How Biden and Yoon Are Strengthening the U.S.-South Korea Alliance

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How Biden and Yoon Are Strengthening the U.S.-South Korea Alliance

Presidents Biden and Yoon pledged to deepen and broaden the scope of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, but their success could depend on how China, Japan, and North Korea respond.

What is the biggest news to come out of U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to South Korea?

President Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol signaled their desire to expand beyond the military alliance that has been the core of the U.S.-South Korea relationship for decades, saying that economic coordination is critical to bolstering what Yoon calls the countries’ “comprehensive strategic alliance.”

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This was exemplified when Samsung Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong hosted Biden and Yoon at a Samsung semiconductor production facility that will serve as a model for the $17 billion facility Samsung pledged last year to build in Texas. The itinerary symbolizes the leaders’ vision of a vital role for U.S.-South Korean technology cooperation alongside the military focus that has underpinned the alliance for decades.

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On the sidelines of the summit between Yoon and Biden, Hyundai Motor Group Executive Chair Chung Eui-sun pledged to invest $10.5 billion in the construction of an electric vehicle and electric battery production facility in Georgia, in addition to other investments in robotics and artificial intelligence.

These South Korean investments in the United States will likely generate American jobs and have the potential to further intertwine the United States and South Korea in both the security and economic realms.

Did the two sides signal a change in their approach to North Korea?

With the transition from the dovish administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in to the hawkish Yoon administration, U.S.-South Korea policy emphasis has shifted toward deterrence, placing diplomacy in the background in the absence of signs that North Korea is willing to pursue talks.

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The U.S.-South Korea Joint Statement released by Biden and Yoon pledges to revive the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group, a bilateral group of specialists tasked with deepening South Korean understanding of U.S. plans to deter and defend against North Korea’s possible use of nuclear weapons. The statement also pledges to expand U.S.-South Korean military exercises that had been curtailed in 2018 to support U.S.-North Korea diplomacy. In addition, it affirms the U.S. commitment to deploying strategic assets, such as nuclear-capable bombers and naval vessels, in a “timely and coordinated manner as necessary,” as well as expanding coordination in response to North Korean cyber threats. 

The leaders revealed that they had offered vaccines to North Korea in response to the country’s rapidly rising COVID-19 cases, but that North Korea has not responded to those offers. Biden reiterated his willingness to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un if he proves to be “serious” and “sincere.” But his two-word public message to Kim—“Hello. Period.”—conveyed a lack of enthusiasm that is unlikely to induce Kim to restore self-restraint in missile testing and return to talks.

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What’s next for the U.S.-South Korea relationship?

The Biden and Yoon administrations will follow up on the wide range of coordination pledges included in the joint statement. The most significant, immediate steps will involve further defense consultations on extended deterrence, as well as planning combined military exercises and diplomatic coordination on North Korean policy. South Korea is also expected to participate in the U.S.-led Summit on Global Supply Chain Resilience, which is planned for later this year, and pledged to take a leadership role in the Summit for Democracy process initiated by the Biden administration last December. In addition, the countries will establish a regular ministerial-level dialogue on supply chains.

Biden and Yoon wear face masks in a Samsung factory.
U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol visit a Samsung production facility. Kim Min-hee/Reuters

In line with Yoon’s aspiration to establish South Korea as a “global pivotal state,” the countries have pledged to increase consultations on climate change, internet standards, telecommunications security and international cyber policy, as well as on global security issues such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, keeping the Indo-Pacific free and open, maritime security in the South China Sea, and peace and stability in the Taiwan Straits. 

How could regional governments respond?

The primary significance of the meeting could lie in how China, Japan, and North Korea respond to Biden and Yoon’s efforts to deepen and broaden the scope of the alliance. Despite Yoon’s assertions that he desires a constructive partnership with China, Beijing could be tempted to view Seoul’s close alignment with Washington in zero-sum terms. China responded negatively to South Korea’s plans to join Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, prompting Yoon to state that South Korea takes an inclusive approach to economic cooperation that is not based on shared values.

The Biden administration could hope that its early meeting with Yoon and its bolstering of U.S.-South Korea cooperation in advance of meetings in Japan will both support the deepening of trilateral cooperation among the United States, South Korea, and Japan, and indirectly endorse Yoon’s campaign pledges to restore bilateral relations with Japan.

North Korea has yet to test its nuclear weapons since Yoon came into office, but Pyongyang heard little from Biden and Yoon in Seoul that is likely to induce self-restraint. Biden and Yoon pledged to “strengthen airtight coordination” in preparation for future North Korean provocations and work toward achieving North Korea’s complete denuclearization. Their response to North Korea’s ongoing missile testing will test whether they can follow through.

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