South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol will make a state visit to Washington, D.C. today – the first by a South Korean president in 12 years. The visit comes at a critical time for both countries, amid growing concerns over China and North Korea. Biden needs South Korean support for U.S. geopolitical efforts, whereas Yoon hopes to resolve contentious domestic issues with support from Biden.
The state visit presents the two leaders with an opportunity to align their positions, solidifying the U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance as it celebrates its 70th anniversary this year.
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First, the U.S. needs South Korean support in the face of increasing competition with China. The success of U.S. efforts to restructure supply chains, particularly in strategic industries such as semiconductors and batteries, depends on active support from allies such as South Korea. Despite concerns about potential Chinese economic retaliation, South Korean conglomerates — including Samsung Electronics, Hyundai Motor Group and SK Group — have responded with huge investments in the U.S., with SK Group alone announcing it would invest $22 billion. Biden needs to secure South Korea’s continued support in this new economic security arena.
U.S. efforts to establish new multilateral organizations in the Indo-Pacific region represent another area where South Korea’s role is increasingly important. While South Korea’s previous Moon Jae-In government was hesitant to participate in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), the Yoon government is eager to support this and other U.S. attempts to contain China, such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity and the semiconductor supply chain initiative, Chip 4. Biden can confirm South Korean cooperation with such U.S.-led initiatives.
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Finally, the issue of Taiwan is a pressing concern, with good reason to believe that China may make a military move against the island in the coming years. Were such a situation to occur, North Korea might also take military action against the South, and the U.S. and South Korea must be prepared to handle two simultaneous wars in Northeast Asia. Full support from allies like South Korea and Japan will be crucial in deterring or responding to such military aggressions, and Biden needs to get a firm position on this from Yoon.
Yoon is one of South Korea’s most pro-alliance presidents and has public opinion on his side: Over three-quarters of South Koreans believe their country should strengthen ties with the U.S. if the U.S. and China continue their rivalry, according to a 2019 survey by the Asian Institute for Policy Studies. And yet, a lack of synchronization with Washington on issues of importance to Seoul has led to domestic discord in South Korea, which Yoon needs U.S. support to resolve.
One is Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, which caused a rift in the alliance when it excluded South Korean electric vehicles from eligibility for tax credits for American consumers. The IRA arrived on the heels of South Korean conglomerate Hyundai’s plan to invest heavily in building EV factories in the U.S., leaving Koreans feeling betrayed by the U.S. and leading to a public outcry against the Yoon government for mishandling the issue. Biden can reassure Koreans that the allies share interests by allowing some (if not full) tax credits for Korean EVs.
Yoon also faces public pressure to address an increasingly rogue North Korea, with nearly two-thirds of South Koreans now believing their own country should go nuclear. Such public attitude reflects two interrelated issues vis-à-vis the U.S.: a disinterest in Washington in engaging on North Korean issues, and an erosion in the credibility of the U.S. security umbrella.
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Given former president Donald Trump’s threats to withdraw troops from South Korea, Koreans now believe their country must prepare to defend against North Korean attack without U.S. assistance. Recently leaked Pentagon documents that suggest the U.S. has spied on South Korea only confirm the South Korean public’s perception that the U.S. is still a “big brother” that will act on its own interests. Biden should allay these fears by reassuring Korea of the U.S.’s commitment to the defense of South Korea and its respect for South Korea’s sovereignty.
Biden should ensure that the state visit addresses Korean concerns while strengthening U.S.-Republic of Korea economic and security cooperation. Despite Yoon’s efforts to improve South Korea’s strained bilateral relationship with Japan, his March summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida backfired at home, as it did not yield satisfactory results in the view of the Korean public. If Yoon’s U.S. state visit similarly ends with no tangible outcomes, he will be in danger of losing further public support, tanking his already-low approval ratings, which have hovered around the mid-30s. Worse, it will damage South Korea’s trust in the U.S.
Over the last seven decades, the U.S.-Korea alliance has been a pillar of U.S. policy in Northeast Asia while propelling South Korea into a top-10 economy with a vibrant democracy. Can the alliance’s next seven decades enjoy the same success? This summit will set the tone.
Gi-Wook Shin is the William J. Perry Professor of Contemporary Korea and director of the Walter H. Shorenstein Center for Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University.