South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol will meet his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden at the White House on April 26, 2023 – a rare state visit that comes as the two nations seek to confront common concerns.
The event is only the second state visit to the U.S. of a foreign head of state during the Biden administration, following a trip by President Emmanuel Macron of France in late 2022. That the White House handed the honor to Yoon, a relative political novice before taking office in May 2022, may come as a surprise to some foreign policy observers. Seoul does not carry the same clout in international politics as some other U.S. allies. It is an important economic partner but so, too, are Japan, Germany, Canada and Mexico – all of whom rank above South Korea in terms of overall U.S. trade.
Why, then, the pomp and ceremony for Yoon? As a scholar of Korean political history and U.S.-East Asia relations, I believe the answer can be found in three locations on the map and their respective governments: Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow. The White House meeting might well frame the event around the strengthening of ties between Seoul and Washington, but in reality they will want to send a message of unity in the face of saber-rattling – and worse – by North Korea, China and Russia.
A friendship forged in war
Washington and Seoul’s relationship was forged in the bloody crucible of the Korean War of 1950-53. For several decades, the alliance was lopsided, especially in the lean two decades following the armistice of 1953 when the South Korean subsistence economy was almost totally dependent on U.S. aid. But over the past two decades, South Korea has evened up the ledger, becoming a world leader in electronics, shipping, vehicles, arms and pop culture. The U.S-South Korea alliance has developed into one based as much on economic interests as diplomatic and strategic concerns.
Even the awkward issue of recent reports of alleged U.S. spying on the South Korean presidential office is not likely to dampen the show of friendliness expected on display during the bilateral meeting.
After all, Biden and Yoon have more serious matters to contend with. The state visit follows a year in which North Korea fired nearly 100 missiles into the skies in and around the Korean Peninsula, Russia brazenly invaded Ukraine, and China upped its rhetoric around the disputed island of Taiwan. And each will need addressing in the summit.
North Korean missiles
To South Korea, the threat of the isolationist state to its north is the most existential. Biden will likely underscore the U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea against a nuclear-armed North Korea.
But the threat is not confined to imperiling the Korean Peninsula. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s intercontinental ballistic missiles now have the capability to hit the U.S. mainland. Such a development may be intended to draw Washington’s attention, but it has another consequence: aligning the existential threat that South Korea faces with that of the United States.
Growing apprehension in South Korea – where more than 70% now favor a domestic nuclear weapons program rather than rely on its powerful ally – means that Yoon will seek U.S. reassurances that go beyond the rhetoric of “extended deterrence” and promises of an “ironclad” alliance.
North Korean leader Kim, having told the world last week that he is gearing up to launch a spy satellite into space, has also used the opportunity of Yoon’s U.S. visit to step up the country’s ballistic missiles tests – a reminder to his two main adversaries that he can always make life for them difficult.
China’s regional push
That China and Russia continue to block any move at the U.N. Security Council to punish North Korea over its tests only emboldens Pyongyang.
But the threat posed by North Korea is not the only East Asian security concern for the U.S. or South Korea. The rise of China as an Indo-Pacific force – and a rival to Washington’s and Seoul’s economic and strategic interests – is another likely topic to come up in the White House meeting.
Indeed, Yoon may have foreshadowed U.S. and South Korean thinking on China with comments made to the Reuters news agency just days ago.
“The Taiwan issue is not simply an issue between China and Taiwan, but like the issue of North Korea, it is a global issue,” he said. Yoon may just have been echoing what Biden and he declared at the pair’s first summit in Seoul in May 2022 over the importance of preserving “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait as an essential element in security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.” But the remark raised the ire of officials in Beijing to howls of protest. And the fact that a South Korean leader should join the U.S. as it ups the rhetoric over Taiwan will likely be welcomed by Washington and, of course, Taipei.
It also comes on the back of efforts by Yoon to make amends with Japan – an erstwhile “friend of a friend” in regards to the U.S., but one with which Seoul has long-festering wounds going 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 two countries’ leaders in 12 years.
Friendlier terms between Tokyo and Seoul – both democracies – serve Washington’s plans to counter the influence of autocracies in the region, forming a quasi-trilateral alliance structure.
Biden will be hoping to isolate China further through economic means. Yoon will visit Boston during his trip, underscoring the importance of collaboration in the biotech and high-tech industries. It comes as South Korea’s leading microchip producers, including Samsung and SK Hynix, face pressure from the U.S. to curtail their semiconductor business in China. Yoon will be seeking to promote U.S.-Korean joint investment in the semiconductor sector to compensate for the impact from reducing sales to China’s market.
Ukraine’s need for weapons
And then there is the war in Ukraine, which tends to loom over diplomatic matters since Russia’s invasion.
In the past, South Korea has remained largely parochial on security issues, understandably, given the threat it faces on the peninsula. For example, no previous administration has even floated the notion of military support for the U.S. in the event of war in the Taiwan Strait.
Similarly, Seoul has provided only economic and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, although it is the world’s eighth-biggest exporter of arms. But Yoon’s vision for his nation is that of a “global pivotal state” that places freedom, values and international rules-based order at the heart of its foreign policy – and that opens up the possibility of further intervention.
If Biden is able to coax his guest to commit to supply, discreetly, more weapons and ammunition to Ukraine, it will prove a win for both Yoon’s vision as well as that of Biden.
State visits are by their nature ceremonial – and 2023 marks the 70th anniversary of the United States-Republic of Korea alliance. But as strategic and economic concerns converge, the future relationship between the countries is being redefined by how the two allies confront simultaneously geopolitical concerns on South Korea’s doorstep, the wider region and the world beyond.