S. Korea-US alliance evolve into global partnership from security agreement

Posted on : 2021-05-24 16:23 KST Modified on : 2021-05-24 16:23 KST
The US gave South Korea much of the “independence” it has long sought in the US’s North Korea policy
South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks during an event at the SK Innovation electric vehicle plant in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday, during his visit to the US. (Yonhap News)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks during an event at the SK Innovation electric vehicle plant in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday, during his visit to the US. (Yonhap News)

The “U.S.-ROK Leaders’ Joint Statement” announced Friday afternoon after a summit in Washington between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Joe Biden is poised to go down as a milestone heralding a “new era” in the bilateral relations and a dramatic break from their history over the past seven decades.

The two leaders declared that the South Korea-US alliance had been upgraded into a truly global alliance, declaring their relationship as a “linchpin for the regional and global order” with a significance that “extends far beyond the Korean Peninsula.”

This signifies that the scope of roles and responsibilities that Seoul has to contend with have broadened beyond the regional framework of the Korean Peninsula and North Korean nuclear issue into a wider range of areas that include the promotion of values of democracy and human rights — which amounts to an effort to contain China — as well as compliance with international norms and cooperation on advanced industry areas.

The joint statement Friday states that the two sides’ alliance “has continued to evolve as the world around us has changed.”

“We seek a partnership that continues to provide peace and prosperity for our peoples, while serving as a linchpin for the regional and global order,” it continues.

“President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. is honored to welcome President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea to Washington to begin a new chapter in our partnership,” it reads.

Indeed, the areas where the two sides are to cooperate have broadened enough to warrant being described as a “new chapter” in their relationship.

According to the statement, they plan to join forces not only on traditional Korean Peninsula-related issues such as North Korea’s nuclear program, but also major Indo-Pacific regional issues such as those concerning the South China Sea and Taiwan; global efforts related to climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic; high-tech industry cooperation in areas such as 6G technology and semiconductors; and the promotion of human rights and democratic values.

The statement was also nearly twice as long as a previous one on June 30, 2017 — perhaps a reflection of the longer list of topics to be mentioned as the alliance’s stature grows.

As if to bear this out, Biden said in his introductory remarks before the two sides’ expanded summit that because he and Moon had discussed so many different issues during their one-on-one meeting, his staff had kept sending him notes that they were “over time.”

Following the South Korea-US summit, Moon plans to head to Cornwall for a G7 summit in England on June 11-13. While it remains unclear whether the framework is poised to eventually expand into a so-called “D-10” of democratic countries — with South Korea, Australia and India added in — it is apparent that South Korea will find itself shouldering qualitatively different responsibilities and obligations to match its increased international stature as a key part of the liberal democratic world.

Referring to this change, a key Blue House official called it “the start of a new era for the South Korea-US alliance.”

The shadow of the strategic competition between Washington and Beijing

This shift in the alliance is seen as reflecting factors such as the Korean Peninsula’s unique geopolitical position within the growing antagonism between the US and China, as well as South Korea’s position in such high-tech industry areas as semiconductors and batteries.

But in terms of why this change is happening now in particular, a closer look shows one point: the long shadow of the strategic competition between Washington and Beijing.

Before the summit, many observers on both sides had predicted the Biden administration would pressure South Korea to participate in the Quad, a cooperative framework aimed at reining in China.

What the Biden administration ultimately opted to do was subtly different, however. Rather than trying to force South Korea to join the front lines in hemming China in, the administration got it to voluntarily take on various regional and global responsibilities through a strategy of increasing the alliance’s stature and boldly adding an element of autonomy.

In the joint statement, South Korea expressed its resolution to “oppose all activities that undermine, destabilize, or threaten the rules-based international order and commit to maintaining an inclusive, free, and open Indo-Pacific.”

The South Korea-US statement didn’t directly mention China, in contrast with the US-Japan joint statement on April 16 that singled China out for harsh criticism. Even so, the joint statement allows us to conclude that South Korea has taken a disturbing step closer to the US campaign of containment against China. South Korea’s enhanced status leaves it vulnerable to requests to play a bigger role in highly sensitive issues such as the South China Sea and Taiwan, issues on which it has hitherto managed to remain an onlooker.

South Korea also accepted the “fundamental importance of US-ROK-Japan trilateral cooperation” and “the importance of open, transparent, and inclusive regional multilateralism including the Quad,” sending a clear message that it’s part of the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy.

Moon told a reporter in the press conference after the summit that he, fortunately, hadn’t received any pressure from the US about China. However, a cool-headed analysis shows that Moon was only half right.

It’s also notable that the US gave South Korea much of the “independence” it has long sought in the US’s North Korea policy, which was a major point of interest in the summit.

Biden affirmed not only the joint statement that the US and North Korea signed in Singapore on June 12, 2018, in which North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pledged to carry out the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but also the statement signed by South and North Korea at Panmunjom on April 27 of the same year, in which they promised to move more quickly toward a future of joint prosperity and autonomous unification.

In the joint statement, Biden also voiced “his support for inter-Korean dialogue, engagement, and cooperation,” recognizing some degree of the autonomy of inter-Korean relations that the administration of former President Donald Trump never allowed.

In addition, the US boldly terminated missile guidelines that South Korea has had to follow since 1979 in a groundbreaking decision that sweeps away limits on the range and payload of South Korea’s missiles. That clears the way for South Korea to cultivate its own ability to contain China.

Through this summit, the South Korea-US alliance has grown into a comprehensive alliance rivaling the one between the US and Japan, which is likely to bring about qualitative changes in the two countries’ relationship. The joint statement also entrusts South Korea with more responsibility on current issues such as carbon dioxide emissions.

As time goes by, South Korea could find itself under more pressure to keep pace with the US and take on more responsibility for various issues connected with China. The US can no longer take all the blame for a lack of progress on inter-Korean relations.

After the Taiwan issue was mentioned in the joint statement following the US-Japan summit last month, former Japanese vice foreign minister Yukio Takeuchi told Japanese newspaper the Asahi Shimbun on April 18 that Japan had “crossed the Rubicon.”

Moon’s summit with Biden could go down in history as the decisive moment when South Korea crossed its own Rubicon.

By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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