U.S. President Joe Biden visited South Korea from May 20 to May 22 and held a summit meeting with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol on May 21. The summit meeting came 11 days after Yoon’s inauguration on May 10, making it the earliest summit with the U.S. leader for any new South Korean president.
On the campaign trail, Yoon repeatedly emphasized his firm stance on strengthening the South Korea-U.S. alliance not only on North Korea issues but also international issues, especially U.S. efforts to confront China in the Indo-Pacific region. During their summit, the two leaders clearly confirmed developing the South Korea-U.S. alliance to tackle issues of mutual concern.
“At this summit, we shared the goal of developing the ROK-U.S. alliance into a global, comprehensive, strategic alliance, and we discussed relevant actions to that end,” Yoon said in the joint press conference on Saturday. (ROK is the acronym of South Korea’s official name: Republic of Korea.)
In line with U.S. efforts to build a strong coalition with its allies in Asia to confront the rising economic and military power of China, Biden visited Samsung’s semiconductor plant as the first item on his schedule on Friday, before the formal summit meeting with Yoon. The United States has been dealing with the semiconductor chip shortage issues since Biden took office and ensuring a supply chain for the critical technology that does not rely on China is high on his administration’s priority list.
Since China is the biggest trading partner of South Korea, the Moon Jae-in administration was skeptical about firmly joining movements widely perceived as anti-China, such as the working groups formed by the U.S. in the region, due to the possible consequences for the South Korean economy. However, Yoon, a conservative politician whose approach to regional issues seems to be entirely leaning on Washington, has publicly shown his willingness to cooperate with the United States more actively on what could be seen as an anti-China policy from Beijing’s perspective.
“President Biden and I — in the field of semiconductors, batteries, civil nuclear power, space development, cyberspace, and other emerging industries — agree to step up our practical cooperation,” Yoon said.
Seoul and Washington will launch “an economic security dialogue” in a bid to communicate over the issues of “supply chains, advanced science and technology, and other areas of economic security” in a timely manner, Yoon said.
In that regard, Yoon is building on the Moon administration’s steps to expand the South Korea-U.S. alliance into new areas.
The two leaders also agreed to “expand the scope and scale” of joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises, which were scaled back during the Moon administration in a bid to entice North Korea to take steps for denuclearization. The joint South Korea-U.S. military drills are part of the so-called “hostile policy” North Korea has demanded Washington to remove. The next exercises are scheduled in August.
While emphasizing the importance of strengthening the South Korea-U.S. alliance in various issues, Yoon said that the door to dialogue is open on North Korea issues.
“In lockstep coordination with the Biden administration, I commit to resolutely safeguard peace on the Korean Peninsula and encourage North Korea to come forward for dialogue and engage in practical cooperation,” Yoon said.
Since the failed Hanoi summit meeting between the United States and North Korea in 2019, talks on denuclearization have stalled. While Pyongyang demands that Washington make concessions first to restore the deadlocked dialogue, Washington and Seoul have been consistently urging Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table with “no preconditions.”
In the press conference, Yoon said that the common goal of the two countries is “complete denuclearization” of North Korea. However, Biden left a bit more room to entice Pyongyang back to the negotiating table by saying that he and Yoon committed to addressing the threat posed by North Korea by “working toward a complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula.
During the joint press conference, Yoon adopted a more hawkish tone on North Korea than Biden. He again called for the “complete denuclearization of DRPK” (an acronym of the North’s official name: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) even though Washington prefers to use the phrase “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Yoon also said “there is no compromise for security” while backing up his preference for an aggressive defense posture against North Korea.
Compared with his predecessor’s dovish overture on North Korea centered on dialogue, Yoon has clearly adopted a hawkish approach to tackle North Korea’s missile threats. In order to leave open the possibility of resolving North Korea issues with diplomacy, however, he once again said that there will be an “audacious plan” to “vastly strengthen its [North Korea’s] economy and improve the quality of life for its people” if Pyongyang “genuinely embarks upon denuclearization.”
Such an approach appeared during South Korea’s previous conservative administrations from 2008 to 2017 but failed to prevent North Korea from developing its nuclear and missile programs further. Although the two progressive presidents in office from 1998 to 2008 met Kim Jong Il, the father of the current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, to construct peace on the Korean Peninsula, the conservative presidents – Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye – could not find any momentum to engage in a dialogue with Pyongyang. Based on the outcomes of the approaches of the progressive and conservative presidents from the late 1990s to the present, some experts criticized Yoon’s approach to North Korea, dismissing it as the conservative camp’s cliched policy on the long-time issue – one that had already failed in the past.
Yoon has never elaborated on the extent of “the audacious plan” he can offer to North Korea if it takes substantive progress for denuclearization. As Pyongyang seeks to be free from the crippling economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations and the United States first, South Korea has little ability to unilaterally improve the North’s economic situation.
After his two-day visit to South Korea, Biden arrived in Tokyo on Sunday, where he will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and attend the Quad and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework meetings.
As a follow-up to his remarks stating his willingness to be part of the U.S.-led working groups in the Indo-Pacific region, Yoon attended the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework meeting virtually on Monday.