Biden-Yoon Summit Love Fest
Visit underscores extended deterrence
By: Shim Jae Hoon
Ending two days of summit talks in Seoul with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, US President Joe Biden has renewed a commitment that the US would use nuclear weapons and missiles in the event North Korea starts another war on the peninsula.
Biden’s pledge paraphrased the commitment enshrined in the mutual defense treaty existing between the two countries. Reasserting that commitment amounted to a powerful new message to the Kim Jong Un regime as it threatens to restart missile and nuclear test.
Reaffirming this security commitment was a focal point of their two-day talks, at the insistence of President Yoon, elected only 11 days before, replacing a regime considered soft on North Korea’s nuclear threats. In an exceptionally detailed communique issued at the end of the talks on 21 May, Yoon and Biden agreed to resume combined field exercises and hold them more regularly as part of better preparedness.
For the first time in five years, the two allies made it clear that there should be no light between Seoul and Washington over tough responses they should take on Kim Jong Un’s aggressive behavior.
Probably at the insistence of Yoon, Biden also agreed to reactivate what the communique described as a high-level Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group at the earliest date. It responded to Seoul’s insistence that their alliance should produce a credible deterrence formula. What exactly that should be was left unspecified, except that Korean officials mentioned deployment of strategic assets in emergency, such as long-distance bombers and navy carrier assets. The central message directed at North Korea was that it should not test the US resolve to defend South Korea with all its military capability.
Yoon sought to allay concern over his earlier hawkish stand on North Korea’s threats. He stepped backward from his earlier threat he would respond with missile attacks of his own if the North threatened with ICBM tests. He told Biden Seoul is ready to reward the North with an “audacious” economic aid package if it accepts denuclearization. He and Biden also offered to provide Covid-19 vaccines as the North was hit by waves of the pandemic in recent weeks. No reply came from Pyongyang.
Biden displayed expected caution in connection with the north that wasn’t on display by his predecessor Donald Trump, who flew to the DMZ to meet with Kim. “Whether I Would mee with the leader of North Korea, that would depend on whether he was sincere, whether he was serious,” the president told reporters.
Yoon’s new defense minister Lee Jong Sup is understood to have given firm assurance that a key US missile base at Songju south of Seoul is to be cleared for permanent basing, by forcibly removing a variety of hurdles set up by local protest groups. The US has been complaining about the lack of “unfettered access” to the base area with local protesters placing roadblocks demanding withdrawal.
The base, formerly a golf course, will now be fully readied for basing High Altitude Interceptor Missiles called THAAD. That amounted to a firm rejection of China’s repeated warnings that THAAD missiles constitute a strategic threat to China.
China figured implicitly in a variety of ways during the talks. South Korean officials, long frustrated over China’s refusal to restrain the North, are now lobbying for the restoration of a nuclear “coverage,” meaning the US bringing back some tactical nuclear weapons it had removed from South Korea in 1992 under the nuclear disarmament pact with the then Soviet Union. While this development paved the way for North Korea to secretly start its own nuclear program, China hasn’t been helpful in restraining the North’s ambition.
Yoon and Biden devoted considerable attention to the new agenda of economic security, an idea developing from global supply chain crisis resulting not only from growing tensions in the Indo-Pacific region, but also from Russian invasion of Ukraine. An idea close to US interests, President Biden underscored Washington’s commitment to this issue by making a visit to Samsung Electronics plant his first destination on arrival.
The two leaders toured the world’s largest chipmaking plant at Pyongtaek, not far from the airport, where Samsung chairman Lee Jae Yong unveiled a plan to invest US$7 billion at its Texas plant. Samsung remains the world’s biggest memory chip maker but is reliant on US designs and equipment. The plant visit held an implicit idea that as far as semiconductors are concerned, the US wants to keep its upper hand, not allowing China to overwhelm this area.
Biden and Yoon were in agreement as to how their respective industrial power and prowess should be protected by an alliance shaped on democratic and free market values. Under discussion for sharing respective economic roles were not only semiconductor chips but also new technology involving electric vehicle batteries, artificial intelligence, cyber, climate and nuclear energy technology.
Seoul remains especially keen to collaborate with the US on nuclear power technology as it leads in the global market for small module nuclear reactor for producing cheap and clean energy. Separate from these movements, Hyundai Motor – South Korea’s biggest carmaker – has announced a new US$10 billion investment in the US state of Georgia for producing electric vehicles and components. The Korean business community was on a show of massive support for US investments. President Biden was so delighted he personally sought out Hyundai Motor chairman Chung to thank him.
All in all, it was a show of grand alliance emerging from the ashes of war that the US and Europe together had helped to repel North Korea in 1950. Biden welcomed Yoon’s proposal to seek membership in the US-sponsored Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. But the prospects for Seoul entering the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an anti-China alliance shaping up with Japan, India, Australia and the US, appear dim at this stage.
China was clearly resentful on all these initiatives, with the official media periodically reminding that South Korea owes its biggest export market to China, and thus it is laying itself vulnerable to economic reprisals. It is doubtful if such big-brother attitude would achieve anything after three decades of China’s refusal to restrain the Pyongyang regime.
South Korea under Yoon has set its eye fixed on repairing relations with Tokyo under its new diplomatic alignment keyed to value-oriented international relations. Yoon will be going to NATO Summit in Madrid in late June.