South Korea’s Yoon heads to US ahead of Biden summit

AFP, Monday 24 Apr 2023

South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol flew to Washington Monday for a six-day state visit, as the allies move to bulk up military cooperation over North Korea’s expanding nuclear threats.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, right, waves as his wife Kim KeonHee stands before departing for the United States at the Seoul militaryairport in Seongnam, South Korea, Monday, April 24, 2023. AP

Pyongyang has conducted another record-breaking string of sanctions-defying launches this year, including test-firing the country’s first solid-fuel ballistic missile this month — a key technical breakthrough for Kim Jong Un’s military.

In response, Yoon has pulled South Korea closer to long-standing ally Washington, and the trip has a packed schedule including a summit with US President Joe Biden on Wednesday, where the pair will celebrate 70 years of ties.

“The two leaders will spend a lot of time together over the course of many events to celebrate the achievements of the South Korea-US alliance over 70 years, and exchange in-depth views on the alliance’s future,” principal deputy national security adviser Kim Tae-hyo told reporters ahead of the trip.

But analysts say Yoon and Biden will have a lot to hash out at their summit, as even though such events are “highly scripted” the two leaders have some “uncomfortable” topics to discuss, said Katharine Moon, Professor Emerita of Political Science at Wellesley College.

The trip comes as Yoon grapples with the South’s increasingly nervous public about the US commitment to so-called extended deterrence, where US assets — including nuclear weapons — serve to prevent attacks on allies.

A majority of South Koreans now believe the country should develop its own nuclear weapons, multiple surveys show. Yoon has hinted Seoul could pursue this option.

“There is a greater need for the United States to show its deterrence commitments at the alliance level,” said Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean Studies at Ewha University in Seoul.

The South Korean president has seen his domestic approval ratings dive, hit hard by public disapproval over his handling of a recent US intelligence leak that appeared to reveal Washington was spying on Seoul.

‘Ironclad’

The White House has said the visit showed how the “ironclad” alliance “has grown far beyond the Korean Peninsula, and is now a force for good in the Indo-Pacific and around the world”.

“The breadth and the depth of the relationship will be amply reinforced and showcased,” during the visit, said US State Department deputy assistant secretary Jung Pak.

Yoon is likely to come under pressure to do more to help the US support Ukraine, as Washington looks to South Korea — the world’s ninth-largest arms exporter — to help secure ammunition and weapons for Kyiv.

South Korea has sent humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, and has sold tanks and howitzers to Poland, but Seoul has a longstanding policy of not providing weapons to active conflict zones.

Seoul is also mired in a diplomatic spat with Beijing after Yoon blamed recent heightened tensions over Taiwan on “attempts to change the status quo by force” in an interview.

Yoon must be careful to avoid “unintentionally provoking” other countries like China and Russia during this trip, an editorial in the Joongang Ilbo newspaper said Monday.

“It is hoped that the presidential office will show the wisdom of maximising opportunities while reducing diplomatic risks,” it added.

This article was originally published by Agence France-Presse (AFP).

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