WASHINGTON, March 7 (Korea Bizwire) — South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s upcoming trip to the United States will underscore the vital role South Korea can and seeks to play in dealing with various challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, U.S. experts said Tuesday.
The trip will also likely lead to concrete steps or “deliverables” that can help mitigate North Korea’s evolving nuclear and ballistic missile threats, they noted.
Victor Cha, vice president and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the upcoming summit “will mark Korea’s return to a prominent role in Asia and beyond.”
“Korea went through a period when it was disconnected from Japan, hedging with China, and solely focused on North Korea. Yoon has changed this in a very short period, bringing Korea back into the fold. And just in time,” he told Yonhap in a written interview.
Seoul announced plans earlier this week to set up a new private fund that will help compensate Korean victims of Japan’s forced labor during its 1910-45 colonial rule of Korea in an attempt to put the thorny historical issue behind.
Tokyo welcomed the plan with its own set of measures to mend ties with Seoul that included the removal of export restrictions against South Korea that have been in place since 2019.
Cha said the decision by Seoul was “huge,” as South Korea pushes to become a “global pivotal state” and also rein in advancements in North Korea’s nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction development programs.
“The alternative would have been to let the relationship fester, liquidate the Japanese assets and further plunge Japan-South Korea relations and trilateral relations (with the U.S.) into the deep abyss,” said Cha.
“North Korea, China and Russia would have loved that.”
Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, agreed Seoul’s decision places the U.S. and its allies in a better position to tackle challenges posed by countries such as North Korea and China.
“Yoon has clearly aligned South Korea with the United States and other like-minded democracies in opposing China’s coercive tactics to intimidate Asian nations. Strong alliances are in the strategic interests of the United States, augmenting the nation’s military, intelligence, and diplomatic capabilities,” said Klingner.
“The U.S. should use Yoon’s visit to underscore the strength of the bilateral relationship that’s based on shared values, principles, and objectives. Doing so would both reassure America’s allies and deter its adversaries,” he added.
Patrick Cronin, chair for Asia-Pacific Security at the Hudson Institute, said Yoon’s visit to the U.S. will send a clear message that “South Korea will be increasingly pivotal to economic development and security” in the Indo-Pacific region.
“The main message is that on the 70th anniversary of the U.S.-ROK alliance, we are humbled by past sacrifices and achievements but bold about blazing a future that brings possibilities, prosperity and security,” said Cronin, referring to South Korea by its official name, the Republic of Korea.
He added the Yoon-Biden summit will also send a message to North Korea that “aggression will be thwarted, but sincere diplomacy will be reciprocated.”
North Korea has conducted at least nine intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests in less than a year, with its latest ICBM test taking place last month.
Pyongyang also fired an unprecedented 69 ballistic missiles in 2022, marking a new record of ballistic missiles launched in a single year.
Amid the escalating tension with the North, Seoul and Washington have been working to strengthen U.S. extended deterrence, which refers to U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea using all its military capabilities, including nuclear weapons, when necessary.
Cronin insisted the Yoon-Biden summit will help reassure South Koreans of U.S. commitment by showing that the “allies are crafting a tailored plan for how to execute extended deterrence in a crisis.”
Cha, the CSIS expert, anticipated more concrete outcomes, saying, “I expect deliverables on extended deterrence and economic security, the two most important issues.”
Harry Kazianis, president of Rogue States Project, noted Yoon’s trips here may help bring the U.S.’ attention back to North Korea.
“President Yoon is coming to Washington with one mission in mind: To get Team Biden to actually care about the Korean Peninsula and the North Koran nuclear threat on some meaningful level,” he argued.
“Washington these days is completely focused on matters at home, the war in Ukraine and the China threat,” he added.
“Sadly, North Korea gets very little attention and there is little interest in trying to get Pyongyang to give up nuclear weapons.”