On April 24, 2023, President Yoon Suk-yeol arrived in Washington on Monday for a six-day state visit under the slogan “Alliance in action toward the future.” This was the sixth meeting between Yoon Suk-yeol and Joe Biden after the summit in Seoul in May 2022, followed by meetings in Madrid, London, New York and Phnom Penh.
This time, however, Yoon is the first South Korean president since Lee Myung-bak in 2011 to pay a state visit to the United States, and the second foreign leader (after French President Emmanuel Macron) to make such a visit under the Biden administration.
Such a visit by South Korea’s leader to the United States is a very significant event that needs to be comprehensively looked at. And thus, the author intends to discuss Yoon in great detail. In the one you see now, we will briefly describe the course of the visit and its main results. Then we will analyze the main documents and speeches in more detail, talk about the domestic and foreign policy reaction to this event, and finally, we will try to think about its consequences for regional security. Stay tuned!
Agenda and progression of the visit
Since the visit was long, we present a brief summary made chronologically.
Yoon set off from the Republic of Korea and arrived in the United States the next day.
- A visit to the Korean War Veterans Memorial and Arlington Cemetery in the vicinity of Washington, where Yoon Suk-yeol honored the memory of the fallen American soldiers, presented a memorial plaque engraved with the phrase: “We will never forget, we will never be forgotten again,” and also awarded state awards of the Republic of Korea (Order of the Taegeuk for Military Merit) to three American veterans of the Korean War. “If it weren’t for the self-sacrifice of Korean War veterans, today’s Republic of Korea wouldn’t exist,” Yoon said after presenting the awards. In addition, leader of the Republic of Korea held his first face-to-face meeting with Joe Biden.
- Participation in a business roundtable with 45 representatives of companies and government agencies of the two countries, including Samsung, SK, Hyundai, Qualcomm, Lam Research and Boeing. Representatives of the business circles of the two countries signed 23 agreements (more precisely, a memorandum of understanding / protocol of intent) on cooperation in various fields. The 10 documents relate to batteries, biotechnology, aviation, robots, autonomous driving and other next-generation industries. The remaining 13 agreements provide for the expansion of bilateral energy ties, including hydrogen, nuclear power and carbon neutrality. The alliance between South Korea and the United States has gone beyond the military and security spheres, becoming a technological union, Minister of Industry, Trade and Energy of the Republic of Korea Lee Chang-yang said on this occasion.
- Visit to the Goddard Space Flight Center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), where he held talks with US Vice President Kamala Harris. As a result, a joint statement on cooperation in the field of space exploration and cosmonautics was signed, which specifies the areas of cooperation and involves the phased definition and implementation of projects in such areas as the lunar exploration program (including within the framework of the Artemis project), satellite navigation system, space research. From the Republic of Korea, the newly created Korea Aerospace Agency (KASA) will be involved in them. Yoon and Harris agreed that in the future, the US-ROK space alliance will go beyond the technological and economic aspects and extend to space security.
- Meeting with Netflix co-owner Ted Sarandos, who announced that Netflix will invest $ 2.5 billion in the South Korean content industry in the next four years. This is twice the amount that Netflix has invested in the Republic of Korea since its founding in 2016. The money will be invested in the production of South Korean TV series, films and reality shows. South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, in this regard, said that investment is the largest ever made in the country’s content industry and will help create 68,000 jobs.
- Dinner with about 170 Korean-Americans at a hotel in Washington.
On the same day, an important event happened for the author: answering a question from journalists about the possibility of providing Kiev with South Korean ammunition, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre refrained from commenting in detail on this issue. At the same time, she said that official Washington is grateful to Seoul for its assistance in restricting exports to Russia and providing non-lethal humanitarian aid to Kyiv. At the same time, the coordinator of the US National Security Council for strategic communications, John Kirby, said that the United States would not ask Korea to provide military assistance to Kyiv.
26 April 2023 – the main day of the visit.
The official arrival ceremony, then the summit itself, following which the leaders of the two countries issued a joint statement, and the state dinner, at which Yoon performed Don McLean’s song “American Pie“.
Yoon and Biden described the relationship between the two countries as a “Global Comprehensive Strategic Alliance” and agreed on a new concept of extended deterrence against North Korea. The complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was declared as a common goal of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the US, and in the event of a nuclear attack by North Korea, “swift, crushing and decisive action” would be taken using all military capabilities of the alliance, including US nuclear weapons.
