Yoon’s State Visit to the United States: What Does It Mean for the Korean Peninsula?

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With the emerging global scenarios due to the Russia-Ukraine war and Taiwan tensions, United States and South Korea have promised towards strong partnership in the Korean peninsula. With this vision, President of the United States Joe Biden welcomed South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol to the White House for a state visit. The visit coincided with the United States and South Korea celebrating the 70th anniversary of their alliance and ties between both countries has grown stronger over the years.

The historical relationship between Washington and Seoul started in 1953, when the two countries signed a defense agreement adhering to the armistice instead of the ceasefire that ended the Korean War. Since the beginning of the administrations of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the United States of America and the Republic of Korea have worked together to become a positive influence not only on the Korean peninsula but also throughout the Indo-Pacific region and the rest of the world.  But emerging challenges in the region has opened the necessity of a state visit to US for South Korea. This six-day visit started on 26 April of 2023 would provide an opportunity to strengthen the friendship between President Joe Biden and President Yoon as the relationship between the United States and South Korea has recently been subjected to unprecedented obstacles.

These involve: the growing nuclear threat posed by North Korea, shifting attitudes within the United States toward trade liberalization, and questions regarding the degree to which South Korea intentions to align itself with the Western nations. Therefore, the purpose of this visit was to highlight the ways in which the relationship between the United States and South Korea has grown to encompass more than just a security alliance. A discussion-based exercise was held between the two countries in order to provide South Korea with a clearer sense of how the United States thinks about the possible use of nuclear weapons. The two countries have also been in negotiations to strengthen high-level military cooperation.

The United States has always promised that, in order to destroy North Korea, it would make use of all of its available weaponry, including its nuclear weapons. But in recent times, North Korea has possessed nuclear weapons that can threaten the United States. So, it is possible that South Korea may develop its own nuclear weapons if their security issues are not addressed by US. With the recent nuclear warhead development in North Korea, South Korea have been asking for more consultation on how they are going to deter North Korea. In response, the United States has been promising more military hardware deployments to the region. Additionally, the United States has been promising more consultation on how they are going to deter North Korea. To ensure the commitment towards South Korea, United States military has sent its most potent weapons, like as long-range bombers and aircraft carriers fueled by nuclear reactors, to take part in military drills alongside South Korea to reassure the South Korean people.

Following this visit, the United States plans to send a ballistic missile submarine to the region around South Korea for the first time since the 1980s. The two nations will also release a Washington statement, which will include the formation of a new consultative security group for South Korea. This group will be patterned after one that the United States maintained with its European allies during the Cold War. Also, the United States is in search for strategies to challenge China’s growing power in the Indo-Pacific and fostering a closer partnership Japan and South Korea. Before the US visit, South Korean President Yoon’s had developed diplomatic relations with Japan. This has further strengthened the US-Japan-South Korea trilateral relationship which would make an enormous difference in the security alliance in Korean Peninsula.  During this visit both US and South Korea has shared their strategic concerns of lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula and peace will not emerge without concerted effort. Both parties have come to the conclusion that it is in everyone’s best interest to greatly bolster the strengthened deterrence of two nations against the nuclear and missile threats posed by North Korea. This discussion was carried out with the goal of achieving peace through the supremacy of the strategic alliance rather than settling for a falsified peace dependent on the goodwill of the opposing party.

But this visit was not free from growing tensions between the US and South Korea in recent times. A factor that is contributing to the rising tension is South Korea’s unwillingness to provide weapons to Ukraine, which is now defending itself against a Russian military attack. South Korea is one of the major exporters of weapons in the world. But it has not given permission for the sale of weapons to Ukraine, citing local rules that control the shipping of armaments to conflict zones as the reason for this. Instead, South Korea has given its approval for the sale of enormous amounts of weaponry manufactured in South Korea to nations like Poland and the United States, who are arming and aiding Ukraine in this war.

Another issue that fueled the tensions is recent disclosure of classified US paper that purported to detail private talks about Ukraine between top South Korean officials. It showed difference that existed between the US and South Korea about Ukraine. The documents gave the impression that Washington was spying on Seoul. Another obstacle that has constrained US-South Korea relations is a new legislation which Biden signed last year. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passed in the United States that reduced the competitiveness of electric cars manufactured in South Korea in the US market. The decision was made with the intention of excluding China from supply chains and increasing the manufacturing of electric cars in the United States. However, as a side effect, it resulted in the elimination of tax credits for dozens of electric vehicles that were built in South Korea.

While the United States anticipates that South Korea will play a larger role in containing China and Russia, South Korea is looking for a more robust commitment from the United States to defend South Korea against the growing nuclear threats posed by the North Korea. The allies are also interested in bolstering economic security in semiconductors and batteries. Seoul is looking to Washington for concessions in the implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act and the Chips and Science Act, both of which are designed to improve investments in the United States while simultaneously limiting global trade and technological ties with China. Because of Seoul’s action towards Japan, the United States and its allies are now in a stronger position to address the problems presented by countries such as North Korea and China.

The United States has a strategic interest in maintaining robust alliances because these relationships enhance the country’s military, intelligence, and diplomatic capabilities. But with this visit, South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol’s diplomacy was questioned. Yeol’s adaptation of either friend or enemy approach may question its position in the region as the nation requires a careful balancing act among competing forces in the Korean peninsula. Yoon Suk-Yeol’s visit to Washington for a meeting was announced while he was facing domestic backlash.  However, the two main topics of this visit to Washington, which were security and economic cooperation, have been overshadowed by Yoon’s recent remarks, which have been interpreted as signaling a change in Seoul’s policies regarding the conflict in Ukraine and the tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

This has caused two main issues of his visit to Washington to be largely overlooked. Yoon also said that Seoul might think about supplying deadly weapons to Kyiv in the case of a large new assault on people in Ukraine, which sparked heated protests in Moscow. In response, Moscow issued a hawkish statement, stating that it would be providing North Korea with new armaments. Yoon and Biden further emphasized the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait as an essential element in security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. In recent times, Yoon’s comments on the tension in the Taiwan Strait were the subject of a heated back-and-forth between China and South Korea. Yoon equated the situation of Taiwan to North Korea and South Korea, describing the Taiwan crisis as a global issue, which prompted strong comments from the Chinese government.

With this visit, Yoon has made it quite apparent that South Korea would stand with the United States and other democracies with similar views in containing the influence of China in the Asian states. But on the basis of its alliance with the United States, South Korea needs to maintain some diplomatic flexibility with China and Russia in order to deal with the North Korea. The US  should also reframe its strategies towards China for a peaceful and stable Indo-Pacific region.

– Aishwarya Sanjukta Roy Proma is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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