Moon Jae-In's Policy Towards Multilateral Institutions: Continuity and Change in South Korea's Global Strategy

Ramon Pacheco Pardo
Tongfi Kim
Linde Desmaele
Maximilian Ernst
Paula Cantero Dieguez
Riccardo Villa

What drives President Moon Jae-in’s policy towards multilateral institutions? The Moon government has made participation in global governance a cornerstone of its foreign policy. Similarly to its predecessors, the government has been a strong supporter of multilateralism This is non-negotiable for Seoul.

This report seeks to map out and analyse the Moon government’s policy towards key multilateral institutions operating in the areas of security, economics and sustainable development. It also seeks to explain the key drivers underpinning this policy. As we show, Seoul’s support for an involvement in multilateral institutions is not uniform. The Moon government acts as a leader in some cases, an active participant in others, and a passive by-stander on occasions. There are various reasons why this is the case, as we show throughout the report and in the concluding section.

Multilateral institutions with global governance responsibilities are the focus of the report. This is an underexplored area in spite of its centrality to the Moon government’s foreign policy. Asian institutions such as the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat, the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus or the Asian Development Bank are not discussed. While relevant to South Korean foreign policy, Seoul’s role in these institutions is necessarily different due to their more limited geographical scope and South Korea’s greater relative power in them. The report also excludes bilateral relations such as Seoul’s alliance with the United States. While they inform South Korea’s foreign policy, bilateral relations are self-evidently different than multilateral relations.

Security, economics, and sustainable development are crucial to any country’s foreign policy, especially the first two. The institutions covered in this report therefore include the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), peacekeeping, and the nuclear non-proliferation regime in the area of security; the Financial Stability Board (FSB) and G20, the Basel Committee for Banking Supervision (BCBS) and Bank for International Settlements (BIS), and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in the area of economics; and climate change, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (OECD DAC) in the area of sustainable development. These institutions have been selected since, at least in theory, South Korea seeks meaningful engagement in and with them. This applies to both the Moon government and previous ones.

The focus on the drivers of engagement is a deliberate choice in order to shed light on what motivates the Moon government’s policy towards multilateralism. The impact or outcome of South Korean foreign policy decisions is not always attributable to the policies per se. Factors such as the policy choices of other countries, the capabilities of a particular institution or changes in budgetary allocations can have a positive or negative effect on whether Seoul achieves its preferred policy goals. By analysing the reasons why the Moon government has decided to take a more active or passive role in any given international institution, we hope to contribute to a better understanding of why South Korea makes certain foreign policy choices.

Our analysis only covers the Moon government, in power since May 2017. However, and as we show throughout the report, the government has more often than not pursued and built on the policy of previous presidents. This sits in contrast with policy shifts in areas such as relations with North Korea policy or Japan. Therefore, we can assume that some if not all of the drivers behind Moon’s multilateral institutions policy also applied to previous governments. Indeed, we argue that there is a consensus among liberals and conservatives in South Korea regarding Seoul’s involvement in multilateralism.