South Korea on stage

By Marvin Ott

Last week, President Biden met with South Korea’s President Moon — only his second in-person summit with a foreign leader. Inevitably, the lead item on the agenda was the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear/missile programs. No one wanted to say it outright, but the prospect of any progress on North Korea was essentially zero. This meeting took place against the background of four years of Trump theatrics with North Korea’s totalitarian dictator, Kim Jong Un. If you recall, it all began with Trumpian threats of “fire and fury” in response to Kim’s threats to mount a nuclear attack on the U.S. That was followed by a sudden and dramatic volte face. Trump and Kim met three times with much handshaking and mutual bonhomie. Trump announced that his murderous counterpart had sent him “beautiful letters” and they had “fallen in love.” It all played out like a bad comic opera. The threats were just bombast and the meetings actually produced — nothing. While Trump was in love, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal doubled in size.

Against this bizarre backdrop, Biden and Moon pledged to keep working toward some sort of diplomatic breakthrough with the North. In fact, the Biden team has no expectation that anything useful will happen in the near future. The reason is simple: Pyongyang has decided that its nuclear/missile programs are vital national assets and it simply won’t give them up. U.S. strategy now amounts to watching and waiting as the already dire economic circumstances in North Korea deteriorate still further. Maybe, at some point, the situation will become so desperate that Kim’s calculation will change. Meanwhile, the threat posed by North Korean ICBMs will be managed with increasingly sophisticated American anti-missile capabilities — and Kim’s knowledge that an actual attack on the U.S. would result in the obliteration of North Korea.

The real agenda at the recent summit involved U.S.-South Korean relations. The staff work that preceded the meeting had obviously been thorough and the results were impressive. The U.S. pledged to assist South Korea’s COVID inoculation program — including vaccinations for 550,000 Korean soldiers working closely with U.S. forces in Korea. For its part, Seoul produced a commitment by major Korean technology firms to invest up to $40 billion in high-tech manufacturing in the U.S. This dovetails with the White House pledge to bring key manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. — and away from China. The administration also lifted existing restrictions on South Korea’s missile programs and set the stage for close technical cooperation between Seoul and Washington regarding the next generation of medium-range missiles. Both countries agreed that Korea would become a partner with NASA in future space programs. Also, in a gesture of considerable strategic significance, Seoul will become increasingly engaged with the existing “Quad” countries (the U.S., Japan, Australia and India) in security cooperation in Asia. [It is worth noting that Britain, host of the forthcoming meeting of the G-7 countries, has invited Seoul to attend.]

Besides the substantive achievements of the Biden-Moon summit, the meetings were notable for the easy cordiality evinced by the two leaders. The time allotted to discussions (conducted in English) was greatly exceeded — not because of problems, but because the two men enjoyed each other’s company. Also, President Moon attended a Medal of Honor ceremony for a 94-year-old GI veteran of the Korean War — as well as the dedication of a wall at the Korean War Memorial listing both American and Korean war dead.

All this signals something else — something involving the very identity of South Korea. The bond forged in countless interactions between soldiers of both countries, the presence of tens of thousands of Korean students in the U.S., and the increasing collaboration between U.S. and Korean corporations is something beyond the usual. Korea is an East Asian country with a culture rooted in China. But the largest religious affiliation in Korea has long been Christianity. And lest we forget, the Republic of Korea is a treaty ally of the U.S. that has hosted nearly 50,000 U.S. military personnel since the Korean War. Korean strategists have long aspired to join the U.S. in an active security role in Asia, beyond the Korean Peninsula. At the same time, China remains Korea’s next-door neighbor and its most important trading partner.

It all adds up to an interesting and complex dynamic between Washington and Seoul. As the U.S. shifts its strategic focus and priorities to Asia, the Republic of Korea (ROK) seems certain to occupy a growing role in American thinking and policy.

Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.

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