President Yoon Suk-yeol and US President Joe Biden agreed Saturday to expand joint military exercises to counter threats from North Korea, and strengthen regional economic cooperation through a new US-led trade framework.
During their first summit talks in Seoul, the two leaders discussed pending issues, including Pyongyang’s continued saber-rattling; a strategic alliance based on a “norm-based order”; and South Korea’s participation in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
The summit marked the highlight of Biden’s visit to South Korea, the first leg of an Asian tour during which the US president is expected to seek allies’ cooperation in security and trade as part of the US’ broader efforts to counter China.
For Biden, the Seoul summit offered a timely opportunity to improve the US’ much-damaged role in Asia, thanks largely to his predecessor’s policy failures. Biden’s commitment to expand the scope and scale of joint military exercises and deploy strategic military assets against North Korea’s missile threats will certainly help restore the US’ weakened security partnership with South Korea.
Although the United States places higher priority on confronting China -- a rival flexing its aggressive muscle in the Asia-Pacific region -- it cannot ignore North Korea’s continued development of nuclear arsenals and missiles capable of carrying warheads, despite years of international sanctions.
The summit resulted in a sharp swing in policy from that of the previous Moon Jae-in administration, which scaled back joint military exercises in a bid to engage North Korea -- to no avail.
But expanding military exercises and deploying more strategic assets will not resolve all the troubles created by a belligerent North Korea. As the two allies agreed to restart the high-level Extended Deterrence Strategic and Consultation Group, South Korea should express its needs through the group to strengthen what Biden called “close engagement.” This close engagement is aimed at taking on regional security challenges, including the threat posed by North Korea.
Deploying more US military assets is highly likely to irk China as well. When South Korea deployed the US-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system in 2017, China retaliated by boycotting Korean businesses and imports, hurting the nation’s economy. At the time, the US did not take any meaningful steps to help shield Korea from China’s ruthless trade attacks, even though the missile defense system was seen as the US’ tool to keep both North Korea and China at bay.
For those who vividly remember Korean businesses suffering great damage in China due to the THAAD deployment, the prospect that more US-made strategic assets will be deployed here could mean more frictions with China. That is, unless the United States actively steps in to protect Korea -- a scenario that is unlikely to happen at this point.
The government, therefore, should take extra caution in deploying more US military assets, closely weighing their strategic effect and necessity against possible conflicts with North Korea and China.
South Korea’s participation in the IPEF, a trade framework that Biden proposed last October to secure the US’ supply chain and promote trade with Asian countries, poses a similar risk vis a vis China. When President Yoon revealed that South Korea would join the IPEF, China quickly issued a warning, citing the negative impact of “decoupling” for the envisioned regional bloc.
It is notable that Biden chose Korea as the first place to visit during his Asian tour. Yoon, in need of a stronger security commitment from the US against North Korea, rewarded Biden’s decision by joining the IPEF. However, it remains vague how the trade bloc will work, and China’s retaliation is a clear possibility.
On top of that, Biden demonstrated his concern over the supply chain issue by saying the two countries would work together to boost chip production during his visit to a Samsung Electronics semiconductor facility on Friday. In addition, Hyundai Motor Group announced over the weekend that it would invest a total of $10.5 billion in the US.
It is time for Yoon and Korean policymakers to quickly shake off their post-summit complacency. They should look for ways to maximize positive results and come up with measures to minimize potential risk factors.
By Korea Herald (firstname.lastname@example.org