On April 28, 2022, the White House officially announced that President Biden would travel to Korea and Japan from May 20 to 24 to meet with the leaders of the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which also includes Australia, Japan and India.
The visit came 10 days after Yoon Suk-yeol took office as head of state. By comparison, Moon Jae-in held a summit with his US counterpart Donald Trump in Washington 51 days after his inauguration, while Park Geun-hye held her first summit with then-President Barack Obama 71 days after her inauguration. Moreover, the May meeting was the first time in 29 years that a US president visited Seoul, rather than South Korea’s new president visiting Washington.
During the meeting, the two leaders stressed their intention to take the bilateral alliance to a new level. Yoon Suk-yeol and Joe Biden presented a common vision that economic security is national security. The US President stressed that South Korea is a reliable, trustworthy partner that shares his country’s values. “The ROK-US alliance has evolved into the linchpin of peace and prosperity in the region,” Biden stressed.
The summit itself took place on May 21, in a narrow and extended format that lasted about two hours. Security issues were discussed, including measures to counter North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, economic cooperation, including a “technology alliance”, and regional cooperation. The outcome of the summit was well reflected in the joint statement, which recorded agreements to strengthen the joint alliance’s combat power, accelerate the transfer of wartime command to Seoul, counter provocative actions by North Korea and expand joint military exercises.
The two presidents agreed to give the alliance a comprehensive strategic character and to reactivate the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG) at a high level. The consultation group was aimed at “denuclearizing North Korea through steady containment” and last worked in January 2018, when talks between the leaders of the two Koreas and the US were just gaining momentum. If the EDSCG resumes talks on the deployment of US strategic assets in South Korea and surrounding areas, it would be a sign of a more hawkish stance by the Yoon administration towards Pyongyang.
Speaking at a joint press conference, Yoon Suk-yeol and Joe Biden reaffirmed the common goal of achieving complete denuclearization of North Korea, noting that the door to dialogue remains open: if Pyongyang takes practical steps towards denuclearization, plans will be drawn up with the international community to provide it with economic assistance.
The summit participants also reaffirmed their intention to assist the North in combating the COVID-19 pandemic.
As for economic security, the allies agreed to intensify cooperation through regular communication through a new dialogue channel on supply chains and advanced technologies. South Korean side has officially confirmed participation in the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).
Joe Biden also had a ten-minute telephone conversation with former South Korean President Moon Jae-in, calling him a “good friend” and thanking him for his efforts to strengthen the alliance between the two countries during his time in office. Previously (according to the Blue House, while Moon was still president of the ROK), the US side had offered to hold a meeting between Biden and Moon, but then cancelled it itself. The visit was presumably cancelled so as not to embarrass Yoon Suk-yeol.
On May 22, the South Korean president and his American counterpart visited the Korean Air and Space Operations Center (KAOC), located at Osan Air Base, to view its operations and encourage the US and South Korean troops stationed there. Joe Biden was the first US president to visit the center, which is situated in an underground bunker and serves as a key command post, and the ROK president was last there 13 years ago.
The Korean Air and Space Operations Centre is the backbone of the management of the so-called three-axis national security system. It includes the Kill Chain ballistic missile defense system, aimed at the preemptive destruction of military targets in North Korean territory, its own KAMD ballistic missile defense, and the KMPR massive retaliatory strike system.
Highly appreciating the service of US troops away from home, Yoon said the KAOC is a symbol of the enduring South Korean-American alliance and is the focal point of the ROK’s defense system against the North Korean missile threat. The South Korean leader described the center as a key site of the ROK-US alliance, through which the two sides jointly respond to “the ever-increasing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.” “Threat containment and the guarantee of stability are important today, not just for the Korean peninsula, but for the whole world,” Joe Biden reiterated.
Prior to the joint visit, Biden held a meeting with Hyundai Motor Group Chairman Chung Eui-sun, who was planning to invest $5.54 billion to build a dedicated electric vehicle and car battery plant in Georgia, USA. As a result, Chung pledged to invest a further $5 billion in the US to develop software for robotics, artificial intelligence and autonomous driving. According to Chung Eui-sun, with the investment, the group will provide innovative products and solutions to customers in the US and contribute to the global carbon neutrality effort.
Also on arrival in Korea, Joe Biden, accompanied by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, visited Samsung’s advanced semiconductor manufacturing plant in Pyeongtaek, where he was met by ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol and the de facto head of Samsung Group Lee Jae-yong. The plant visit came as the parties are pushing to restructure the supply chain in a bid to increase cooperation in the semiconductor sector.
It is also interesting to consider what may have been planned but not included in the final program of the visit. Jen Psaki suggested Biden to visit the Demilitarized Zone as it “served as a venue for US presidents to demonstrate a strong allied defensive posture against North Korean provocations.” Nevertheless, on May 18, Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor to the US President, said there were no plans to visit the demilitarized zone. However, a visit to KAOC could be considered the equivalent of a trip to the front line.
It is also interesting that US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was absent from the delegation. Instead of attending the visit, he chose to give a speech at Georgetown University’s commencement ceremony, where he received an honorary doctorate in the humanities. This happened for the second time. Previously, a month after his election, Yoon had sent a delegation led by current Foreign Minister Park Jin to the US: it met US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, White House Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell and others, but Blinken at the time had to attend a meeting with NATO foreign ministers in Brussels over the war in Ukraine.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.