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Amid Cautious Observations towards Pyongyang, Beijing, and Moscow, Presidents of South Korea and the US to Meet in Washington.


South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol will do that meet his American counterpart Joe Biden at the White House on April 26, 2023 — a rare state visit that comes as the two nations try to confront common concerns.

The event is only the second state visit to the US from a foreign head of state during the Biden administration, following a trip of President Emmanuel Macron of France late 2022. That the White House handed the credit over to Yoon, previously a relative political novice take office in May 2022, may come as a surprise to some foreign policy observers. Seoul does not have the same influence in international politics as some other US allies. It is an important economic partner, but so are Japan, Germany, Canada and Mexico – all of them rank above South Korea in terms of total US trade.

Then why all the pomp and circumstance for Yoon? Like a scholar of Korean political history and relations between the US and East Asia, I believe the answer lies in three locations on the map and their respective governments: Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow. The meeting at the White House could frame the event around strengthening ties between Seoul and Washington, but in reality they will want to send a message of unity in the face of the saber-rattling — and worse — by North Korea, China and Russia.

A friendship forged in war

The relationship between Washington and Seoul was forged in the bloody crucible of the Korean War of 1950-53. For decades, the alliance was lopsided, especially in the meager two decades according to the armistice of 1953 when South Korea’s subsistence economy was almost complete dependent on US aid. But over the past two decades, South Korea has balanced the ledger and a world leader in electronicsshipping, vehicles, weapons and pop culture. The alliance between the US and South Korea has developed into one based on economic interests as well as diplomatic and strategic interests.

Even the vexing issue of recent reports of alleged US spying on South Korean presidential office is unlikely to dampen the show of friendliness expected during the bilateral meeting.

After all, Biden and Yoon have more serious matters on their minds. The state visit follows a year in which North Korea fired nearly 100 missiles the skies in and around the Korean peninsula, Russia brutally invaded Ukraine and China increased his rhetoric around the disputed island of Taiwan. And each will have to be addressed at the top.

North Korean missiles

For South Korea, the threat of the isolationist state in the north is the most existential. Biden will likely be the American defense commitment of South Korea against a nuclear-armed North Korea.

But the threat is not limited to endangering the Korean Peninsula. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s intercontinental ballistic missiles now have the… ability to hit the American mainland. Such a development can be intended to attract Washington’s attentionbut it has another consequence: to align the existential threat facing South Korea with that of the United States.

Growing concern in South Korea – now over 70% support a domestic nuclear weapons program instead of relying on his powerful ally – means Yoon will seek American reassurances beyond the rhetoric of “extensive deterrenceand promises of one “cast iron” alliance.

North Korean leader Kim, who told the world last week he is preparing for launch a spy satellite in space, has also taken the opportunity of Yoon’s visit to the US ramp up the country’s ballistic missile tests – a reminder to his two main opponents that he can always make life difficult for them.

China’s regional pressure

That China and Russia keep blocking any action by the UN Security Council to punish North Korea for its tests only encourages Pyongyang.

But the threat posed by North Korea is not the only East Asian security concern for the US or South Korea. The China’s rise as an Indo-Pacific power — and a rival to the economic and strategic interests of Washington and Seoul — is another likely topic to be discussed at the White House meeting.

Indeed, Yoon may have foreshadowed US and South Korean thinking about China comments to Reuters news agency just few days ago.

“The Taiwan issue is not just a China-Taiwan issue, but like the North Korea issue, it is a global issue,” he said. Yoon maybe echoed some Biden and him declared on the couple’s first summit in Seoul in May 2022 on the importance of preserving “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait as an essential element of security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.” But the comment angered officials in Beijing to howls of protest. And the fact that a South Korean leader would join the US as it ramps up rhetoric about Taiwan is likely to be welcomed by Washington and, of course, Taipei.

It also stems from Yoon’s efforts to make amends with Japan – a former “friend of a friend” with regards to the US, but one with which Seoul has long festering wounds dating back to the Japanese occupation of Korea.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shake hands on March 16, 2023.
Kiyoshi Ota/Pool Photo via AP

In March Yoon visited Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida – the first official bilateral meeting between the leaders of the two countries in 12 years.

Friendlier terms between Tokyo and Seoul – both democracies – serve Washington’s plans to counter the influence of autocracies in the region and form a quasi-trilateral alliance structure.

Biden hopes to further isolate China through economic means. Yoon will visiting Boston during his trip, underlining the importance of collaboration in the biotech and high-tech industry. It comes as South Korea’s leading microchip makers, including Samsung and SK Hynix, are under pressure from the US to curtail their semiconductor business in China. Yoon will try to promote US and Korean joint investment in the semiconductor sector to offset the impact of reduced sales in the Chinese market.

Ukraine needs weapons

And then there’s the war in Ukraine, which tends to loom over diplomatic affairs since the invasion of Russia.

In the past, South Korea has remained largely parochial on security issues, which is understandable given the threat it faces on the peninsula. For example, no previous government has even swam the idea of ​​military aid to the US in case of war in the Taiwan Strait.

Similarly, Seoul has only provided economic and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, although it has the eighth largest exporter in the world of weapons. But Yoon’s vision for his nation is that of a “global central statewhich puts freedom, values ​​and international rules-based order at the heart of its foreign policy – ​​and which opens the possibility for further intervention.

If Biden can persuade his guest to discreetly deliver more weapons and ammunition to Ukraine, it will prove to be a victory for both Yoon’s and Biden’s vision.

State visits are ceremonial in nature – and 2023 marks the 70th anniversary of the alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea. But as strategic and economic concerns collide, the future relationship between the countries is being redefined by how the two allies simultaneously confront geopolitical concerns at the doorstep of South Korea, the wider region and the world beyond.

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