11.08.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

On Nancy Pelosi’s Visit to South Korea

PEL34111

The New Eastern Outlook has already written about the Taiwan leg of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s tour, but we will talk about Pelosi’s reception in the Republic of Korea, where she headed straight afterwards.

Coverage of the Taiwanese part of Pelosi’s visit in the North and South of the Korean Peninsula

Pyongyang immediately backed Beijing in its criticism of the visit – a DPRK Foreign Ministry official gave an interview to the KCNA on August 3 in which he stressed that “Taiwan is an integral part of China, and the Taiwan issue is an internal Chinese affair”. This was to be expected, but it is much more interesting that Seoul’s position has not turned into one of singing along and making excuses.

On August 2, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry refused to comment on Pelosi’s expected visit to Taiwan, but reiterated its position on the importance of “stability and peace” in the Taiwan Strait.

On August 3, a spokesperson for the ROK Presidential Administration noted that Seoul maintains communication with the countries concerned on all issues of maintaining peace and stability in the region, “through dialogue and cooperation”. Meanwhile, President Yoon Suk-yeol has no plans to interrupt his vacation and meet with the speaker of the lower house of the US Congress, the official added.  Foreign Minister Park Jin was also “unavailable” due to his visit to Cambodia to attend a series of annual meetings held by ASEAN.

Interestingly, some media have compared Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan with Lee Jun-seok’s controversial trip to Ukraine from June 3 to 9, 2022, not in favor of the latter. It was noted that both politicians travelled without the direct blessing of the leadership (“Biden was reportedly wary of Pelosi’s trip but did not openly oppose it and allowed the speaker to make her own decisions”), but Pelosi’s visit was far more risky and dictated by her longstanding political position, while Lee’s actions were seen primarily as self-promotion (although Lee had back in the day visited Hong Kong with similar motives during protests).

Chronicle of Pelosi’s visit to the ROK

On August 3, a few hours after Presidential Administration Spokesperson statement, Nancy Pelosi arrived in South Korea. Prior to that, the last time the US House of Representatives speaker visited South Korea was in 2002.

The ROK media noted that no one from the South Korean government came to welcome Pelosi.  Neither the Foreign Ministry nor the National Assembly sent a delegation to welcome the speaker, and Pelosi was met only by US Ambassador to the ROK Philip Goldberg and US commander Paul LaComera.  The fact attracted particular attention when it emerged that President Yoon had seen a play at a theatre in the capital that evening and then taken selfies with the actors.

It is alleged that the protocol of the visit was agreed between Pelosi’s side and the National Assembly. But a report in the conservative Chosun Ilbo, citing sources in the US embassy in South Korea, said Pelosi was unhappy or even outraged by the treatment.

On August 4, Nancy Pelosi and Kim Jin-pyo, speaker of the ROK National Assembly, met in Seoul. Before the meeting, Nancy Pelosi stressed the importance of the ROK-US alliance, noting that one of the purposes of her Asian tour was to discuss security issues, and her visit to Seoul was particularly important to discuss the bilateral alliance and relations between the ROK and US parliaments.  Kim Jin-pyo, for his part, said Seoul and Washington should not limit themselves to security and military cooperation, expanding cooperation in the economy and technology.

After the hour-long meeting, the two sides issued a joint statement, reaffirming the commitment to strengthen ties between Seoul and Washington on enhanced deterrence and countering North Korea’s nuclear threats and achieving the denuclearization of the peninsula. In addition, Kim asked the US Congress to support South Korean firms in the US, and Pelosi thanked South Korea for supporting sanctions against Russia.

It was not without scandal, with 94-year-old Lee Yong-su, a well-known “comfort women” activist, as the heroine.  Gran was to meet with Pelosi to address the issue of sexual slavery under the 2007 US House of Representatives Resolution 121, which called on Japan to “formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility” for forcing young women into sexual slavery in Asia during the 1930s and World War II. Pelosi was instrumental in getting the resolution passed. However, when Pelosi was about to enter the compound, National Assembly security officers prevented Lee Yong-su from doing so by first asking her to move out of the way, and when she refused, they pushed Lee’s wheelchair aside to make room and the elderly woman fell to the ground before being forcibly dragged away by her legs. The gran sustained minor injuries, the meeting did not take place and an NGO “pushing to bring the sexual slavery issue to the UN International Court of Justice” released a video clip of the incident, demanding an official apology and punishment for those responsible.

But six South Korean non-governmental organizations for North Korean aid have handed an open letter to Pelosi, asking him to call on China to halt the forced repatriation of North Korean refugees. Although the closure of North Korea’s borders in January 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been suspended, at least 1,170 North Korean refugees currently in China are allegedly at risk of being sent home.

In the afternoon, Nancy Pelosi visited the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. However, it is worth remembering that the DMZ on both South and North sides have designated visiting areas and almost all large US delegations to Seoul visit them, so there was nothing particularly provocative about the fact of the trip itself.  It is also worth noting that while at the DMZ, Pelosi said nothing about the DPRK, limiting herself to “thanking Congress and the country for the patriotic service of the troops who are standing up for democracy on the Korean peninsula”. And no photos of the politician or quotes from her speech to the US military have appeared in the media or on Pelosi’s own social media channels.

ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol and the speaker of the US House of Representatives then discussed bilateral cooperation in a forty-minute phone call, although, according to the Presidential Administration of the ROK, it was not just Pelosi, but the other delegates as well as Ambassador Goldberg, who spoke on the US side.

President Yoon Suk-yeol told visiting US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that her visit to South Korea is a sign of deterrence against North Korea and he will closely work with US Congress to deepen the bilateral alliance. Pelosi, on the other hand, said she was counting on Seoul to build a new Indo-Pacific order. As can be seen, the level of allegiance was inferior to that made at the meeting with Kim Jin-pyo.

