Within a few days, US President Joseph Biden is coming to Seoul to have a bilateral meeting with South Korea’s new leader, President Yoon Suk-yeol. It will be a great opportunity for the two presidents to strengthen the ties between the two countries. Indeed, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki announced, “This trip will advance the Biden-Harris administration’s rock-solid commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific and to US treaty alliances with the Republic of Korea and Japan.”
As multiple media sources have pointed out, Biden’s four-day trip to East Asia comes at a critical moment in his presidency, as he wishes to foster unity between the US and its allies in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Biden also seeks cooperation from South Korea and Japan for peacekeeping purposes in the Indo-Pacific area. Since Biden has a keen diplomatic sense and sensibility, we believe he will handle these issues skillfully.
The US president’s visit to Korea comes at a critical juncture for South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol, too, who is also seeking a stronger alliance with the US and Japan. In his inaugural speech, Yoon declared that he would correct the course of South Korea’s voyage toward liberal democracy, freedom and human rights. Yoon also emphasized the importance of intellectualism, common sense and anti-totalitarianism, in addition to valuing the market economy and free trade. In that sense, Biden’s visit to Korea will be an excellent opportunity for him to show the world where he is leading the Republic of Korea.
We all know that Trump and Moon were the worst partners ever. The readers of Mark Esper’s recent memoirs are appalled at the unnerving episodes during the Trump era. In “A Sacred Oath: Memoirs of a Secretary of Defense during Extraordinary Times,” Esper reveals behind-the-scenes stories about the deteriorating relationship between South Korea and the United States during the Trump era. According to Esper, Trump seriously considered the complete withdrawal of the US troops from South Korea and almost shut down the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense base, too.
Suppose Donald Trump had won the US election in 2020, the Korean people would have suffered a nightmare landscape. The abovementioned two things would have definitely happened, considering his “outlandish” and reckless foreign policy, as Esper puts it in his memoirs. The possibility unnerves us. Fortunately, the Trump era is over now, and the two scary things did not happen. Otherwise, South Korea would have lost its indispensable ally and fallen victim to foreign aggressions, just like today’s Ukraine.
Just before Biden’s visit to South Korea, North Korea launched three missiles again, presumably to hinder the summit meeting between the US and the South. When Yoon meets Biden, therefore, he should urge the US president to make the denuclearization of North Korea a top priority, even though Biden is currently preoccupied with the war in Ukraine. Furthermore, Yoon could consult with Biden about South Korea’s options to protect herself from the North’s nuclear threats, such as the nuclear armament of the South or protection by the US nuclear umbrella.
At the same time, Yoon could assure Biden that South Korea would actively participate in the organizations aiming at keeping peace in the Indo-Pacific or Ukraine. It is an ally’s duty to work together in times of crisis. It would be shameful if we turned our back when America needs help, and yet expect her to help us when we are in trouble. A relationship is reciprocal. Besides, as a “developed country,” we have the obligation to help the needy, defend the right cause and contribute to world peace.
Therefore, it is only natural that South Korea joins the group of countries, with which it shares the same values and ideals. It would not be right if we were reluctant to do it, or keep silent for economic reasons to international disruptions caused by totalitarian countries. Under any circumstances, we cannot trade our integrity and value judgment with monetary values. In fact, it is a matter of principle: We cannot turn our head and pretend we do not see it when a big country invades a small country, especially in the 21st century. Besides, if we want to be a global leader, we have to assume the entailing responsibility.
When President Yoon meets President Biden, he should remind the US president of the importance and strategic values of South Korea as an ally. Then, he and Biden could conjure up something the two countries could do together in the future, something mutually beneficial and something that can promote world peace. Moreover, they can discuss backup plans, just in case South Korea encounters economic difficulties by joining the US and its allies. In addition, Yoon should strongly urge Biden to reinstate the expired currency swap between the two countries, which will greatly help the Korean economy recuperate in times of financial crisis.
We hope the bilateral meeting is fruitful and rewarding. We also hope that the summit meeting shows the world the “rock-solid” alliance between South Korea and the US.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.