he again spoke of these core values, and he did so again in September, in a speech before the UN General Assembly. "Threats to freedom and peace must be overcome through solidarity and fearless commitment to the framework of universal global norms consolidated over the years within the UN system.”
"Genuine freedom and peace can turn into reality when we are free from disease and hunger, free from illiteracy and free from want of energy and culture.”
In the election campaign, Yoon's opponent Lee Jae-myung ran through a list of foreign policy positions on issues ranging from the alliance to climate change. It was a rich list aimed at demonstrating to the public his foreign policy expertise. But Yoon's response was very different. Rather than listing policy issues, he explained to the audience that he was not a foreign policy expert. As a career prosecutor, he had no occasion to engage in foreign policy. But he did say that whatever the issue was, the policies of his presidency would be grounded in, and guided by, the core values of freedom and democracy.
But how should this agenda be implemented? The Yoon government has supported the defense of Ukraine; it has been more vocal about defending democracy in Taiwan against unprovoked Chinese aggression; and it appointed an ambassador for international cooperation on human rights. These are all worthy acts in support of freedom and democracy at home and abroad.
However, there is more it can do. It should consider establishing a South Korean foundation or endowment for freedom and democracy comparable to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in the United States. Founded in 1983, it is an independent, non- profit foundation dedicated to the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions around the globe. Non-governmental groups and individuals working in support of democracy and civil liberties benefit annually from over 2,000 grants made by NED, which does not expect that every democracy should look like that of the U.S. but supports groups seeking to build a civil society that preserves rule of law, human rights, and an independent media.
The South Korean foundation that Yoon might build does not need to look the same in its mission or in funding from the U.S. Congress. It could focus on good governance rather than democracy promotion if the latter is seen as too controversial. It could also deal with North Korean human rights as part of its mandate -- both the improvement of lives for North Koreans as well as mobilizing international support.
At a time when the liberal international order is under attack from Russia, China suppresses democracy in Hong Kong and threatens it in Taiwan, and North Korea tramples the human rights of its people, there needs to be a strong voice for democracy in Asia. It would be a shame for South Korea to miss the opportunity.
South Korea is the shining example of democracy in Asia. Over two decades ago, former President Kim Dae-jung put South Korea forward as a model for young or aspiring democracies. But why should the freedom and democracy agenda only be limited to progressives in South Korea? There are many conservatives who stand for these values. South Korea will co-host the Community of Democracies meeting with the U.S. and several other countries in March next year. That would be an opportunity to announce concrete plans to promote freedom and democracy in the region and beyond.
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