- US President Joe Biden met his South Korean counterpart as early as last month.
- The developments in Ukraine are changing the regional balance.
- The two seek to further long-standing relations between their countries and counter North Korea.
Why is Biden in Romance with Suk-yeol?
Answer: The assertive role of North Korea and China has deepened the long-standing ties between the United States and South Korea and has consolidated their role in Indo-Pacific affairs.
As North Korea keeps testing its nuclear and military facilities, President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol have moved to coordinate an answer, bolstering their security in the region in a pact signed in May. The ongoing war in Ukraine and the parallels that can be drawn to Taiwan are a paramount part of their agenda.
The two parties have found ways to foster an already well-consolidated relationship between the countries. At the 2009 Group of Twenty (G20) Summit, former US President Barack Obama described South Korea as one of America’s closest allies and greatest friends. Recently, U.S. President Joe Biden labeled these ties as “a lynchpin of peace, stability, and prosperity for a region of the world that we seek”.
Yoon’s main emphasis focuses on reconciliation with Japan. The bitterness over the Japanese occupation of Korea and Japanese crimes during WWII has affected South Korea-Japan friendship. Nevertheless, 2016 disputes with China and North Korea have greatly changed this perception.
This change can be seen in 2021’s SisaIn survey. South Korean citizens view more negatively China than Japan. This change and reconciliation could be a pivotal regional shift positively affecting the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific interests. To illustrate this change, officials from the United States, Japan and South Korea will meet in Seoul on June 3 for talks on North Korea.
Additionally, the two are engaged in joint development projects. For instance, Seoul has pledged to supply excess LNG to Europe beginning this summer and has taken part in military drills. One example of this is South Korea and the United States holding joint military drills in response to North Korea’s nuclear tests between late April 2022 until the beginning of May 2022.
Furthermore, South Korea’s president-elect, Yoon Suk-yeol, has released a statement expressing the desire to join the Quad. Even though Seoul is not currently part of Quad, its member states have already considered allowing Seoul to be in a close association with the group in different frameworks and endeavours.
It is clear that Biden and Suk-yeol have also raised concerns over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and about China.
The two leaders have taken a harsh tone against Russia and will speed up a contingency plan as North Korea keeps conducting nuclear tests, at the same time as Beijing watches over these drills and acts depending on the international community’s response.
What does Biden want?
Answer: Biden seeks to denuclearize North Korea and take the lead role as a semiconductor producer as the invasion of Ukraine raises questions about Taiwan’s status.
Biden, like his South Korean counterpart, is seeking to counterbalance North Korea’s nuclear arsenal as well as deterring Beijing. China has become considerably more aggressive in Taiwan, which threatens not just US core interests in the region, but also the semiconductor industry in which Seoul plays a pivotal role.
Therefore, military cooperation with South Korea provides Washington with an ally in the event its sovereignty comes into question. Both leaders formalized the country’s participation in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a US-led regional initiative, during their first summit. Additionally, both leaders have adopted a harsher tone against North Korea’s recent flurry of missile tests.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has engendered further angst for Suk-yeol and Biden have some similarities for Taiwan in China. Of particular importance is Beijing’s stance on Taiwan which, like Ukraine to Russia, forms part of China. Beijing is watching and taking notes on the US and EU response to the invasion to assess opportunities it may have in Taiwan. That being said, the People’s Republic of China is certainly aware that the US’s commitment to Taiwan is superior to that of Ukraine.
Finally, a romance with Suk-yeol grows at a time when the U.S. has been adopting a harsher tone and seeking to avoid China’s plans to dominate key areas of emerging technology. Trade between the U.S. and China is at its highest and with a potential clash or change within Beijing in the South China Sea, core U.S. allies’ economies will be severely hampered and changing the regional dynamics.
South Korea, therefore, becomes a potentially critical partner for the U.S., providing key technological items and effectively becoming an alternative pivotal partner in semiconductors.
What does Suk-yeol want?
Answer: Suk-yeol is re-adopting a harsh tone against North Korea and wants to transform South Korea into a semiconductor powerhouse.
South Korea established diplomatic ties with China in 1992. Since then, relations with Beijing have been pivotal, mostly regarding trade. In less than 30 years, trade between the two countries has grown 40 times and ranges between $ 243 billion and $400 million. Furthermore, in February 2022, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a Chinese led trade deal, went into effect in South Korea.
