Biden’s trip to South Korea may spark a new friendship

Joe Biden, on his first visit to South Korea this weekend as president, will find in the new Korean leader, Yoon Suk-yeol, a political novice who shows it. Before taking office 10 days ago, Yoon, a former top prosecutor, had not held an elected position. He won the March 9 presidential election with a slim 0.73 percentage-points differential, or just 247,077 more votes than his main rival.

It’s amply clear that Yoon has yet to cultivate the kinds of nuance in public speeches or deftness in demeanor that are hallmarks of popular leaders. Some even have painted him as a “Falstaff-like” figure — zany, solipsistic, bibulous, and prone to gaffes. This unflattering image may yet prove to be an asset in winning over President Biden.

In Japan, Biden’s next destination, the American leader will find in Prime Minister Fumio Kishida a seasoned politician with nearly three decades of experience in government and politics. First elected to Japan’s House of Representatives in 1993, Kishida has held various senior cabinet posts. He served as minister of foreign affairs from December 2012 to August 2017, becoming the longest-serving Japanese foreign minister in the post-war era.

Biden and Kishida briefly met on the sidelines of a United Nations climate summit in Glasgow last November. And in January they held a 90-minute virtual meeting, during which the prime minister stated that “Japan would be fully behind the United States” if Russia invaded Ukraine — a position that America’s other key ally in the region, South Korea, has yet to espouse.

Such contrasts in savoir-faire and political savvy between the two East Asian leaders may spell for Biden speed bumps in Seoul and smooth sailing in Tokyo — the latter, historically, Washington’s more favored ally. But Biden may yet come away with positive impressions of the unpolished Korean leader, perhaps even more favorable than those of the sophisticated Japanese statesman. After all, Biden has seen it before — in 2009, when he was the vice president.

That November, President Barack Obama made his first visits to Japan, South Korea and China. Obama had called for a “pivot” back to East Asia after years of preponderant U.S. focus on Afghanistan and Iraq. In February 2009, Obama sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her first foreign visit to Japan, South Korea and China to underscore his pivot. Obama himself visited Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing and Singapore (for the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum summit) nine months later. In a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, Obama said, “I intend to make clear that the United States is a Pacific nation, and we will be deepening our engagement in this part of the world.”

But what the Pacific-focused president did not expect was the lack of cordiality and support from Japan’s prime minister. The contentious issue of the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps air station in Okinawa, on which the U.S. and Japan had agreed in 2006, clouded the meeting. The plan was to move the military base from the populated Ginowan City to the less populous Henoko Bay, Nago, which was a conservation area. But the move was in question, as Nago’s residents strongly opposed the building of a noisy air base in their town that would also cause environmental degradation. Hatoyama opposed the move.

To make matters worse, Hatoyama took off for Singapore — to which Obama was also headed — while the American president was still in Japan, implying that he had places to go and people to see while his American visitor may be unencumbered by such a taxing schedule. In Seoul, on the other hand, Obama was warmly received by the straight-shooting President Lee Myung-bak. Thereafter, Obama considered his relationship with Lee one of his closest with another head of state, while remembering Hatoyama in his 2017 memoir as a “pleasant, if awkward, fellow.”

No such diplomatic slight will occur during Biden’s visit with Kishida. The two leaders will project a united message on America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, through the reaffirmation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a strategic forum among the U.S., Japan, Australia and India. In Japan, Biden also will promulgate the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), a loose economic forum geared toward long-term competition against China, with membership that remains murky. Only a few nations in Pacific Asia — and, to date, none in the Indo-Pacific — have joined the framework. South Korea announced only this week that it would.

North Korea’s leaders in recent weeks have regaled themselves with continued missile blasts. North Korea’s threats to the region virtually guarantees that Biden’s tour will be presented as a success. Even a major weapons test by Pyongyang while Biden is in South Korea or Japan could be billed as America’s commitment to defend its allies.

Last month, Kim Jong Un and his sister, Yo Jong, issued nuclear threats against the South. Ms. Kim threatened to have her nation’s “nuclear combat force” visit upon the South “a miserable fate little short of total destruction and ruin,” while her brother stated more cryptically, “If any forces try to violate the fundamental interests of our state, our nuclear forces will have to decisively accomplish its unexpected second mission.” Taking a page out of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s playbook, the Kim siblings seek to routinize threats of nuclear attack.

Neither Yoon nor Biden will be able to present an antidote to North Korea’s growing threat. But they can send signals to Pyongyang that all options are on the table, including the redeployment of U.S. nuclear weapons or, short of that, strategic assets on a rotational basis in South Korea and its vicinity. As I testified in a congressional hearing last week, the status quo further tilts “the revisionist Kim regime in the direction of gambling on a Russia-style invasion or launching a series of serious attacks. The cost of defending South Korea against the North’s nuclear-armed forces would be incalculably greater for both Seoul and Washington should Kim Jong Un gamble on Seoul’s capitulation in the wake of Pyongyang’s preemptive nuclear strike. Only a clear message of guaranteed nuclear counterattack will deter the North Korean despot, who values above all his own well-being and longevity.”

As for Kim’s well-being, Biden and Yoon can provide an antidote to the COVID-19 crisis in North Korea. The two leaders, together with Kishida and other leaders, including China’s Xi Jinping and even Putin, can push Kim to receive medical aid, including vaccines. That Kim himself acknowledged on May 12 the virus was spreading in his capital and, two days later, called the situation a “great upheaval” in his nation’s history, indicates his considerable fear of his own mortality. Kim has never experienced an existential threat such as this. Despite playing up fears of “U.S. hostile policy” and an imminent “attack,” there has not been a U.S. attack on North Korea since the 1953 armistice or a domestic protest worthy of the name.

Neither did his father, Kim Jong Il, ever experience such a threat in his lifetime. During the famine of the 1990s, he could afford to divert and hoard food aid as hundreds of thousands of people starved to death, because ordinary people were expendable, and people could not infect others with hunger. But since people very much do infect others with COVID, Kim Jong Un may be incentivized, out of self-interest, to distribute vaccines widely.

Once Biden meets his South Korean counterpart and sees that Yoon is — besides being an unpretentious, dogs- and cats-loving baseball fan — a leader with empathy for the well-being of his compatriots in the North who is committed to protecting the human rights of all Koreans, it could very well mark the start of a close relationship.

Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and assistant professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and faculty associate at the U.S.-Japan Program, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. Follow him on Twitter @SungYoonLee1.

Tags Barack Obama East Asian countries Fumio Kishida Hillary Clinton Japan Joe Biden South Korea US-South Korea relations Yoon Suk-yeol

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