After the end of the program of the visit, Pelosi made a concluding statement: the ROK and the US reaffirmed the value of the bilateral relationship, the commitment to security arrangements and the protection of democratic values. “The United States and South Korea share a strong bond formed for security and forged by decades of warm friendship,” and her delegation travelled to Seoul to confirm this.

Commenting on the phone call with Yoon Suk-yeol, Nancy Pelosi said she was pleased to hold a phone meeting with the South Korean President and expressed gratitude for the warm attitude towards US servicemen and their families stationed in the ROK. She recalled that each of the members of the US delegation had the opportunity to talk to the head of the ROK. Referring to the talks with Kim Jin-pyo, Nancy Pelosi reiterated that the two sides reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening security, stabilizing supply chains and boosting mutually beneficial investments.

Evaluation of the Results of the Visit to the ROK

Discussion of the visit by South Korean politicians and the press went in two directions – one evaluated the location of the visit in general, the other the fact that Yoon and Pelosi did not meet in person.

Officially, the US House of Representatives speaker’s visit “was a rare opportunity for the two countries to deepen their alliance and partnership”. However, several media reports have roamed with the cliché that Pelosi’s arrival “comes at a sensitive time as South Korea seeks to strengthen its long-standing security alliance with the US, while maintaining extensive economic and other partnerships with China”.

The conservative JoongAng Ilbo noted that “tug-of-war between the United States and China over US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan sound loud alarms over security in Northeast Asia” and “game of chicken must stop” or it could escalate into the worst security crisis since 1996.

The Korea Times also noted that “the Yoon administration should engage in careful and prudent diplomacy to maintain good relations with China, to which one-fourth of Korea’s exports go. At the same time, the government must make strenuous efforts to stick to “principled” diplomacy so it will not be swayed by the emerging new Cold War between US-led Western democracies and autocracies such as China, Russia and North Korea. We hope South Korea can avoid being caught in the crossfire of the Sino-US confrontation.”

Western media also noted Yoon’s accusations of trying to appease China by avoiding a meeting with Pelosi.

In this context, Kim Heung-kyu, Director for the China Policy Institute in the Ajou University, told The Korea Times that “in the past, the president or the foreign minister would have tried to hold talks with her, but I think that this time the government seems to have decided not to excessively politicize the issue and unnecessarily antagonize China.”

In this context, it is interesting how the reason for NOT meeting was explained, for Yoon was the only leader of the country who did not welcome with Pelosi. Officially, it is reported that Yoon had planned a summer vacation well before the US House of Representatives speaker’s decision to visit the region, and it was then planned that he would not be in the capital (Yoon stayed home under the influence of domestic political issues). According to a spokesperson of the Presidential Administration of the ROK, “we were setting up President Yoon’s vacation plan and thought he would be out of town around the time when Pelosi is in Seoul, so we had said it would be difficult, and Washington replied favorably that it fully understands the situation”. Moreover, it was Yoon who suggested the phone call: “The president was trying hard to find time to meet the US House speaker, but her schedule in Seoul was already packed, so he offered Thursday morning to have a phone call instead”.

The author is not sure that this statement is entirely true. First, on August 3, the Presidential Administration announced that Yoon would not be meeting with Pelosi due to being on vacation. But a few hours later, the Presidential Administration sent a text message to journalists saying it was planning a meeting – and a short while later disavowed the announcement, saying there had been no discussion of a face-to-face meeting. Yoon’s haters accused him of inconsistency, while the author’s respondents spoke of pressure from the American side.

Some conservatives in the non-Yoon faction have criticized Yoon for not meeting Pelosi, even though he had time for the actors. In addition, MP Ha Tae-kyung said that “the National Assembly speaker should apologize to Pelosi for the diplomatic discourtesy” in not sending a delegation to Pelosi’s visit, and note that the issue of whether the Yoon administration properly organized the reception of a senior US official was discussed quite widely in the ROK media.

As for the Democrats, the interim head of Korea’s main opposition Democratic Party, Woo Sang-ho, said Yoon made the right decision, saying that “if Yoon was trying to prevent Seoul from getting mired in the US-China rivalry too deep, the decision should not be criticized.” On the other hand, the leader of the parliamentary faction of the Democratic Party, Park Hong-keun, criticized Yoon, calling the president’s decision “humiliating diplomacy”.

***

To summarize, the reception from the ROK leadership was not particularly warm. President Yoon, although spending his vacation in Seoul, got away with albeit a long phone call. The Foreign Minister was absent from the country and no one met the third person in the US hierarchy at the gangway. That said, when Pelosi visited South Korea in 2015, as just the Democratic minority leader of the lower house of the US Congress, she met with then-President Park Geun-hye and then-Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se.

Given that the diplomatic protocol services prepare visits in advance, this “inconsistency in scheduling” means that the country’s leadership, formally conservative and pro-American, had little desire to openly support Pelosi’s escapades, who was mostly in touch with her vis-a-vis.

One cannot overlook the fact that the much more supportive Kim Jin-pyo is not a conservative, but a democrat who holds office because of his party’s dominance in parliament.

Choi Young-bum, senior presidential secretary for public relations, said that “decisions are made on the basis of the national interest” and for the author this is a rather important observation.  Despite the liberal rhetoric, Yoon is more pragmatic and does try to show closeness to the US, but does not particularly involve the ROK in overtly anti-China agendas. In the author’s view, another South Korean leader would have found time to meet with a high-ranking guest, and while a compromise in the form of a phone call may have been difficult to achieve, it is another indication that it is incorrect to view Yoon as a model US vassal president.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Contemporary Asia RAS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

 


×
Please select digest to download:
×