South Korea’s National Assembly Speaker Kim Jin-pyo and US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday reaffirmed the two countries‘ alliance and will to strengthen cooperation and bring about the denuclearization of North Korea. Pelosi, the first US House speaker to visit Korea in 20 years, arrived in Seoul late Wednesday after a stop in Taiwan.
Taiwan and China went noticeably unmentioned throughout Pelosi’s visit to Korea.
President Yoon Suk-yeol, who is on summer holiday, spoke to Pelosi on the phone for around 40 minutes instead of meeting in person. South Korea is the only country where the head of state hasn‘t arranged a meeting with Pelosi, who is second in line to the US presidency, during her high-profile Asia trip.
Following their meeting, Kim and Pelosi issued a joint press statement summarizing their talk that began around noon and lasted for about an hour.
At the brief press event, Kim said that Pelosi’s visit, which follows that of US President Joe Biden in May, would “go down as a symbolic and significant milestone in South Korea-US relations.”
“Today Madam Speaker and I had an earnest discussion about the role of the parliaments in strengthening the South Korea-US relationship in the realms of security, economy and technology,” he said.
He added that during Thursday‘s talk, the two have agreed “to support South Korea and US governments’ efforts for denuclearization and stability” through a “powerful and expansive strategy to deter the escalating levels of threats of North Korea.”
“When we come and travel as a delegation, our three known pillars are security, economy and governance. In all three of those areas, the US-South Korea relationship is very strong, and we learn from each other,” Pelosi said.
“The US-Republic of Korea relationship is special to us,” she said, adding that the relationship, which “began from urgency and security many years ago, has become the warmest of friendships.”
She went on, “I‘ve been here before and met with members of the parliament in the past. We want to strengthen that interparliamentary role as we work together as countries.”
Before closing her statement, Pelosi touched on the House resolution on the Japanese colonial era sexual slavery known as “comfort women.”
“In our previous visit, pre-COVID, 2015, we were able to take pride in passing the (resolution) relating to the ’comfort women.‘ It had some friends, and it had, shall we say, some doubters, but we were not in doubt about that,” she said. “I do want to say it is a matter of special pride to us.”
Breaking usual protocol, they did not take any questions from reporters.
South Korea’s parliamentary official later told a closed-door briefing that the two sides have agreed not to answer press questions due to a “tight schedule.”
At the same briefing, the official, who requested anonymity, said that “there weren‘t any comments about China or Taiwan” during the meeting of the South Korean and US parliamentary speakers.
The official, who was present at the meeting at the National Assembly and the luncheon that followed, said that “remarks that were interpreted did not mention China or Taiwan.”
“I don’t think discussing China or Taiwan was deemed necessary by either side at today‘s meeting,” he said.
The official said the main points of Thursday’s discussion were interparliamentary cooperation, such as possible legislation for improving health care access for Korean Americans who fought in the Vietnam war.
As for Yoon, he held a telephone conversation with Pelosi later in the day.
During a phone conversation, Yoon praised Pelosi for her long-standing dedication to promoting “free democracy and human rights” and asked for “continued support for the development of the global comprehensive strategic alliance” between Korea and the United States, according to the presidential office.
Pelosi and the delegation of the US Congress replied that the importance of the Korea-US alliance as a key pillar for regional peace and stability is growing and that the US Congress will make active efforts to develop the alliance, the office said.
Referring to the Korea-US summit held in Seoul on May 21, Yoon also said that he promised to work closely with President Joe Biden and the US Congress to “develop a global comprehensive strategic alliance” in the future.
Referring to Pelosi‘s visit to the Panmunjom Joint Security Area, Yoon said that “Pelosi’s visit will be a sign of deterrence against North Korea” and wished for a successful end to the Asian tour.
Yoon said he was looking forward to meeting with Pelosi on the occasion of his next visit to the US and having in-depth discussions to strengthen the ROK-US alliance. Pelosi replied that she is looking forward to meeting with Yoon in the future.
They did not discuss sensitive issues such as the US-led Chip 4 Alliance or China-Taiwan tensions, the presidential office said.
The presidential office said the decision to hold a phone conversation instead of a meeting was made “in consideration of overall national interests,” hinting that the decision was made not to provoke China.
Yoon‘s chief spokesman Choi Young-bum said, “I received many phone calls from reporters whether the decision was made because of China. The decision was made in view of the total interest of the country.”
Without explaining it further, he added, “It’s up to the media to interpret it.”
There is no change in the fact that the Korea-US alliance is the top priority, he added. ‘What we need is principle’
Pelosi‘s visit follows on the heels of her trip to Taiwan, which created greater instability between the US and China, sparking an escalation of military activities in the Taiwan Strait. The higher the US-China tension over the Taiwan issue, the greater the demand for Korea’s position to be clarified.
Experts say it is essential to clearly set Korea‘s diplomatic stance amid tensions in Northeast Asia, which is hard to predict.
Kim Hyun-wook, professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, said, “We need first to define what our vital interest is and what strategies and purposes we should move forward amid the security situation and threats.”
“After that, we can come up with a specific policy action about how far we will go and how far we will not go,” he said. This should include a scenario about whether the Korean military should be dispatched if there is an armed conflict and war between the US and China in the Taiwan Strait.
Park Won-gon, a professor in the department of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University, also said a set of principles are needed in the long term because the conflict between the US and China will not end soon but could last as long as 100 years.
Instead of making plans on a case-by-case basis, Korea should set a principle -- whether it is a liberal international order or a rule-based international order -- that fits its national identity, he said.
“And we should show China the direction we are going in,” Park said. “This may spark protest from China, but if we continue to do it with a level of principle, China can accept that, to a certain extent, Korea is going in that direction.”
In the past, we could maximize our profits by not paying for “strategic ambiguity,” but now that is no longer the case, the professor said. Korea should figure out the cost and persuade China with principle to make it less expensive, he added. “There, we sometimes have to be prepared to pay for it.”