South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s visit to Washington in late April will provide an opportunity for the U.S. to affirm and strengthen its bilateral relationship with an important ally.
The Biden administration should receive Yoon with all the trappings of a state visit, the highest-level visit by a head of state, and Congress should invite Yoon to address a joint session.
The timing of the visit is particularly apropos, since 2023 marks the 70th anniversary of the creation of the U.S.-South Korean military alliance.
Upon his inauguration last May, Yoon energized bilateral relations with Washington and brought South Korean foreign and security policies into close alignment with those of the United States.
Yoon declared that a strong alliance with the United States would serve as the foundation for South Korea’s foreign relations with North Korea, Japan, and China. Last year, Presidents Yoon and Joe Biden upgraded the relationship to a global comprehensive strategic alliance.
Yoon adopted a pragmatic, principled policy toward North Korea, in which he offered the North extensive benefits, but conditioned them on Pyongyang’s agreement to incremental denuclearization. The approach, consistent with that of the United States and Japan, rejected calls for prematurely providing concessions in the vain hope that doing so would induce Pyongyang to resume dialogue.
Under Yoon, South Korea is now willing to respond to North Korean provocations with resolute displays of military strength. Yoon agreed to the Biden administration’s request to resume bilateral combined military exercises, which the U.S. had unilaterally curtailed since 2018.
Yoon and Biden agreed to expand the scope and scale of those combined military exercises, as well as the rotational deployment of U.S. strategic assets—bombers, aircraft carriers, and dual-capable aircraft—to the Korean Peninsula.
Yoon has sought to improve relations with Japan as a means of enhancing regional cooperation against shared security threats and regional challenges. Yoon advocates a “forward-looking partnership,” despite contentious historic issues and sovereignty disputes that strained bilateral relations.
Highlighting shared values of liberal democracy and human rights, Seoul vowed continued diplomatic efforts to restore trust.
While commemorating the 104th anniversary of the March 1st Independence Movement, Yoon boldly described Japan as having “transformed from a militaristic aggressor of the past into a partner that shares the same universal values” as South Korea.
In the past, South Korean presidents had used the event to highlight the brutality of the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945
Yoon paid homage to the South Korean patriots of the past but, rather than playing to nationalist themes, he instead commendably emphasized the necessity of working with Japan to overcome current threats.
The United States has long urged its two Northeast Asian allies to overcome historic issues to enable trilateral cooperation against current challenges.
South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. resumed trilateral military exercises in 2022 after a five-year hiatus. The three countries engaged in anti-submarine and ballistic missile exercises to enhance security coordination against the common North Korean threat.
The three countries also agreed to initiate real-time exchanges of information on North Korean missile threats.
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. Under Yoon, South Korea is more likely to adopt a firmer approach toward countering Chinese transgressions.
Yoon has pledged that South Korea will assume a larger security role to protect freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. In December, the Yoon administration released Seoul’s first Indo-Pacific strategy, delineating policies for South Korea to assume a more influential and pivotal role commensurate with its diplomatic, security, and economic strengths.
Strong alliances are in the strategic interests of the United States, augmenting the nation’s military, intelligence, and diplomatic capabilities. South Korea is a stalwart ally that has fought alongside U.S. forces in every major conflict since the Korean War.
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.
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