► American political leaders wish to encourage South Korea’s role as – in President Yoon’s words – a “global pivotal state,” engaged in issues as varied as technology, defense, and democracy.
► At a time when China, Russia, and others seek a revised international order conducive to their autocratic brands of governance, Seoul is emerging with critical support for the forces of freedom.
► The State Visit looks to produce good results, but it should represent just one step toward a bigger, more ambitious alliance.
President Yoon Suk Yeol’s State Visit – just the second during the Biden administration – has rightly focused minds on the close and enduring ties between South Korea and the United States. His program in Washington kicked off today and will continue, including his address Thursday to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. Already, however, the visit is shaping up as a significant bilateral success.
The summit intended to mark the U.S.-ROK alliance’s 70th anniversary and to highlight the bond that has secured peace and prosperity amid decades of change. South Korea’s transformation over those years into an advanced democracy with global weight has been nothing short of astonishing. Today, American political leaders wish to encourage South Korea’s role as – in President Yoon’s words – a “global pivotal state,” engaged in issues as varied as technology, defense, and democracy. Furthermore, both sides seek not only to rest on seven decades of accomplishment but also to look forward to new horizons.
First, however, there are pressing issues of the day. Foremost among them is the American nuclear umbrella and South Korean reliance on extended deterrence for its own protection.
The threat from North Korea is real and rising. Pyongyang conducted 95 missile launches in 2022 – more than the total in any previous year – and changed its nuclear doctrine to lower the bar for strikes. The North touts its tactical nuclear weapons and this month launched a new intercontinental ballistic missile. The oft-invoked “complete, verifiable, and irreversible” denuclearization is more distant today than it has ever been, and no realistic chance of disarmament stands on the horizon. As Pyongyang continues to issue lurid threats of preemptive strikes on the South, it’s no wonder that Seoul seeks reassurance about the credibility of U.S. protections.
South Korean anxiety about extended deterrence has grown palpable, and concern is not limited to those in government. A recent Asan Institute survey indicates that a majority believes the United States would not risk its safety to protect South Korea. Recent polls show that more than three-fourths of South Koreans favor developing their own nuclear arsenal. Washington, wishing to limit the spread of nuclear weapons even among close allies, seeks to demonstrate new resolve and commitment.
Today’s Washington Declaration, coupled with President Biden’s frank remarks, should go a significant way toward providing reassurance. The two sides established a new Nuclear Consultative Group that will discuss nuclear and strategic planning, with an eye on North Korean threats and responses. They will hold a table-top simulation to provide South Korea with greater insights into nuclear planning and engage in joint planning for contingencies. The Declaration even referred to enabling “ROK conventional support to U.S. nuclear operations in a contingency.” A U.S. nuclear ballistic submarine will visit South Korea – for the first time, officials say, since the 1980s—and the two leaders agreed to direct, presidential-level consultations in the grave event of a North Korean attack.
In the declaration, Seoul noted its “full confidence in U.S. extended deterrence commitments,” but any new groups and processes must be backed by firm political resolve. Here, President Biden could hardly have been clearer. “A nuclear attack by North Korea,” he said, “against the United States or its allies and partners is unacceptable and will result in the end of whatever regime were to take such an action.” Pyongyang, it appears, would be ill-advised even to consider such a catastrophic move.
Another area of bilateral tensions saw less progress. The Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act, which provide tax credits, subsidies, and other favorable treatment to American companies producing advanced technology, may disadvantage South Korean ones. President Yoon no doubt raised concerns with his American counterpart, and he has a point. President Biden did not directly address them in his public remarks or suggest what remedies might be on offer.
Both White House policymakers and legislators on Capitol Hill applaud President Yoon’s considerable political courage in pursuing warmer ties with Japan. Yoon secured an agreement on compensation for victims of Japanese forced labor practices and shortly thereafter made the first official visit of a South Korean president to Japan in 12 years. Tokyo responded positively to the outreach, lifting controls on the export of key chemicals to South Korea, and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida invited Yoon to attend the G7 summit in Hiroshima. Both will work bilaterally and with the United States to share information on North Korean missiles and, while there remains a long road ahead, the thawing of South Korea-Japan ties is a very welcome development.
Particularly remarkable is Seoul’s recent emphasis on democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. Standing beside Biden, President Yoon emphasized that the U.S.-ROK alliance “does not operate for the sake of mere interest,” but rather “is an alliance of values, standing together to safeguard the universal value of freedom.” South Korea co-hosted the 2023 Summit for Democracy and will host a third summit. At a time when China, Russia, and others seek a revised international order conducive to their autocratic brands of governance, Seoul is emerging with critical support for the forces of freedom. Both the United States and South Korea should explore new ways to promote universal values in lands where they are denied and to defend them when they are under threat.
The State Visit looks to produce good results, but it should represent just one step toward a bigger, more ambitious alliance. Washington should welcome and encourage South Korea’s desire to play a greater global role, including in key institutions. It should, for instance, invite Seoul to join in Quad activities and consider creating a “Quint” that would include the ROK. President Yoon will attend next month’s G7 summit; the members should consider expanding the group by one and including South Korea, the world’s eighth-largest advanced economy. And Seoul should strongly consider providing military equipment, including ammunition, to Ukraine. Such ambitious steps would be worthy of a global comprehensive strategic alliance.
Speeches by American and South Korean leaders are often replete with references to the past, and today’s were no exception. The bond with Seoul, Biden said, was “forged in bravery and the sacrifice of our people, sanctified by the blood of American and Korean troops.” Yoon concurred, saying that the alliance “was forged in blood as a result of our fight for freedom.”
All these incantations are true, poignant, and appropriate. However, they are also insufficient for an alliance of these two great countries. Now is the time for South Korea and the United States to work together in pursuit of order, security, freedom, and prosperity. That means looking not only back, but ahead as well. It’s not what the two accomplished decades ago, but rather what they might attain tomorrow, that matters most.