Conflicts - TensionsNortheast Asia

South Korea’s growing support for Taiwan signals regional shift

Felix Kim

South Korea is boosting its support for Taiwan in the face of Beijing’s threats to annex the self-governed island, a global hub for semiconductor manufacturing.

Public statements by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, official and semi-official delegation visits from Seoul to Taipei, and enhanced defense alignments with the United States and other allies and partners demonstrate the shift in focus, which analysts say stems from Seoul’s need to maintain the Indo-Pacific balance of power, promote economic stability and insulate the region from large-scale conflict.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) claims Taiwan as its territory and seeks to coerce the democratic island by conducting military exercises and other destabilizing activities in and around the Taiwan Strait.

In April 2023, Yoon told Reuters that “the Taiwan issue is not simply an issue between China and Taiwan but, like the issue of North Korea, it is a global issue.” In regard to changing the status quo by force, as Beijing threatens to do with Taiwan, Yoon said: “We, together with the international community, absolutely oppose such a change.”

Further expressions of Seoul’s support for Taiwan came with visits to Taipei by South Korean lawmakers and former high-ranking military officials, including the retired chairman of the nation’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

By including the Taiwan Strait in its call for a “free, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region” as part of the nation’s 2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy, “Seoul seeks to broaden consensus on the Taiwan issue with the U.S. and other key partners in the region,” Dr. Kim Jae Yeop, a senior researcher at the Sungkyun Institute for Global Strategy at Sungkyunkwan University, told FORUM.

Under Yoon, South Korea has strengthened defense ties with the U.S., its treaty ally, and with other U.S. allies including Australia, Japan and the Philippines.

The potential consequences of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait to South Korea’s national defense underpin Seoul’s shift toward Taiwan, Kim said, since North Korea would likely seek to exploit such a crisis “to attempt a military provocation” against South Korea.

Further, a subjugation of Taiwan by the PRC “could bring a huge strategic advantage in terms of balance of power to revisionist powers in the Asia-Pacific region,” he said. “As a result, the U.S. and other regional allies and partners, including the ROK [Republic of Korea], will be in a more vulnerable position.”

A third factor in Seoul’s support for Taiwan is the island’s critical role in regional shipping and its status as a key provider of advanced industrial products, including semiconductors.

Although the PRC and South Korea are major trading partners, Beijing’s belligerence has included economic coercion targeting South Koreans. In 2017, Beijing largely evicted South Korean retailer Lotte from its territory, costing the company about $1 billion in losses, in retaliation for Seoul’s deployment of a missile defense system against potential North Korean attacks.

In recent polls, nearly two-thirds of South Koreans believe the country should provide direct or indirect support for U.S. military operations in the event of a Taiwan contingency, according to the Global Taiwan Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization.

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.

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