In a major policy speech at Harvard Kennedy School, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol traced the global arc of freedom from the American Revolution to South Korea’s current campaign to protect digital freedom across the world. But he also recognized the limits of government influence over these freedoms; Yoon said “soft power” derives more from a nation’s cultural strength—for South Korea in the form of K-pop and Oscar-winning movies.

Near the end of a six-day trip to the United States to mark the 70th year of the U.S.-South Korean alliance, Yoon addressed an audience of more than 500 Harvard community members on Friday, packed into the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics.

After his Harvard speech, the first for a sitting South Korea president, Yoon took part in a conversation on the Forum stage with  Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor, Emeritus Joseph Nye, the former dean of the Kennedy School who developed the concept of soft power. Nye asked how the South Korean government was building up South Korea’s cultural outreach to the world.

Yoon, speaking through a translator, replied with a string of references to South Korea’s globally admired music stars and movie hits : “If you look at BTS or Blackpink and other K-pop stars in Korea—if you look at Squid Game, Parasite, and the Korean content that is coming out—although I am head of the government, I cannot say the government has really done much to support that,” he said. “It has been 100% the effort from the private sector and the market itself.”

To enable that, he said, the government is simply deregulating markets and clearing red tape. He said of his meetings earlier in the visit to film industry leaders in Hollywood: “I told them, ‘Be free. You can come to Korea anytime. We would love to have you.’”

Nye responded with a smile: “I would say that is a perfect answer. You would get an A at the Kennedy School.” 

President Yoon Suk Yeol speaking at the Forum.

“A truly free society is where every member is a free man or free woman, who enjoys all the freedoms of mankind. But economic and cultural conditions must be met for people to enjoy their freedoms.”

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol

In reply to a student question, Yoon also said he was optimistic that South Korea’s relations with Japan could continue to improve if the two sides manage to look to the future and not stay mired in debate about the history of the strained relationship, including Japan’s decades-long occupation of Korea until World War II.

“We need a fundamental change to resolve this issue. And I am going to begin this long process," he said. "As soon as our peoples—the Japanese and Korean peoples—work together ... with better understanding and with more interest in the culture of each other's country, it will make a large current that is irreversible." 

Yoon underlined the importance of the Washington Declaration he signed earlier last week with President Biden at the White House during his state visit, which committed the United States to consult closely with South Korea on extended nuclear deterrence in return for a commitment that South Korea will not develop its own nuclear weapons. Yoon said the accord was made necessary by totalitarian North Korea’s frequent tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that directly threaten South Korea as well as other countries.

But Yoon, who is in his first year in office as leader of the conservative People Power Party, also said in answer to a student question that he disagreed with those in South Korea who call for the country to build its own nuclear weapons arsenal to respond to the North Korean threat. Yoon said doing so would raise complex political challenges of escalation that could put South Korea into a stance of having to negotiate its own conventional disarmament.

“A nuclear weapon is not just about technology. It is also about complex politics and economics. We have to solve complex equations. We would need to give up many of the values we have been upholding if we decided to develop our nuclear weapons. I believe those opinions saying we need to have our own nuclear arsenal are not considering all these factors,” he said. “The North Korean nuclear threat is not far away, it is imminent, at our front door. Therefore, we need a very practical solution.”

Introducing Yoon, Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf pointed out how many South Korean government, business, and civic leaders earned degrees at Harvard, including the prime minister, the foreign minister, the director of national intelligence, and the minister of unification. Yoon said that during his visit to Harvard Yard, he stopped at Memorial Church to honor the 18 Harvard graduates killed in the Korean War in the early 1950s, which split North and South Korea resulted in a stalemate across the heavily armed demilitarized zone.

The Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and its Korea Project co-sponsored Yoon's Forum event with the Institute of Politics.

Photo of the crowd at the Forum.

Here are excerpts from Yoon’s address and the Q&A that followed:

On Freedom:

“In the late 18th century, during the initial years of the U.S.’s foundation, freedom meant laissez faire, meaning ‘to leave it be.’ The free market was considered to be fair initially. But by the late 19th century, the tyranny of monopolistic conglomerates or trusts became unbearable. It did not take long for society to realize that monopoly and oligopoly threatened the freedom of the economically weak in an industrial society. Soon, the recognition that freedom itself should not infringe on the freedom of others and a demand for justice erupted … . The values of equal opportunity were amalgamated, finally evolving into a freedom that coexists and stands in solidarity with others. With freedom comes responsibility. That responsibility arises from fairness, which is a prerequisite for freedom to exist.”

On threats to freedom:

“Threats to freedom exist both within and outside our communities. Overlooking the freedom of one individual can threaten the freedom of an entire community and society. A truly free society is where every member is a free man or free woman, who enjoys all the freedoms of mankind. But economic and cultural conditions must be met for people to enjoy their freedoms. The conditions for freedom must be created by free citizens for those who require them. Therefore, freedom and solidarity are indivisible … . True solidarity cannot be achieved in a society where one individual is controlled by another.”

On the U.S.-South Korean alliance:

“Two days ago, President Biden and I adopted a joint statement on the vision of an alliance and action toward the future … . It is a valued alliance that is based on the universal value of freedom and democracy. It is a sustainable and resilient alliance, contributing to world peace and prosperity. It is a just alliance.”

On technology and freedom:

“The freedom and democracy we have built through sweat and sacrifice are being seriously undermined around the world and faced with grave challenges. Democracy is a community’s decision-making system to ensure freedom. Democracy is based on the truthful and free formation of opinions. To our dismay, however, false propaganda and fake news combined with digital and mobile technology are frequently distorting the truth and public opinion. They are shaking up democracy and threatening freedom.”

“The extent and the repercussions of so-called digital totalitarianism are unfathomable. That is why we, as free citizens of the world, must unite in solidarity to stave off any misuse or any abuse of digital technology that could undermine our freedom. Against this backdrop, last September at NYU I unveiled the “New York Vision,” which aims to promote solidarity for free digital people of the world … . In this new digital space, digital order must be grounded in legitimacy, common use and sustainability … . The Republic of Korea will throw its full weight behind building a fair digital order that is grounded in universal justice.”

A Conversation with Yoon Suk Yeol, President of the Republic of Korea


Photography by Martha Stewart

Get smart & reliable public policy insights right in your inbox.