On the one hand, the Biden visit to Seoul drew praise for Yoon Suk-yeol in his inaugural summit on the world stage. He boosted the image of Seoul as a major player, actively shaping the rules of an emerging order. On the other, it raised concern of deepening danger from steps that went beyond the comfort zone of past presidents at a time of global crisis. The conservative response was enthusiastic, the progressive reaction was skeptical with a touch of alarmism, and there was a middle group nervous about aspects of Biden’s trip to the region but reserving their verdict. Worries about China and North Korea cast a lingering shadow.
The response to Biden’s visit to South Korea was mostly positive. In light of the strong public support for the alliance, that was expected. Helpful was the fact that North Korea had spurned talks, China’s role in support of North Korea and Russia had further soured its image, and difficult choices had yet to be spelled out. The focus on close cooperation on technology played to South Korea’s strength, as the visits by Biden to Samsung and Hyundai offices showed the US need for its ally, not pressure on Seoul. Yoon came across as a statesman despite his lack of experience in diplomacy. He was not a passive follower so much as a leader in forging the rules for the next era. If earlier asymmetry stood out with the US providing security, now the South Korean role in providing technology pointed to two-way ties.
South Koreans were nervous about the alliance after Trump’s demand for much higher payments for the Special Measures Agreement and new fear about abandonment instead of extended deterrence in the face of North Korea’s rising nuclear threat. Biden’s personal rapport with Yoon and security assurances were welcome as was the renewal of joint military exercises, which Trump had reduced. While some on the progressive side warned that a crisis loomed since North Korea would not be ignored, as it rattled its missile capabilities, there was no impending test of how to reengage.
Given the US focus on Ukraine in recent months, Biden’s visit offered some reassurances that Asia was not overshadowed. To be sure, it was not the Korean Peninsula but the Indo-Pacific that was showcased. In Yoon, Biden found an eager partner, unlike Moon. Yet, the degree of South Korean support for the full range of sanctions on Russia loomed as an issue not fully resolved. Whether because of business interests or lingering fear of a further Russian tilt to North Korea, this challenge hovered in the background. If Seoul hesitated in pressuring Moscow, it was assumed that it would be more reluctant to take measures for economic security opposed by Beijing. This US concern, recognized in Seoul, could not be addressed clearly by a new administration leading a divided country on regional issues. The summit was not conclusive.
While abandonment was on people’s minds, fearing a distracted US due to events in Europe and lack of urgency over North Korea, the summit shifted the focus for some to entrapment. Biden’s remark on Taiwan in Tokyo only heightened that concern. Knowing China’s tough stance on South Korean involvement in the Quad and other regional initiatives it saw as containment, fear of a repeat of the sanctions of 2016 was palpable in some circles. While Yoon and Biden narrowed the gap in responding to China visible a year earlier when Moon and Biden had met and in the limited follow-up by Moon, many expected that the gap still mattered. The shift toward a regional and global alliance aroused some criticism. Along with economic security, it was a template for a comprehensive strategic alliance, which some saw as coming at the expense of the focus on North Korea and reunification.
The progressive camp found many things of concern in Biden’s visits. Some treated the US as the disruptor of the status quo, refusing to accept China’s rise and containing China without sufficient reason. Thus, tensions are rising in the region, which could be calmed if the US were more restrained. The ostensible reason for expanding the scope and scale of joint military exercises is North Korea, but some warned that another reason was to contain China with a three-way military framework including Japan. Suspicious of Japan’s real intentions and echoing Chinese charges against the Quad—now proceeding from pandemic and climate change measures to policing the movement of Chinese ships—writers warned of aggressive intentions. IPEF aroused warnings of “economic containment” of China. Hesitant to follow the US lead fully on Ukraine and alarmed by Biden’s statement on Taiwan in Tokyo, the progressives charged that Biden seeks to fundamentally alter the nature of the alliance after seven decades, already seen with Japan and now with South Korea, resulting in greater chaos.
Contrasts were drawn between the two May summits with Biden of Moon and Yoon. The first maintained a balance between the US and China in their strategic competition. At the second, however, Seoul was faulted by progressives for tilting sharply to the US side and even turning hostile to China. The new theme of “economic security” drew criticism as a way to contain China. In 2021, the joint statement said “our respective approaches to the Indo-Pacific region,” but in 2022 Yoon praised the US strategy as if Seoul had no other and led China to think Seoul had joined in containment. On Taiwan, all that was said in 2021 was “the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” In 2022 the Taiwan Strait was called an “essential element in security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.” Human rights were another challenge to China, at least seeming to point to Hong Kong and Xinjiang by saying that the leaders are “sharing our mutual concerns regarding human rights in the Indo-Pacific region.” Finally, on North Korea, mention of the Panmunjom Declaration and Singapore joint statement was omitted, shifting the framework for diplomacy, and human rights were raised more clearly. Progressives were wary of involvement against Russia and supply chains to be secured against “countries that don’t share our values,” i.e., China. They recognized that foreign policy was being reoriented.
For conservatives there was praise, albeit, in some cases, mixed with notes of caution. IPEF was greeted as US reengagement on trade after its withdrawal from TPP, but it remained too vague to answer critical questions. Indeed, a last-minute change had diluted it to attract more signatories from launching negotiations to consultations to negotiate. Yet, the shift away from Moon’s wariness of regional goals was much welcomed. Ahead would be diplomacy aimed at trilateralism even if caution toward Japan persisted. Yoon’s likely visit in late June to join a NATO summit may reveal more support for Ukraine and for linking Asia and Europe. A host of discussions about economic security await. As Seoul joins others in resisting Putin’s use of energy for leverage, it coordinates over how to limit Xi’s use of supply chains for pressure.
Progressives are on the defense. Yoon has the initiative. Even those who remain cautious largely approve of Biden’s initiatives in the face of widening threats. The follow-up to the summit holds promise to go much further than the straddling long attributed to Seoul’s leaders. If Pyongyang or Beijing applies new pressure on Seoul, the path forward is likely to reflect polarization now under way, not renewed balancing. Whereas US leaders see a historic opportunity/urgency to transform an alliance that for two decades or longer has not fully reflected the challenges both countries face, South Koreans are divided/ hesitant in light of unresolved concerns. Given uncertainty about US leadership and opposition in the National Assembly, consensus between Biden and Yoon is no guarantee that a long-term strategy is now on track. Much remains to clarify and set in motion over the rest of the year.
Coming on the heels of Moon’s ambivalence about a regional agenda and recurrent South Korean expectations of their country’s agency as a force for change in Northeast Asia, the message from the Biden visit was not easy for some to accept. Rather than shaping the future of the peninsula through its diplomacy, Seoul is reduced to signing onto a US-led strategy in which Tokyo is already heavily invested. Cautious responses can be expected as each of the implications is made clear.