U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 26, 2023.
Republic of Korea President Yoon Suk-yeol just completed his closely watched visit to the United States. The trip attracted much attention thanks mostly to his own efforts: No leader of a U.S. ally has ever presented such high-profile “proof of allegiance” before visiting. He swiftly repaired relations with Japan, disclosed a plan for military aid to Ukraine and made comments on Taiwan. It is thus easy to see how he will be viewed in the U.S.
Yoon did so much for the trip because his meeting with President Joe Biden would take place against a backdrop of escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula and China-U.S. strategic competition, and its outcome will to a great extent determine the ROK’s future orientation and affect China-ROK and China-U.S. relations, as well as the regional situation.
The South Korean public had very high expectations for the Yoon visit. One media outlet even came up with the headline “ROK and U.S. Should Become Two-Way Alliance of Shared Values and Interests” — which indicates members of the public don’t consider the U.S. and ROK as equals in the alliance, or believe their country has been treated in a way that matches its contribution.
Judging from past experience, the probability of sharing economic benefits with the U.S. is low. Reality has further proved this. Just before the summit meeting between the ROK and American leaders, the U.S. government required the ROK to prevent Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix Semiconductor Inc. from filling China’s semiconductor gap once China prohibits Micron Technology, Inc. from exporting to China. This represents the first time the Biden administration has asked companies in an allied country to participate in the U.S. semiconductor war against China at its own expense.
The Yoon government didn’t let the U.S. down. The ROK president’s office said the government would try its best to reduce the losses of ROK companies “to the minimum,” meaning the ROK is ready to cooperate —only it hopes the price won’t be too high and losses won’t be too much. Such an unequal relationship doesn’t bode well for the future of the U.S.-ROK alliance.
Yet the U.S. believes affirming extended U.S. deterrence against North Korea, which is the ROK’s biggest concern, will be the best compensation. According to South Korean media, the ROK and the U.S. are working toward stipulating in explicit terms in a joint document that “if the ROK suffers a nuclear attack by the DPRK, the U.S. will also use nuclear weapons.”
Meanwhile, to upgrade the capacity for jointly planning and executing nuclear extended deterrence, the two sides are discussing the establishment of a new mechanism for regular ministerial level consultations. Once the decision is made, the U.S. will make a clear commitment at home and abroad in the form of a formal document about the will of “nuclear retaliation” ratified posthumously by leaders of both countries. The ROK side deems this to be “of significant importance.”
This is also important for the U.S., which is concentrating on how to deal with China. As U.S. strength declines, it is forming small cliques with allies and partners on China’s periphery — suppressing and containing China in such aspects as politics, economy, science, technology, security and diplomacy — in a bid to isolate China from the rest of the world and finally cut off its path of development.
At that point, enhancing and expanding a military presence on the Korean Peninsula, building a solid U.S./Japan/ROK alliance network will certainly be a critical move for militarily suppressing China, and even Russia, in Northeast Asia.
However, the prospects for the success of such a move hinges on how the Yoon government responds to the U.S. demand for it to participate further in its attempts to contain China and Russia. This will be a difficult choice to make, though Yoon’s personal inclination is obvious. He still has to consider potential responses from China and Russia, pressures from the slowing domestic economy, foreign trade deficits and business losses — as well as strong opposition from the general public and opposition parties at home. Most important, to position itself correctly the ROK should have a clear awareness of its own conditions, avoid being intoxicated by glory bestowed by the United States.