14.10.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Missed Yoon and Biden summit

After describing Yoon’s trip to the Anglo-Saxon world a little earlier, it is worth discussing how it affected the ROK’s relations with the US and the UK. For, although Yoon’s opponents have called it a “failure”, the situation is in fact somewhat more complicated.

It cannot be said that Yoon’s trip worsened the ROK’s relations with the US or the UK. Shortly after Yoon’s return, the British Foreign Secretary and the US Vice President visited Seoul, which is by no means a sign of cooling relations.

Rather, the thwarted Yoon-Biden summit in New York was an attempt to “bring the South Korean leader down a peg or two” after he, not wanting to anger China, had essentially failed to give Speaker Nancy Pelosi a proper welcome.  It should be recalled that none of the South Korean officials greeted her when she came off the plane. The Foreign Minister was out of the country and the President, on the pretext of a holiday, confined himself to a telephone conversation.

This also includes the fact that, as has been reported earlier, Yoon refrained from making direct negative references to Russia, the PRC or the DPRK in his address to the UNGA. Joe Biden, by comparison, on September 21 identified North Korea as one of several key reasons why the United Nations and its members should work to strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime. In addition, the US President pointed out that China’s pursuit of what he called an unprecedentedly concerning nuclear build-up without transparency is one of such disturbing trends, along with Russia’s “irresponsible nuclear threats to use nuclear weapons”.

The response in Washington was that Yoon and Biden were expected to hold a summit on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. However, Biden’s “diplomatic schedule” in New York was cut short because of his unplanned attendance at Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral in London and domestic political events in the US. Yoon and Biden ended up meeting briefly during a fund-raising event to fight infectious diseases.

Perhaps something like this was expected, and Deputy National Security Advisor Kim Tae-hyo had said the summit would be short – 30 minutes or so – but the meeting in New York was much more compressed than he had hoped.  48 seconds.

 Yoon Suk-yeol then took the hint and a very different reception awaited Kamala Harris on September 29, although even then, in opening the meeting, Yoon noted that the ROK-US coalition was “expanding from a military alliance to an economic and technological alliance.” During the 85-minute conversation, the two sides exchanged views on a wide range of issues, including economic security, pressing regional and global issues, and ways to strengthen the US-South Korean alliance.   Kamala Harris called the Seoul-Washington coalition a “linchpin of security and prosperity” on the Korean peninsula, in the region and around the world, and Yoon called it a “reliable pillar of support for defending our people’s freedom, safety, and prosperity.” The two sides agreed to schedule a visit by the South Korean leader to the US in 2023 to mark the alliance’s 70th anniversary.  And, of course, they “expressed serious concern about North Korea’s recent ballistic missile launches and legalization of its nuclear force policy”: in the event of a nuclear test or other provocation, the sides agreed to immediately implement their joint response plans.

In addition to meeting the ROK President on September 29, Kamala Harris met with South Korean women leaders from various walks of life to discuss gender equality, a key focus of the Joe Biden administration’s domestic and foreign policies.

In addition, Kamala Harris visited the demilitarized zone separating South and North Korea, becoming the highest-ranking US official to visit the inter-Korean border since 2019, when then US President Donald Trump crossed it to meet Kim Jong-un. According to Reuters, in her remarks, Kamala Harris pointed to the continued threat of war, stressing that the ROK and the US remain prepared for any situation. She also said that North Korea has a dictatorial regime, an illegal weapons program and human rights violations.   The US, on the other hand, she said, favors a world without the North Korean threat, and Washington will do everything in its power to ensure its commitment to the security of its Asian ally.

A similar situation applies to the UK. On September 28, Yoon Suk-yeol met with British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly. Yoon called on the UK to play an active role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council in ensuring a united global response to North Korean actions. Cleverly noted that the UK fully supports Seoul’s North Korean policy and “once again expressed special thanks on behalf of the British government for President Yoon’s personal attendance at Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral and for his expression of condolences to the British royal family, government and people.”

Nor is there any way to say that Yoon has failed to address the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which excludes electric cars assembled outside North America from tax subsidies. From the Korean point of view, this law violates the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement, which calls for equal treatment of each other’s goods. Construction of Hyundai Motor’s electric car plant in Georgia, US, will not have been completed until 2025, so the decline of the company’s US sales is inevitable.

According to press releases, during the blitz meeting, “President Yoon explained our businesses’ concerns about the US Inflation Reduction Act and asked that the US administration cooperate closely with South Korea in the process of enforcing the IRA so as to resolve our concerns. In response, President Biden said he is well aware of our concerns, and that South Korea and the US should continue to hold serious consultations.”

Kamala Harris also promised the ROK President that as the law is implemented, the United States will seek solutions to South Korea’s problems.

Finally, on October 5, Joe Biden sent a personal letter to President Yoon, expressing his willingness to continue frank and open-minded negotiations on the Inflation Reduction Act issue. According to Yoon Suk-yeol’s administration spokesperson, Joe Biden’s letter was drafted on the basis of agreements made by the two presidents during meetings in New York and London. And the fact that Joe Biden mentioned the positive role of South Korean companies in his letter can be taken as an intention to show them attention.

From the author’s point of view, statements that “Washington will look for ways to solve Seoul’s problems” look like talk so far. But in the context of Biden’s letter referring to the arrangements made at the time of Yoon’s trip (it is known to us from the ROK presidential administration, but the US has not denied it), the Democrats’ claims that Yoon “failed” are incorrect.

Regarding the case of profanity and, as the Democrats claimed, insulting the US President, Lee Jae-myung told a press briefing that Harris said the US did not care at all about the controversy.  Lee added that President Biden has great confidence in President Yoon and was satisfied with his meetings with the latter in London and New York last week.

It should be recalled that, unaware of the microphone being on, Yoon said something like “How embarrassed would Biden be if those bastards in parliament didn’t approve this?”, but Biden himself is capable of using profanity in a similar situation. For example, NBC reports that in a conversation with Ray Murphy, mayor of a town in Florida hit by Hurricane Ian, Joe Biden, who forgot the microphone was on, used the phrase “nobody f***s with a Biden.” Commenting on the President’s remarks, Murphy said Biden’s words “did not distract [him] within the slightest.” “It was not directed at anybody. It was just two guys talking.” And there was no hype.

Vice-President Harris also made her mark during the visit: “The United States shares a very important relationship, which is an alliance with the Republic of North Korea.” That was a caveat, but it didn’t get any further than jokes on the net.

Thus, despite the lesson learnt with the cancellation of the summit, Yoon has at least done what he had planned in terms of goals and consequences rather than the schedule of events. The other thing is that, despite Yoon’s claims of a “strategic alliance”, the relationship between Seoul and Washington is complicated and by no means that of suzerain and vassal. The US wants definite action in the anti-Chinese and anti-Russian direction, and Yoon, being a pragmatist, does not wish to find himself in a situation where the ROK will suffer for US ambitions. Given that (despite the contrived anti-Americanism of some leaders) the Democrats are no less committed to Washington, the author does not rule out a situation in which, if Yoon continues to show “not enough enthusiasm”, the US might consider rocking the boat on any occasion.

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