Taking Stock of The U.S.-South Korea Summit
from Asia Unbound and Asia Program

Taking Stock of The U.S.-South Korea Summit

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s state visit to the United States involved an impressive range of meetings with a broad range of actors and sectors of U.S. society.  
U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol shake hands as they meet in the Oval Office of the White House on April 26, 2023.
U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol shake hands as they meet in the Oval Office of the White House on April 26, 2023. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol hit the right notes in his a capella performance of the first stanza of the song “American Pie” at the White House state dinner on April 26. The night capped off an impressive range of meetings by a South Korean president with a broader range of actors and sectors of U.S. society than ever before. Over two dozen standing applause interruptions during Yoon’s speech to a joint meeting of Congress conveyed a remarkably high degree of U.S. recognition of and openness to South Korea.

But it remains to be seen whether discordant notes over “nuclear sharing” and South Korean perceptions that Yoon failed to adequately address U.S. protectionism are growing pains from rapidly expanding institutional coordination across an unprecedented array of sectors or a signal of vulnerability that may indicate limits and cracks in alliance cohesion.

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Prior to the last state visit by a South Korean president twelve years ago, the White House, Department of State, and Pentagon would likely have been the main bureaucratic actors working with South Korean counterparts in preparation for a U.S.-South Korea summit, with input from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in connection with the negotiation of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS).

But the range and depth of intergovernmental coordination between the U.S. and South Korean governments have expanded to an unprecedented degree. In addition to traditional actors engaged in the management of U.S.-South Korea relations, the Biden-Yoon summit involved the U.S. Department of Commerce, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, NASA, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, among others, substantially coordinating with their South Korean counterpart agencies.

The White House Fact Sheet lists nothing short of a dozen newly established intergovernmental consultations on regional cooperation, supply chains, space and cyber cooperation, biotechnology, international development, and health security, most of which were not in place as recently as three years ago.

The U.S. and South Korean governments have never engaged as intensively with each other over as broad an array of sectors at such high levels as they are today. This expansion of cooperation beyond the traditional foreign policy and security realms underscores both an unprecedented deepening and an expanded functional and geographical scope of cooperation, both of which would not be possible without broad public support in both countries.

Moreover, upwards of $100 billion worth of South Korean investments across the United States have resulted in deeper U.S. appreciation for South Korea, which paved the way for the warm reception Yoon received on Capitol Hill. South Korea’s growing cultural influence in the United States also got a nod and a boost by the co-CEO of Netflix, who pledged to invest $2.5 billion in developing new Korean content that will ultimately be available to consumers worldwide.

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But these accomplishments of Yoon’s visit to Washington have also placed differences between the U.S. and South Korean governments front-and-center. South Korean desires to portray the establishment of the Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) as something akin to “nuclear sharing” were at odds with Biden’s statements that the U.S. president would maintain sole authority over nuclear-use decisions and that he would not authorize the reintroduction of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea.

On the one hand, the establishment of the NCG is at risk of being perceived in South Korea as an instrument of alliance entrapment that will deny South Korea the ability to match the North’s nuclear capabilities. On the other hand, the costs and risks of South Korea pursuing an independent nuclear weapons program may inadvertently play into North Korea’s longstanding strategy of dividing the U.S.-South Korea alliance. South Korean perceptions of U.S. entrapment, if they become the mainstream South Korean view of the United States, might become a make-or-break issue for the alliance.

The South Korean public is also critical of the Yoon administration for failing to win concessions regarding the implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the U.S. CHIPS and Science Act, which are widely believed to contain provisions that discriminate against South Korean companies and investments. The establishment of an administrative loophole in the implementation of the IRA, which allows the leasing but not purchasing of foreign-produced Hyundai electric vehicles to qualify for a U.S. tax credit, did not satisfactorily address South Korean concerns that South Korean vehicles were excluded from qualifying for the credit.

In addition, there is skepticism that U.S. conditions for receiving funds under the CHIPS and Science Act could damage South Korean competitiveness if companies are required to release secrets that enable their competitive advantages in the global marketplace. Of particular concern in South Korea is that the Biden administration’s export controls on cutting-edge technologies to China have imposed tangible costs on South Korean firms that are losing revenues from South Korean-invested factories in China.

In the long run, however, the question is whether South Korean firms can not only recover losses but generate even larger profits by reorienting from China to the United States. Here lies the significance of the envisioned Biden-Yoon alliance coordination on next-generation and emerging technologies, which will open new upstream opportunities for technology cooperation while also providing South Korean companies with downstream access to U.S. markets in the sectors to be developed.

If both governments are able to pave the way for U.S.-South Korean tie-ups in critical technologies, the benefits resulting from the expanded coordination in new sectors will open profit opportunities for both countries and potentially outweigh South Korean losses due to disinvestment from the Chinese market. South Korean conglomerates clearly see the opportunity to profit, or they would not have pledged roughly $100 billion in the U.S. market while reducing their market exposure in China. To overcome potential hurdles and ensure the win-win outcome that Biden stated during his joint press conference with Yoon, the Biden administration’s obligations and challenges will be to provide effective integration for Korean companies while keeping the playing field level to ensure that commensurate returns flow to Korea from the investments made in the U.S. economy.

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