South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol landed in Washington, DC, on Monday for a nearly week-long trip that will include extensive meetings with leftist President Joe Biden, a state dinner, and business negotiations between some of South Korea’s top corporate entities and American counterparts.
Ongoing nuclear threats from communist North Korea would be at the heart of talks between Yoon and Biden, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters on Monday, promising “major deliverables on extended deterrence” that should please South Koreans, who now overwhelmingly support developing their own nuclear weapons instead of relying on America.
The headlining reason for the visit is the 70th anniversary of diplomatic ties between America and South Korea, forged during the Korean War that began in 1950 and, despite an armistice agreement ending active hostilities in 1953, has technically not ended. America is a party to the war alongside South Korea and against North Korea and its top ally, China.
Yoon is expected to hold meetings with American tech companies on Tuesday and visit the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center to discuss space cooperation. He will then meet with Biden on Wednesday at the White House and attend a formal state dinner that evening. Yoon will be only the second head of state to receive the honor of a state dinner under Biden; French President Emmanuel Macron was the first.
The South Korean news agency Yonhap reported on Monday that Yoon’s administration is expecting the visit to expand the “trust and friendship” between the two nations in the security and trade spheres, as well as culture and ideology. Principal Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Tae-hyo told reporters last week that Yoon will us the opportunity to “look back on the U.S.-led expansion of economic and political freedoms over the past 200 years and share his thoughts on the two sides of freedom in the digital era we live in.”
“Obviously, Ukraine is going to be an important topic of conversation,” Sullivan, the American national security adviser, told reporters during the White House press briefing on Monday, responding to a question regarding South Korea’s reported concerns over the Biden administration potentially involving it in the ongoing Eastern European conflict.
An alleged Pentagon leak surfacing this month, citing “signals intelligence,” relayed purported conversations between top Yoon administration officials in which they expressed hesitation with selling military hardware to America out of concern that Biden would then give it to Ukraine, effectively turning Seoul into a weapons supplier for Ukraine and irritating relations with Russia. South Korean officials denied the content of the leaks and claimed that some of the documents in the trove allegedly circulated on video game forums early this year were “forged.”
Aside from Ukraine, Sullivan said the two presidents would discuss “climate,” “people-to-people ties,” trade, and security.
“On Wednesday, President Biden and President Yoon will announce major deliverables on extended deterrence, on cyber cooperation, on climate mitigation, on foreign assistance, on investment, and on strengthening our people-to-people ties,” Sullivan said. The adviser noted that the visit “comes at a critical moment” in North Korea policy, as well, which will require the two leaders to “consult closely.” He noted, however, that Biden was ready to have American delegations “meet at any time” with the North Koreans for talks.
“President Biden will reinforce and enhance our extended deterrence commitments to South Korea with respect to the threat the DPRK [North Korea] poses,” Sullivan said. “The alliance remains committed to pursuing dialogue with the DPRK to achieve a peaceful, diplomatic resolution … We are ready to meet at any time, at any place to address serious concerns, and we are open to the possibility of humanitarian assistance with appropriate safeguards to help the people of the DPRK.”
Under Biden, the United States has not prioritized addressing the North Korean nuclear threat and has no defined policy toward Kim Jong-un, its Millennial communist dictator. Pyongyang has largely ignored the few overtures the Biden administration has made to the regime and, rather than pursue denuclearization talks, actively outlawed a dismantling of its illegal nuclear program in September.
Kim announced at the end of 2022 that he would order an “exponential increase of the country’s nuclear arsenal.”
A poll published by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in February found 71 percent of South Koreans want their country to develop nuclear weapons, as opposed to relying on nuclear-armed America. On Monday, the Korea JoongAng Daily cited a poll by the Asan Institute that found 64.3 percent of respondents supported a South Korean nuclear weapons program, though that support dropped about ten points when respondents were told about potential international sanctions on Seoul.
Yoon himself has suggested that South Korea should obtain nuclear weapons.
“The Republic of Korea could deploy tactical nuclear weapons or possess its own nukes,” Yoon said in January after Kim announced his “exponential increase.” That same month, Yoon claimed that he and Biden had discussed South Korea participating in “sharing, planning, and training” with nuclear assets, as opposed to sole American control of the weapons. The White House denied that it had agreed to such nuclear cooperation.
Sullivan took a question on Monday regarding growing support for a South Korean nuclear program at home.
“We will have the presidents — the two presidents — actually release a statement that deals with the question of extended deterrence, particularly in the context of the threat and the evolving threat posed by the DPRK,” he said. “I’m going to wait until we roll out that statement. … [b]ut what I will say is that we believe that that statement will send a very clear and demonstrable signal of the United States’ credibility when it comes to its extended deterrence commitments to the Republic of Korea and to the people of Korea.”
“And we also believe that the ROK has been a good steward of its non-proliferation obligations under the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and will continue to do so,” he concluded, suggesting America opposes the potential for a nuclear South Korea.
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