Argument

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South Korea Isn’t a Junior Partner for America

Biden needs to show that Washington treats the alliance seriously when Moon visits.

By , a Washington-based attorney and nonresident fellow of the Sejong Institute.
A television news program reporting on the U.S. presidential election shows images of then-U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at a railway station in Seoul on Nov. 9, 2020.
A television news program reporting on the U.S. presidential election shows images of then-U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at a railway station in Seoul on Nov. 9, 2020. JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images

On May 21, South Korean President Moon Jae-in will visit the United States to meet with President Joe Biden, making Moon the second head of state to greet Biden in person. That’s an appropriate priority for South Korea, one of the most significant nations for U.S. foreign policy as Washington’s critical concerns move to East Asia. Moon’s visit to Washington would be the right time for the Biden White House to announce a new era of the 68-year-old alliance.

South Korea is a wealthy democracy standing at the front line of the liberal world order, bordering North Korea and a puddle jump away from China. Yet South Korea’s physical location is but one component of its geopolitical implications. In the past year, South Korea’s tech industry has demonstrated how the country is essential to the global and U.S. economy and, by extension, its politics and national security.

The recent semiconductor crunch shows South Korea’s critical importance in the global supply chain. Because of worldwide lockdowns, the demand for semiconductors—essential for consumer electronics, office equipment and cloud computing—has risen to unprecedented heights. Yet the supply for semiconductors cannot keep up with the demand largely because of the bottlenecks at the fabrication level—namely, the process of assembling the physical chips in accordance with the designs of other companies—which is dominated by South Korean and Taiwanese firms. The geopolitical implications of this stronghold by South Korea and Taiwan are so significant that some analysts have called the two East Asian countries the “New OPEC,” with chips playing the part of petroleum for the 21st century. With the newly announced plan to invest $450 billion in the semiconductor industry over the next decade, South Korea is unlikely to relinquish this advantage in the near term.

On May 21, South Korean President Moon Jae-in will visit the United States to meet with President Joe Biden, making Moon the second head of state to greet Biden in person. That’s an appropriate priority for South Korea, one of the most significant nations for U.S. foreign policy as Washington’s critical concerns move to East Asia. Moon’s visit to Washington would be the right time for the Biden White House to announce a new era of the 68-year-old alliance.

South Korea is a wealthy democracy standing at the front line of the liberal world order, bordering North Korea and a puddle jump away from China. Yet South Korea’s physical location is but one component of its geopolitical implications. In the past year, South Korea’s tech industry has demonstrated how the country is essential to the global and U.S. economy and, by extension, its politics and national security.

The recent semiconductor crunch shows South Korea’s critical importance in the global supply chain. Because of worldwide lockdowns, the demand for semiconductors—essential for consumer electronics, office equipment and cloud computing—has risen to unprecedented heights. Yet the supply for semiconductors cannot keep up with the demand largely because of the bottlenecks at the fabrication level—namely, the process of assembling the physical chips in accordance with the designs of other companies—which is dominated by South Korean and Taiwanese firms. The geopolitical implications of this stronghold by South Korea and Taiwan are so significant that some analysts have called the two East Asian countries the “New OPEC,” with chips playing the part of petroleum for the 21st century. With the newly announced plan to invest $450 billion in the semiconductor industry over the next decade, South Korea is unlikely to relinquish this advantage in the near term.

South Korea’s prominence in the electric vehicle (EV) battery space also illustrates the integration between the economies of the United States and South Korea. This year, the massive litigation between two leading South Korean companies, LG Energy Solution and SK Innovation, sent tremors throughout the auto industry, as LG supplied the batteries for General Motors and Hyundai/Kia EVs while SK supplied Ford and Volkswagen. Most of this battle between Korea’s corporate titans occurred in the United States. LG and SK sued each other before the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC), attempting to curb each other’s factories located in Michigan, for LG, and Georgia, for SK. When SK lost the lawsuit and faced the potential closure of its Georgia plant, top politicians in the state including Gov. Brian Kemp and Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock lobbied the White House on SK’s behalf. In the end, Biden—who had the authority to veto the ruling by the ITC—leaned on the two companies until LG accepted $1.8 billion from SK to settle the case, as Biden’s own $2.3 trillion infrastructure program also depended on the EV supply chain for which both LG and SK were crucial links. The survival of SK’s factory is Georgia, a critical swing state, would also help Biden’s chance at reelection come 2024.

South Korea is deeply entangled with the United States, but the alliance itself needs a new framework. Unfortunately, it is still a common attitude in Washington foreign-policy circles to treat South Korea as one of the chess pieces in dealing with North Korea or as a junior partner to Japan through which U.S. foreign policy in Asia is run. This is a mistake: Given its importance, South Korea must be evaluated on its own terms, not as an auxiliary player.

South Korea is deeply entangled with the United States, but the alliance itself needs a new framework.

