President Joe Biden hosted South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol at the White House last Wednesday, marking the first state visit by a South Korean president in 12 years. This visit was intended to address South Korean concerns with American interests and for the leaders to revisit their commitment to mutual economic and military security.
Biden protected America’s interests without making more substantial commitments to South Korea. This diplomatic success for Biden may have negative consequences for South Korean democracy since Yoon returned to his country with nearly empty hands.
Yoon, whose 19% approval rating, due largely to disrespect for democratic values and principles, is an historical low for any Korean leader, is likely to rely on repressive measures to counter criticism of his poor handling of foreign affairs.
During the summit, Biden stood firm on initiatives related to high-tech and economic security. American consumers, who support the Inflation Reduction Act, are incentivized to buy electric cars from Tesla, General Motors, Ford Motor and Volkswagen for a full tax credit of $7,500. These companies meet sourcing guidelines that require a certain percentage of components and minerals in car batteries be purchased from the U.S. and its trading partners.
Biden did not grant an exemption for South Korean-made Hyundai and Kia cars.
Biden also implemented sweeping restrictions on semiconductor technology exports to China. The policy has negatively affected South Korean-based Samsung. The company’s chip manufacturing business, Samsung Foundry, has considerable investments in China.
Many South Koreans see these policies as an attempt to make their country a pawn in America’s trade war with China. The South Korean semiconductor industry accounts for more than 19% of total exports and has made a big dent in the trade imbalance since Yoon’s inauguration.
On the security front, Biden asked South Korea to provide military aid to Ukraine and laid the foundation for a triadic alliance with South Korea and Japan to counter the growing military and economic power of China and North Korea.
Yoon has shipped out a large quantity of artillery shells that are reportedly headed to Ukraine, reversing his previous stance that South Korea would provide only humanitarian and financial assistance.
Given that 53% of South Koreans rate Russia favorably and 35% hold an unfavorable view, Yoon’s unilateral policy change is not welcomed. Concerned citizens and the opposition party see Yoon’s policies as responsible for deteriorating relations with Russia.
Biden’s proposal to build a security coalition with South Korea and Japan would, if successful, greatly help Washington isolate and weaken Beijing and Pyongyang. Biden praised Yoon on restoring friendly relations with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, but many South Koreans do not support a military alliance with Japan.
South Koreans still have bitter memories of Japanese colonialism from 1910 to 1945. Koreans were treated as second-class citizens and enemies in their own country. Korean girls and women were sexually enslaved for Japanese soldiers, and horrific human experiments were conducted on Koreans.
Despite no official apologies from Kishida for the historical wrongdoings of his country, Yoon remains committed to restarting Seoul-Tokyo relations. For example, Yoon has raised a South Korean public fund rather than securing compensation from Japanese firms for Koreans who were forced to work during World War II. This has improved relations with Tokyo but directly challenges the 2018 order of the South Korean Supreme Court.
South Koreans displeased with Yoon’s overly friendly gestures toward Japan have demanded Yoon’s immediate resignation to restore South Korea’s national sovereignty and constitutional values. Yoon’s undemocratic and unconstitutional decision has reignited sociopolitical and religious groups that were the main engine of the South Korean democracy movements before the installment of the democratic constitution in 1987.
South Koreans are unlikely to rally around Yoon if he agrees to a triad military partnership. It is particularly tough for South Koreans to embrace Japanese rearmament backed by their own government.
While North Korea relies on a nuclear deterrent for regime survival, South Korea lacks such nuclear capabilities. Doubtful the U.S. would risk San Francisco for Seoul in the event of a nuclear war with the North, about 77% of South Koreans express support for building their nuclear weapons and forces.
Biden knows that U.S. military supremacy might erode as North Korea strengthens its nuclear capabilities and develops new weapons systems. Nevertheless, Biden has no desire to let South Korea go nuclear. He instead promised Yoon that the U.S. would strengthen the level of extended deterrence for the South. The new extended deterrence means the periodical deployment of a nuclear-armed submarine in South Korea and commits Washington to consult Seoul regarding the use of nuclear weapons.
This is a small but much-needed victory for Yoon. Strengthened extended deterrence is a slightly improved version of conventional extended deterrence, but it is not enough to extinguish many South Koreans’ anxiety over potential nuclear attacks from the North.
The summit allowed Biden to bolster national interests in America, Eastern Europe and East Asia. Biden received unequivocally strong support from Yoon. For his part, Yoon seemed to forget his duty to find a way to safeguard South Korea’s interests. In the eyes of ordinary South Koreans, Yoon appeared to act like Biden’s lap dog.
Biden’s achievements correspond to Yoon’s failures. Back home, Yoon faces protests over his submissive and subservient diplomacy and undemocratic decisions. In anticipation of growing domestic opposition, Yoon has prepared to impose more repressive measures: getting police officers and prosecutors ready to control dissenters and critical media, and ordering the Korean CIA and the Defense Counterintelligence Command to conduct a physical search or wiretap on South Korean citizens secretly.
If protests arise, Yoon will likely suppress voices of dissent by painting them as anti-American or North Korean sympathizers, harming South Korean democracy.
Yoon, if he interprets Biden’s diplomacy as personal goodwill, may be emboldened to pursue undemocratic measures to consolidate his power, which will have dire consequences for the future of South Korean democracy.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Seung-Whan Choi teaches Korean politics and international relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago. A retired Army officer, he is the author of four books.
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