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Yoon begins US state visit to trumpet stronger alliance, resolve trade issues

Agenda to focus on level of bilateral agreement on extended deterrence

By Shin Ji-hye

Published : April 24, 2023 - 14:07

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President Yoon Suk Yeol and first lady Kim Keon Hee wave before leaving for Washington D.C. at Seongnam Air Base, Gyeonggi Province, on Monday. (Yonhap) President Yoon Suk Yeol and first lady Kim Keon Hee wave before leaving for Washington D.C. at Seongnam Air Base, Gyeonggi Province, on Monday. (Yonhap)

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on Monday began his five-day state visit to the US to mark the 70th anniversary of bilateral ties and to set a new direction for the alliance with US President Joe Biden, amid intensifying nuclear threats from North Korea and mounting trade issues.

The primary focus of the summit scheduled for Wednesday is on the level of bilateral agreement to be reached on extended deterrence as well as the extent of economic and security cooperation.

This will be Yoon's sixth meeting with Biden, with their previous meetings having taken place in Seoul, Madrid, London, New York and Phnom Penh. Yoon is the first South Korean president to pay a state visit to the US since Lee Myung-bak in 2011, and the second foreign leader to do so under the Biden administration.

An official arrival ceremony will take place before the summit, and a state dinner hosted by President Biden and first lady Jill Biden will follow. South Korean first lady Kim Keon Hee will accompany Yoon to the event. The full guest list was not released as of Monday.

Kim Tae-hyo, the first deputy director of Korea's National Security Office, told reporters Thursday the summit is expected to serve as an opportunity to further solidify the South Korea-US joint defense posture and to discuss extended deterrence between the two countries in more detail.

On extended deterrence, the two leaders are expected to clarify what the US' retaliatory actions will be if North Korea deploys nuclear weapons, according to Park Won-gon, professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

“The key is whether the US will employ nuclear weapons if North Korea attacks us. Extended deterrence is not legally binding, but rather a form of commitment, and thus it has certain structural limitations,” he said.

"To build trust in the US' extended deterrence, South Korea will also seek more clarity regarding the US' retaliatory actions in the event of North Korea's deployment of nuclear weapons."

Cho Nam-hoon, a senior research fellow of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses’ North Korean military research division, echoed Park's analysis that South Korea will seek more room to collaborate with the US in specific areas such as information sharing, joint planning and joint drills.

He noted that the relocation of tactical nuclear weapons or the sharing of nuclear weapons are unlikely to be touched on during the summit, as it increases the possibility of South Korea becoming the primary target for Pyongyang. Cho also noted that in the event of an attack from the North, US Ohio-class submarines equipped with trident missiles would be deployed in the waters surrounding the Korean Peninsula. He added that in this scenario, the speed of operation would be relatively similar, regardless of whether a nuclear weapon is stationed on the Korean Peninsula beforehand or not.

"In this case, as long as there is a guarantee that nuclear weapons can be employed when necessary, the location of the weapon, whether it is in Korea, the East Coast, or Guam, is not an issue," said Cho.

Economic security

Economic cooperation is another priority for Yoon as he attends a ceremony where US advanced tech firms will unveil their plans to invest in South Korea, as his first engagement in Washington. There will be a business roundtable with business leaders from the two countries.

Later on Tuesday, Yoon will visit the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington to discuss space cooperation between the two countries and meet with Korean scientists working at NASA.

The presidential couple will then return to the US capital to join the Bidens on a visit to the Korean War Veterans Memorial to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the alliance.

A day after the summit, Yoon will address a joint session of Congress on Thursday, touching upon the past 70 years of the alliance and its future. A lunch with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken will follow. There will be a briefing from US military leaders on the same day. On Friday, he is set to meet with digital and bio scholars at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and deliver an address at Harvard University.

Accompanying Yoon on his state visit will be the leaders of South Korea's major conglomerates, including Samsung, Hyundai Motor, SK, LG and Lotte, as part of a 122-member business delegation. The focus is on whether Yoon can navigate a path forward for Korean companies that are at a crossroads due to US protectionist policies, such as the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act.

The Inflation Reduction Act seeks to provide tax credits in the form of subsidies exclusively for electric vehicles assembled in North America. Recently, Korean automakers, Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors, were considered not eligible for subsidies by the US government.

“As for the Inflation Reduction Act, it seems there is not much the president can do as Korean battery industries have become the beneficiaries and the US included leasing vehicles in IRA tax credits,” said Kim Pil-soo, a professor of automotive engineering at Daelim University.

“However, in the case of the CHIPS and Science Act, further discussion on the topic of semiconductors is expected due to issues surrounding the sharing of excess profits and the exposure of confidential business information.”

Samsung Electronics is planning to invest $17 billion to build a foundry plant in Taylor, Texas, and SK hynix is planning to invest $15 billion in advanced memory semiconductor packaging manufacturing facilities.

To qualify for subsidies from the US government, semiconductor companies are required to meet certain conditions such as allowing access to their facilities, sharing excess profits, submitting detailed accounting data, and restricting plant expansion in China. However, these requirements often involve sharing confidential business information with the US government.

Some have suggested that it may be better for semiconductor companies not to apply for subsidies under the US CHIPS and Science Act. However, there are concerns that not participating in the program may be seen as showing favoritism toward China, which could have negative consequences given the ongoing US-China confrontation.

The semiconductor industry is hopeful that the requirements for subsidies under the US CHIPS and Science Act may be relaxed to some extent, particularly as the heads of major conglomerates, such as Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Jae-yong and SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won, accompany Yoon on his visit.