Indeed, failure to take South Korea seriously has hurt U.S. foreign policy in Asia. Judging South Korea solely based on how closely its plans for North Korea have aligned with the U.S. plan has caused unnecessary strife in the alliance. The impression that Washington gave that it valued the relationship with Tokyo more than its relationship with Seoul hampered the trilateral cooperation among the United States, Japan, and South Korea, as Seoul suspected that Washington was forcing South Korea to subordinate its interest, such as finding justice and reconciliation for imperial Japan’s war crimes, to Tokyo’s.

Fortunately, it appears that the Biden administration recognizes South Korea’s importance. In addition to hosting Moon early in Biden’s term, the White House took care to send many rounds of high-ranking officials to Seoul, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Most recently, the Seoul visit of Avril Haines, the U.S. director of national intelligence, made headlines in the Korean press as a positive sign for the strength of the alliance, as it is unusual for an intelligence official to make a public international tour. All of this augurs a successful summit meeting between Biden and Moon. But Biden can build on this strong start, especially when it comes to the two biggest problems facing the alliance: North Korea and China.

For many Korea watchers, the Biden administration’s North Korea policy thus far has been a disappointment. The administration’s refusal to appoint a special representative for North Korea, succeeding former Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun under the Trump administration, demonstrates the lack of a sense of urgency. This reflects particularly poorly given that in April, China appointed the prominent diplomat Liu Xiaoming to the equivalent post within its Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Despite taking months, the administration’s review of North Korea policy did not offer any new approach other than the boilerplate affirmation for practical diplomacy. Meanwhile, the White House committed unforced errors by appearing to sideline Seoul in its formulation of North Korea policy, such as by including the North Korean nuclear issue as a priority in the mission statement for the Quad—a curious choice for an organization whose supposed function is to stand against an increasingly illiberal China, as the mission statement is silent on pressing China-related issues like the persecution of the Uyghurs or the crackdown in Hong Kong. Further, the over-emphasis on trilateral cooperation among the United States, South Korea, and Japan with respect to North Korea is grating, as South Korea is plainly a more direct stakeholder than Japan in establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula.

The Biden-Moon summit would be a good occasion for a course correction. Washington cannot afford to be passive on the North Korea issue. Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons will not go away if the United States ignores them; instead, the arsenal will only grow in size and sophistication as more time passes. Even if the United States deprioritizes dealing with the North, Kim Jong Un can force his way up on Biden’s to-do list by firing another missile or testing a nuclear weapon, putting the U.S. response on the back foot.

The Korean public overwhelmingly favors the United States over China.

Meanwhile, Moon thus far has invested a tremendous amount of political capital in establishing inter-Korean peace and is eager to leave a lasting legacy before his term ends next year. A good start may be Biden’s formal affirmation of the 2018 Singapore agreement, in which the United States and North Korea pledged to “establish new U.S.-DPRK relations” and “build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” To kick-start the stalled inter-Korean diplomacy, Biden could also offer a formal declaration to end the Korean War (which is technically in the state of indefinite cease-fire) or limited sanctions relief for selected inter-Korean economic projects, such as the inter-Korean railway, in exchange for the initial steps in North Korea’s denuclearization. All of the foregoing is consistent with the Biden administration’s stated North Korea policy that emphasizes a “calibrated, practical approach to diplomacy.”

As to China, the United States should avoid the temptation to apply a Manichean framework and demand total fealty from South Korea. The occasional claims that South Korea is drifting toward China and in the process of ditching its alliance with the United States, particularly under a liberal administration like Moon’s, have no basis in reality. The Korean public, including liberal voters, overwhelmingly favor the United States over China. In critical areas like the high-tech supply chain, South Korea has already chosen the United States: In addition to the EV battery plants in Michigan and Georgia discussed earlier, Samsung Electronics is planning to invest $17 billion for a new semiconductor plant in Austin, Texas.

However, given the country’s proximity to China and its massive economy, South Korea will seek to avoid directly antagonizing Beijing to the extent practicable. The memories of the THAAD row remain fresh in the minds of Koreans, when China struck South Korea with harsh economic sanctions for deploying the missile defense system to protect the U.S. forces stationed in Korea while the Trump administration did nothing. Biden may be able to restore the broken trust that the United States will stand up for its ally against China, but that restoration will take time. Until then, it is unwise for the White House to push the Moon administration to take public stances that will come across as opposing China, such as joining the Quad or declaring support for Taiwan. The better course would be to build stronger bridges in areas that are less likely to invite controversy, such as cooperation in COVID-19 vaccine production or reducing carbon emissions to respond to climate change.

It is important for Washington to take a long view on the alliance. China will remain the primary challenge for the United States for decades, and it needs South Korea by its side through those decades. As the main theater of U.S. diplomacy moves from Europe to Asia, a prosperous Asian democracy like South Korea is as important to the United States as any European ally. With the right approach, the Biden-Moon summit could be remembered as a moment when the United States won the 21st century.

S. Nathan Park is a Washington-based attorney and nonresident fellow of the Sejong Institute.

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