The new strategy for extended deterrence of the DPRK was formulated in the so-called Washington Declaration, adopted at the end of the summit. The parties agreed to intensify military exercises on the Korean peninsula, regularly discuss nuclear and strategic planning, response to threats to the nonproliferation regime from North Korea, and create a special advisory group to develop specific plans for extended deterrence and information exchange. The first concrete measure would be to send a US nuclear submarine with nuclear weapons on board. This is not thought to have happened for forty years, although ships and aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons have been appearing in the ROK.
In addition, the document specifies the ROK’s obligations to comply with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
As expected, Yoon and Biden condemned Russia for its special military operation, however discussion of military supplies to Ukraine, according to White House officials, was not on the summit’s agenda. Instead, the presidents pledged to continue supporting Ukraine “by providing vital political, security, humanitarian, and economic assistance, including to increase power generation and transmission, and to rebuild critical infrastructure.” Thus, it appears that Yoon was able to wriggle out of arms deliveries.
However, we will analyze the political results of the visit in more detail in a separate article, and here we note other important points of the joint statement.
- The two presidents welcomed the signing of a joint statement on US-ROK cooperation in quantum informatics and technology and called for efforts to conclude a mutual defense procurement agreement between the United States and the ROK to strengthen cooperation in the global defense industry.
- An agreement was reached to hold regular consultations on coordination between the two countries so that the US Science and CHIPS Act and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which discriminate against South Korean companies and could harm them, would help strengthen cooperation in the high-tech supply chain. To this end, a “dialogue on next-generation new technologies” will be established between the two countries. Thus, no direct concessions have been made here and now.
- The two presidents welcomed the deepening of cooperation in space security, including the ROK’s commitment not to conduct destructive tests of anti-satellite missiles with direct altitude acquisition.
- The two sides agreed to establish a bilateral framework for strategic cooperation on cybersecurity, especially to secure cryptocurrency and blockchain applications.
- A major breakthrough was made in education cooperation, especially in “science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).” The presidents announced a new jointly funded academic youth exchange initiative totaling $60 million for 2,023 Koreans and 2,023 Americans. The initiative will involve 200 Fulbright Scholarship Program grantees, making it the largest number of STEM grantees selected in the program’s history.
In addition, Yoon Suk-yeol met with Tesla CEO Elon Musk that day, highlighting the attractiveness of the ROK in terms of investing in building another Tesla battery manufacturing complex, as the country has advanced-level manufacturing robots and highly skilled human resources. He promised the active cooperation of the South Korean authorities if Tesla decides to invest in the ROK, giving Elon Musk a specially prepared brochure with relevant information. In response, the head of Tesla said that the company has long considered the ROK as one of the main candidates to locate its industrial complex, expressing his intention to visit the ROK.
- Address to a joint session of both houses of the US Congress. This was the first time in a decade that a South Korean leader has addressed a joint session of both houses of the US Congress. The theme was “70 Years of an Alliance Based on the Common Values of Liberal Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights.” Here Yoon shone with loyalist rhetoric, saying that the alliance which was established 70 years ago to protect Korean freedom has become a global alliance that protects freedom and peace in the world, and together with the US the Republic of Korea will play the role of “compass of freedom.”
The South Korean leader expressed gratitude to the American soldiers who had taken part in the Korean War and spoke much, much about the importance of the bilateral alliance, presenting a road map for further expansion of cooperation between Seoul and Washington in various fields. There was room for condemnation of the Russian special military operation, as well as a pathetic denunciation of the “horrors of the North,” where people are shot for their Christian faith, listening to South Korean songs, or violating anti-epidemic measures.
However, Yoon also tried to joke: “Even if you didn’t know my name, you probably know BTS and BLACKPINK,” he said, referring to two popular K-pop groups.
- Lunch with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
- A visit to the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center (NMCC), where Yoon was briefed on US strategic surveillance and crisis response systems. Yoon then paid a visit to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to discuss ways to create a research environment conducive to creativity and leading to technological innovation, and explore ways to strengthen cooperation between South Korea and the United States in defense science and technology. Yoon was the first South Korean president to visit these sites.
