SEOUL — South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol leaves Monday for his first state visit to the U.S., where he will seek concessions for some of his country’s most important companies while demonstrating alignment with Washington on the threats posed by China and North Korea.
Seoul and Washington have an alliance dating back to the 1950-53 Korean War that both sides describe as having been “forged in blood.” The two countries maintain extensive security and economic ties.
But recent changes in the economic and geopolitical landscape have strained those customarily close relations. In response to the supply chain complications wrought by the coronavirus pandemic and tensions with China, the U.S. has taken measures to encourage more production at home, partly to secure supplies of key items like semiconductors and to reinvigorate U.S. manufacturing.
Last year Washington passed legislation, called the Chips and Science Act, that provides incentives for chipmakers on the condition that the companies do not also build certain facilities in China. The legislation presents a quandary for flagship South Korean semiconductor producers, such as Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix, that operate factories in China.
Some South Korean politicians decried the legislation as betraying the spirit of the alliance. “We have to protect Korean industry from protectionism and correct discrimination against Korean chipmakers, which are the lifeblood of our economy,” Lee Jae-myung, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, said in a recent briefing with foreign correspondents in Seoul.
Biden and Yoon will spend the summit “harmonizing technology and trade policies and protecting supply chains to bolster future economic growth,” said Patrick M. Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair at Hudson Institute.
“No allies have identical interests,” Cronin told Nikkei Asia, but the two governments “can guide big tech to become less dependent on China and more integrated with like-minded countries, and they can agree on standards that reduce the risk of economic coercion, enhance supply chains, protect data and still succeed in business.”
Beyond trade and economic security, nuclear-armed North Korea will loom over Yoon’s trip. This year, Pyongyang has carried out a slew of weapons tests, demonstrating an array of increasingly sophisticated weapons.
Earlier this month, Pyongyang claimed to have tested a new solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile that state media said would “radically promote” its ability to launch nuclear counterattacks. That launch closely followed a test of a nuclear-capable underwater attack drone.
Yoon represents South Korea’s conservative People Power Party, which espouses an approach to North Korea based on strengthening the South’s military might to ward off aggression. Yoon this year became the first sitting South Korean president to publicly allude to the possibility of developing a homegrown nuclear capability.
Washington has steadfastly discouraged Seoul from developing nuclear weapons and pledges to defend South Korea with its own nuclear arsenal, if necessary. Lee Ji-young, an associate professor at American University in Washington, said developing nuclear devices is “not something that Yoon can politically embark on, so the option left, in Yoon’s mind, is to strengthen the alliance with the United States.”
“So this trip is to make sure that the United States is there to deal with North Korea’s threats, for South Korea’s national security,” Lee told Nikkei Asia.
While in the U.S., Yoon will also be under pressure from the South Korean public and political opposition to seek answers regarding allegations that the U.S. spied on conversations among senior South Korean officials over whether to provide military aid to Ukraine.
The allegations surfaced as part of a large leak of U.S. intelligence documents. Yoon’s administration has not publicly complained about the allegations of spying and has sought to downplay the affair in the run-up to Yoon’s trip.
Analysts have pointed out that even friendly countries routinely use backdoor methods to gather information on each other.
“The incident certainly creates a brief moment of awkwardness between the two countries,” said Soo Kim, policy practice area lead at the Logistics Management Institute and a former CIA analyst.
“But I would drive home the point that these things are not an entirely infrequent or abnormal occurrence between allies.”
Source :NIKKEI Asia