Exactly one year has passed between the U.S.-South Korea joint statement released following U.S. President Joe Biden’s White House summit with former South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the joint statement released following his meeting in Seoul last week with newly-elected President Yoon Suk-yeol. When compared with each other, the two statements reveal the evolution of the Biden administration’s policy toward Korea as well as continuities and differences in policy leadership between the administrations of Moon Jae-in and Yoon Suk-yeol.
The most significant developments are a shift in policy emphasis toward North Korea from diplomacy to deterrence in response to the gathering pace and range of North Korea’s missile testing program, the emergence of an economic security agenda marked by greater integration of South Korean companies into joint technology and supply chain safeguards designed to strengthen economic resilience, and the deepening of U.S.-South Korean global partnership to support political and economic capacity building and contribute to international security in a wide range of areas.
Regarding lockstep coordination on North Korea policy, President Biden provided the standard assurances regarding U.S. defense commitments to South Korea in both statements. But the most recent statement with President Yoon over the weekend included announcements regarding the reactivation of the high-level Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group, the intent to “expand the scope and scale of combined military exercises on and around the Korean Peninsula,” an affirmation of the U.S. commitment to deploy strategic assets in a “timely and coordinated manner as necessary,” and plans to expand cooperation in response to North Korean cyber threats.
While the Biden-Moon statement leaned toward diplomacy by acknowledging the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration and Singapore Joint Statement and expressed support for inter-Korean dialogue, the Biden-Yoon Joint Statement both condemned North Korea’s “escalatory ballistic missile tests” as violations of UN Security Council resolutions and emphasized Yoon’s vision to normalize the inter-Korean relationship. Both statements expressed concerns about North Korean human rights and upheld the importance of trilateral cooperation with Japan to “protect shared security and prosperity.” The Biden-Yoon Joint Statement has not abandoned calls for the resumption of diplomacy with North Korea and has offered to provide COVID-19 vaccines to Pyongyang, but such calls have taken second priority compared to the Biden-Yoon emphasis on deterrence against North Korean aggression.
Secondly, the Biden-Yoon Joint Statement reflects the deepening of U.S.-South Korean economic cooperation in response to U.S.-China strategic rivalry in its emphasis on “a strategic economic and technology partnership.” Building on an extensive functional agenda identified in the Biden-Moon Joint Statement that included cooperation on emerging technologies, and supply chain resilience, the Biden-Yoon Joint Statement pledged to “develop, use, and advance technologies in line with shared democratic principles and universal values.”
The Biden-Yoon statement pledged support for research and development exchanges, strengthened integration of the defense sector supply chain, joint development and manufacturing, and the development of a Reciprocal Defense Procurement agreement. The emphasis on economic security and joint technological development in the Biden-Yoon statement details government-to-government efforts designed to support whole-of-alliance technology cooperation, standards-setting, and foreign investment screening and export controls. These measures are designed to protect sensitive technologies from stealth by foreign actors and to integrate South Korean companies more deeply into U.S. supply chains.
Alongside the formal issuance of a U.S.-South Korea joint statement, the rising importance of the U.S.-South Korea economic partnership was symbolized by Samsung Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong’s hosting of a tour by the two presidents to a Samsung semiconductor plant and Hyundai Motor Group Chairman Chung Eui-sun’s announcement alongside President Biden of a U.S. $5 billion investment in Georgia of an electric vehicle plant that would enable cooperation on robotics, electric vehicles, and artificial intelligence. Biden also won Yoon’s early support for and participation in his Indo-Pacific Economic Framework initiative focused on digital trade, supply chain resiliency, and standardization of new technologies. All of these measures suggest that while traditional security remains at the center of U.S.-South Korea alliance coordination, the economic and technological dimensions of the alliance will likely be the glue that enables the broadening and deepening of coordination between the two governments.
Thirdly, the Biden-Moon Joint Statement laid the foundation for values-based cooperation in many functional areas such as climate change, global health, promotion of liberal democratic values and human rights, coordination on international development assistance, and joint civilian nuclear energy and space projects. The Biden-Yoon Joint Statement identifies specific progress in each of these areas, most notably including South Korea’s willingness to take a leadership role in the Summit for Democracy process, strengthening of cooperation in areas such as clean shipping and accelerated deployment of zero-emissions vehicles (ZEVs), cooperation to strengthen transparency and accountability in the cyber realm, and coordination to ensure that internet policies promote equity and freedom of information flows.
The Biden-Yoon Joint Statement reiterates commitments from the Biden-Moon Joint Statement to jointly coordinate international security policies designed to uphold peace and stability in Southeast Asia, the South China Sea, and the Taiwan Strait and to condemn military rule in Myanmar, in addition to underscoring values-based cooperation in support of Ukraine’s efforts to resist “Russia’s unprovoked further aggression against Ukraine.”
Two notable areas of cooperation singled out in the Biden-Yoon Joint Statement are the civilian nuclear energy and space sectors. In fact, South Korean efforts to export civilian nuclear reactors are grounded in existing nuclear cooperation agreements that cover all aspects of nuclear fuel supply and nuclear security. Even more significantly, however, the joint development of new nuclear technologies under the U.S.-led Foundational Infrastructure for Responsible Use of Small Modular Reactor Technology (FIRST) program constitutes an important opportunity for South Korea to expand its share of the civilian nuclear energy export market, especially given international demand for clean energy production resulting from climate change and the setbacks Russia is likely to face as the leading exporter of nuclear energy technology following its invasion of Ukraine. In the space sector, the United States is supporting South Korea’s development of the Korean Positioning System (KPS), and the two countries will hold their third civil space dialogue by the end of the year.
In sum, the Biden-Moon and Biden-Yoon joint statements provide evidence of a sense of progression, intentionality, and detail on the part of the Biden administration to more closely integrate South Korea into a global network of like-minded countries committed both to strengthening cooperation in technological development and to upholding the liberal international order against threats from revisionist autocracies.
The statements also point to a good deal of continuity in South Korea’s overall foreign policy framework toward the United States between the Moon and Yoon administrations, but with one notable critical difference. While the tone and intent behind the Biden-Moon Joint Statement seemed to be on managing gaps in perception and strategy toward North Korea through tradeoffs between U.S. preferences regarding how to deal with China and the Moon administration’s intent to hold the door open to diplomacy with North Korea, the Biden-Yoon Joint Statement appears intent on capitalizing on the commonalities in worldview between the two leaders to leverage cooperation built squarely on common interests and priorities. Next comes the hard part: deepening coordination to holistically implement the extensive promises both sides have made to each other.
The article was originally published on Korea on Point by the Sejong Institute.