South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol will meet his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden on the White Home on April 26, 2023 – a uncommon state go to that comes as the 2 nations search to confront widespread considerations.
The occasion is solely the second state go to to the U.S. of a overseas head of state in the course of the Biden administration, following a journey by President Emmanuel Macron of France in late 2022. That the White Home handed the glory to Yoon, a relative political novice earlier than taking workplace in Could 2022, might come as a shock to some overseas coverage observers. Seoul doesn’t carry the identical clout in worldwide politics as another U.S. allies. It is a crucial financial accomplice however so, too, are Japan, Germany, Canada and Mexico – all of whom rank above South Korea by way of total U.S. commerce.
Why, then, the pomp and ceremony for Yoon? As a scholar of Korean political historical past and U.S.-East Asia relations, I consider the reply might be present in three areas on the map and their respective governments: Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow. The White Home assembly may effectively body the occasion across the strengthening of ties between Seoul and Washington, however in actuality they may wish to ship a message of unity within the face of saber-rattling – and worse – by North Korea, China and Russia.
A friendship solid in conflict
Washington and Seoul’s relationship was solid within the bloody crucible of the Korean Warfare of 1950-53. For a number of many years, the alliance was lopsided, particularly within the lean 20 years following the armistice of 1953 when the South Korean subsistence economic system was virtually completely depending on U.S. assist. However over the previous 20 years, South Korea has evened up the ledger, changing into a world chief in electronics, transport, autos, arms and popular culture. The usSouth Korea alliance has developed into one primarily based as a lot on financial pursuits as diplomatic and strategic considerations.
Even the awkward problem of latest studies of alleged U.S. spying on the South Korean presidential workplace isn’t prone to dampen the present of friendliness anticipated on show in the course of the bilateral assembly.
In spite of everything, Biden and Yoon have extra severe issues to cope with. The state go to follows a yr wherein North Korea fired practically 100 missiles into the skies in and across the Korean Peninsula, Russia overtly invaded Ukraine, and China upped its rhetoric across the disputed island of Taiwan. And every will want addressing within the summit.
North Korean missiles
To South Korea, the specter of the isolationist state to its north is probably the most existential. Biden will doubtless underscore the U.S. dedication to the protection of South Korea towards a nuclear-armed North Korea.
However the risk isn’t confined to imperiling the Korean Peninsula. North Korean chief Kim Jong Un’s intercontinental ballistic missiles now have the functionality to hit the U.S. mainland. Such a growth could also be supposed to attract Washington’s consideration, but it surely has one other consequence: aligning the existential risk that South Korea faces with that of the US.
Rising apprehension in South Korea – the place greater than 70% now favor a home nuclear weapons program reasonably than depend on its highly effective ally – signifies that Yoon will search U.S. reassurances that transcend the rhetoric of “prolonged deterrence” and guarantees of an “ironclad” alliance.
North Korean chief Kim, having advised the world final week that he’s gearing as much as launch a spy satellite tv for pc into area, has additionally used the chance of Yoon’s U.S. go to to step up the nation’s ballistic missiles assessments – a reminder to his two primary adversaries that he can at all times make life for them tough.
China’s regional push
That China and Russia proceed to dam any transfer on the U.N. Safety Council to punish North Korea over its assessments solely emboldens Pyongyang.
However the risk posed by North Korea isn’t the one East Asian safety concern for the U.S. or South Korea. The rise of China as an Indo-Pacific pressure – and a rival to Washington’s and Seoul’s financial and strategic pursuits – is one other doubtless matter to come back up within the White Home assembly.
Certainly, Yoon might have foreshadowed U.S. and South Korean pondering on China with feedback made to the Reuters information company simply days in the past.
“The Taiwan problem isn’t merely a difficulty between China and Taiwan, however like the problem of North Korea, it’s a international problem,” he mentioned. Yoon could have been echoing what Biden and he declared on the pair’s first summit in Seoul in Could 2022 over the significance of preserving “peace and stability within the Taiwan Strait as an important factor in safety and prosperity within the Indo-Pacific area.” However the comment raised the ire of officers in Beijing to howls of protest. And the truth that a South Korean chief ought to be a part of the U.S. because it ups the rhetoric over Taiwan will doubtless be welcomed by Washington and, in fact, Taipei.
It additionally comes on the again of efforts by Yoon to make amends with Japan – an erstwhile “pal of a pal” regarding the U.S., however one with which Seoul has long-festering wounds going again to the Japanese occupation of Korea.
In March, Yoon visited Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida – the primary official bilateral assembly between the 2 international locations’ leaders in 12 years.
Friendlier phrases between Tokyo and Seoul – each democracies – serve Washington’s plans to counter the affect of autocracies within the area, forming a quasi-trilateral alliance construction.
Biden can be hoping to isolate China additional by means of financial means. Yoon will go to Boston throughout his journey, underscoring the significance of collaboration within the biotech and high-tech industries. It comes as South Korea’s main microchip producers, together with Samsung and SK Hynix, face stress from the U.S. to curtail their semiconductor enterprise in China. Yoon can be searching for to advertise U.S.-Korean joint funding within the semiconductor sector to compensate for the influence from lowering gross sales to China’s market.
Ukraine’s want for weapons
After which there may be the conflict in Ukraine, which tends to loom over diplomatic issues since Russia’s invasion.
Up to now, South Korea has remained largely parochial on safety points, understandably, given the risk it faces on the peninsula. For instance, no earlier administration has even floated the notion of navy assist for the U.S. within the occasion of conflict within the Taiwan Strait.
Equally, Seoul has offered solely financial and humanitarian help to Ukraine, though it’s the world’s eighth-biggest exporter of arms. However Yoon’s imaginative and prescient for his nation is that of a “international pivotal state” that locations freedom, values and worldwide rules-based order on the coronary heart of its overseas coverage – and that opens up the opportunity of additional intervention.
If Biden is ready to coax his visitor to commit to produce, discreetly, extra weapons and ammunition to Ukraine, it’ll show a win for each Yoon’s imaginative and prescient in addition to that of Biden.
State visits are by their nature ceremonial – and 2023 marks the seventieth anniversary of the United States-Republic of Korea alliance. However as strategic and financial considerations converge, the long run relationship between the international locations is being redefined by how the 2 allies confront concurrently geopolitical considerations on South Korea’s doorstep, the broader area and the world past.