[Editorial] Korea must brace for impact of Yoon’s “America First” diplomacy

Posted on : 2023-05-01 16:19 KST Modified on : 2023-05-01 16:19 KST
Yoon’s unilateral diplomatic approach has increased security risks for South Korea
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea receives a standing ovation during his address to US Congress on April 27. (Yoon Woon-sik/The Hankyoreh)
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea receives a standing ovation during his address to US Congress on April 27. (Yoon Woon-sik/The Hankyoreh)

President Yoon Suk-yeol’s five-day state visit to the US came to a close on Sunday. The trip showcased how South Korean diplomacy has merged with that of the US.

Throughout the trip, which began with a visit to the Korean War Veterans Memorial and ended with a speech at Harvard University, the emphasis was on the global expansion of the South Korea-US value alliance. Yoon’s unilateral diplomatic approach has increased security risks, as there is now the prospect of pressure from North Korea, China and Russia.

Yoon is touting the Washington Declaration, which contains extended deterrence measures tailored towards the situation on the Korean Peninsula, as the biggest achievement of his visit.

The two leaders established a Nuclear Consultative Group to share and discuss US extended deterrence plans, and agreed that US strategic weapons, including strategic nuclear submarines, will be routinely deployed to the Korean Peninsula, but South Korea will not develop its own nuclear weapons.

While this is a significant step forward for the two countries in terms of documented extended deterrence measures in response to North Korea’s nuclear threat, the effectiveness of these measures continues to be debated.

When Kim Tae-hyo, the first deputy director of the National Security Office, overstated the implications of “de facto nuclear sharing” between South Korea and the United States, the White House National Security Council’s senior director, Edgard Kagan, bluntly retorted, “I don’t think that we see this as a de facto nuclear sharing,” revealing disagreements between the two countries.

The deployment of US strategic nuclear submarines to the Korean Peninsula is likely to be viewed by China as a de facto targeting of its own, and by North Korea as an excuse to build up its nuclear arsenal.

North Korea condemned the Washington Declaration in a speech by Kim Yo-jong, vice department director of the Workers’ Party of Korea, on Saturday, saying it had created an “environment in which we are compelled to take more decisive action” and warned of further provocations. While the president focused his trip on strengthening “security,” the “strong-arm” confrontation has made the security situation more volatile.

Throughout the trip, Yoon made absolute the South Korea-US alliance, by calling it “not a convenient contractual relationship only based on each party’s interests, but a ‘value alliance’ based on the universal value of liberal democracy.” There were also several messages aimed at China, which is at odds with the US.

Political, security, humanitarian, and economic support for Ukraine, which is at war with Russia, was also mentioned throughout the trip, as was the Taiwan issue, which is a sensitive topic for China.

Red flags in South Korea-China relations have been mounting, with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs protesting the Taiwan-related language in the summit declaration by summoning officials from the South Korean Embassy in Beijing. Yoon is “all in on the US,” with little indication of how he will manage risk in relations with China and Russia.

There are no concrete results on the economic front, which was a top priority of the trip. We don’t even know if South Korea made the right demands of the US.

The government’s response to the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPs and Science Act is to say that the two leaders “appreciated the recent efforts made by the ROK and the United States to alleviate concerns of Korean businesses over the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act.”

The Korean economy is on the brink of collapse, but the president has adopted an “America First” agenda for it as well.

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

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