- Visit of the American Cinematographers Association’s Global Video Content Leaders Forum to present a vision of cultural solidarity and cooperation between the two countries, and meet with officials from American media companies such as Paramount, Warner Bros. Discovery, NBCUniversal Media, Sony Pictures, The Walt Disney Company and Netflix. Here, Yoon Suk-yeol promised to abolish the rules in the field of culture and film industry if they do not meet world standards, and spare no help to expand co-productions and other cooperation models, promote people-to-people exchanges and investments, and protect copyrights in order to strengthen exchanges and cooperation between the content industries of the two countries.
- South Korea’s Ministry of Culture has signed its first memorandum of understanding with the Smithsonian Institution of the United States to enhance cultural exchanges and cooperation between the two organizations. Founded in 1864, the Smithsonian Institution houses about 155 million artifacts in various museums in Washington, including the National Museum of Natural History, the National Air and Space Museum, and the National Museum of American History. The parties plan to cooperate in the field of personnel exchange for academic research and advanced training, joint research in various fields, exhibitions and art loans, as well as joint public programs related to history and culture. Following the forum, the Korea Creative Content Agency and the Korea Film Council signed a memorandum of understanding with Netflix to encourage young talent in the Korean content industry and spread Korean culture.
- Later that day, Yoon traveled to Boston
- Meeting with a group of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to discuss cooperation in the field of digital and biotechnology. According to Yoon, it was important for him to find out for himself where the two countries can work together and create synergies in the fields of advanced science and technology, biotech, artificial intelligence and other digital technologies. During the meeting, a joint initiative was put forward to create a “Korean-Boston Alliance of Bio-Hubs”, within the framework of which world-class specialists can be trained on the basis of the MIT system. In this regard, Yoon Suk-yeol expressed his readiness to send a significant number of Korean technical and scientific specialists to Boston in order to increase the level of their competencies.
- Participation in the work of the Korean-American round table on technological cooperation: the issues of organizing close interaction and cooperation between the Boston Advanced Industry Cluster and the Korean High-tech Industry Cluster were discussed.
- Speech at the Kennedy School of Harvard University, where the South Korean president spoke for the first time. At a meeting with political scientists, including the author of the concept of soft power, Joseph Nye, Yoon pointed out that North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons poses a threat not only to the Korean Peninsula, but to the world as a whole, and the Washington Declaration should be understood as a “modernized” version of the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty, noting that the declaration provides not only for the obligations of the United States, but also South Korea’s commitment not to develop its own nuclear weapons under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Speaking to the students, Yoon Suk-yeol touched upon the topic of South Korea’s own nuclear arsenal. In his opinion, this issue is a very complex problem in political and economic terms, and the opinions calling for this, the president emphasized, do not take into account all the factors and consequences associated with this. Responding to Joseph Nye’s question about whether the declaration could lead to tensions between South Korea and China, Yoon noted that one reason for the growing North Korean threat is that “China and Russia, both permanent members of the Security Council, have often opposed increased sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs”; but South Korea seeks a healthy relationship with China, working to “realize the common interests of the two countries based on mutual respect.”
Asked if South Korea could provide lethal assistance to Ukraine in its war against Russia, Yoon said that “depending on the situation on the battlefield, we will work to defend international norms and international law together with the international community… This can include a variety of options.” It is very elusive and still does not look like a signal of a change in the previous policy.
April 29 (Saturday)
Flight to South Korea, where Yoon returned on April 30.
On the same day, Joe Biden tweeted that “the alliance of the United States and the Republic of Korea was born not because of common borders, but because of common beliefs: democracy, freedom, security and, above all, freedom.”
To sum up, the trip of the South Korean leader played an important role in the development of relations between the two countries. As a result of the summit, they adopted the Washington Declaration, agreeing on a new concept of extended deterrence measures against North Korea, and agreed to continue regular discussions on nuclear and strategic planning. The parties agreed to strengthen cooperation on economic security, advanced technologies, cultural and civil exchanges.
During the visit, Yoon Suk-yeol made a good impression: he achieved sizeable results in terms of economic cooperation and cultural exchanges, and the political results of the visit are significantly at odds with anti-prediction, which the author published a few days ago.
There was no change in policy towards the Russian Federation and the PRC, and there was no permanent deployment of American nuclear weapons in the Republic of Korea, although the consequences of the Washington Declaration caused the natural displeasure of Moscow, Pyongyang and Beijing. But a more careful analysis of this document and keynote speeches is already in the next part.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”