Washington’s partnership with Seoul is pivotal to counter China. For instance, in 2016, South Korea deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, ensuring Seoul’s security against North Korea. This deployment irked Beijing, leading China unsuccessfully restricted the operations of some South Korean companies inside China, and put limits on some imports and the number of Chinese tourists to South Korea.
This has changed South Korea’s perception of China from friend to foe. For instance, in a March 2017 survey conducted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, China’s favorability was 3.21, lower than that of Japan with 3.33. As a result, South Korea has deepened its ties with other trade partners, especially the EU and the U.S. This trade decoupling with China has opened South Korea’s new diplomatic doors elsewhere and Washington has been key in this. Plus, this tougher stance over China allows Suk-yeol’s government to confidently coordinate with other Asian-Pacific states, specifically with Japan.
Consequently, reducing economic dependence on China is one of Suk-yeol’s main goals. South Korea accounts for more than 40% of the world’s memory-chip manufacturing capacity, which Suk-yeol wants to leverage. Therefore, in 2022, Joe Biden kicked off his official trip in the Indo-Pacific to a Samsung Electronics Pyeongtaek plant. The Seoul-based Samsung unveiled plans for a $17 billion chip-making factory in Taylor, Texas last year, for which the White House says the Pyeongtaek plant is a model. During this visit, Suk-yeol urged Biden to provide incentives for South Korea and U.S. businesses to invest in each other’s countries.
Despite the harsh tone against North Korea, Suk-yeol offered to provide COVID-19 vaccines and other medical supplies to North Korea, which is suffering the worst outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 virus.
What is Suk-yeol Doing?
Answer: The South Korean President has sought to deepen ties with Washington to keep a harsh tone against North Korea and protect technological supply chains.
Suk-yeol won the presidency in a tight election amid wide discontent over economic policy. Undoubtedly, one of his key pressure points is the North Korean nuclear arsenal. Well before Suk-yeol held South Korea’s top office, Seoul recognised the US’s key strategic role in its security policy, especially with growing fears of instability and the fate of North Korea’s nuclear stockpile. Consequently, both countries have been conducting numerous drills. For example, on May 26th 2022, the U.S. conducted separate bilateral exercises with South Korea and Japan in response to North Korea’s May 24 ballistic missile test.
Moreover, the pandemic has made evident the importance of securing supply chains, especially on semiconductors in the Asia-Pacific region. For instance, in 2021 South Korea and the U.S. announced further cooperation in a range of industries including semiconductor producers. Finally, through the consolidation of the security apparatus between South Korea, Japan and the US, Suk-yeol and Biden can assume a greater role in regional security dynamics that is in the best interest of both powers.
What does this mean for you?
Answer: Bolstering strong South Korea-US ties that counter North Korea and secure semiconductor production will be paramount to avoid further regional and global escalation.
Both Seoul and Washington have had recent tensions with Pyongyang, for example, North Korea has resumed testing its largest intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) during Biden’s official visit to South Korea and Japan. The ability of Biden and Suk-yeol to take countermeasures has been calculated by their important military ties and engagement in new military partnerships in the region.
Bilateral trade between Seoul and Washington has been relevant and has expanded nearly 70% over the past decade. Seoul has moved to strengthen its position as an alternative to reduce Taiwan’s pivotal role in semiconductors in case of a clash with Beijing. After the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 and North Korea’s recent nuclear tests have only bolstered the South Korea-US relationship and has even deepened their military cooperation.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised concern and analysis about what that might mean for the future state of Taiwan and denuclearization, which will likely be a cornerstone of Biden’s and Suk-yeol’s plans. The current status quo and the regional peace are very fragile, and North Korea’s next steps and policies regarding Taiwan at the same moment as the current invasion of Ukraine add an extra layer of caution. As a result, the South Koreaa and US partnership will be pivotal to deter North Korea.
Additionally, semiconductors are another piece that will define the balance of power worldwide. As time passes and fractioned interests become more latent in the Asia-Pacific region, the cost of any miscalculation increases. Therefore, growing ties between South Korea and the US will be key to the balance of power and alliances in the region.