KOREA CHAIR EXPLAINS • 18/03/2021
By Ramon Pacheco Pardo
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have wrapped up the second day of their visit to South Korea. Blinken then departed to Alaska for a meeting with China, while Austin is staying in South Korea for a third day before travelling to India. The visit by Blinken and Austin followed on from their two-day stay in Japan, which kick-started their first overseas trip since the Joe Biden administration took office. The fact that Japan and South Korea were the first two countries visited by Blinken and Austin shows the importance that the Biden administration affords to its allies in East Asia and, more broadly, in the Indo-Pacific region. In this respect, the Biden administration seems to see Seoul as a key partner as it tries to shore up Washington’s foreign policy and international standing following from the Donald Trump administration. To underscore this point, the visit by Blinken and Austin included a meeting with President Moon Jae-in in the Blue House as well as a 2+2 ministerial meeting with Minister of Foreign Affairs Chung Eui-yong and Minister of Defense Suh Wook; the latter was the first 2+2 since 2016, when the Barack Obama administration was in office. Also, South Korea and the US are set to launch a director general-level Bilateral Policy Dialogue to discuss a range of issues regularly.
What were the key issues under discussion?
The current state and future of the ROK-US alliance and North Korea featured prominently during Blinken’s and Austin’s South Korea visit. The visit served Seoul and Washington to seal the new Special Measures Agreement (SMA), which determines South Korea’s payments to cover the costs of US troops stationed in the country. SMA negotiations had been a source of open friction with the Trump administration. Furthermore, the visit coincided with the end of the long-standing annual springtime South Korea-US military exercises to bolster preparedness in case of war with North Korea. Seoul and Washington also reaffirmed their commitment to work together at the global level and in cooperation with other partners.
With regards to North Korea, Blinken’s and Austin’s visit came in the midst of a policy review process by the Biden administration. The visiting delegation reiterated its focus on North Korea’s denuclearisation and the human rights situation in the country, whereas Seoul emphasised denuclearisation and peace in the Korean Peninsula. There were divisions regarding whether to use the term ‘denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula’ or ‘denuclearisation of North Korea’, with the US side using both during its visit and South Korea using the more traditional first term only. But ultimately, the two allies agree that North Korea should take steps towards denuclearisation. Crucially, the Biden administration has indicated that it is willing to use diplomacy to deal with North Korea, which has been welcome by the Moon government. In fact, the Biden administration has reached out to the Kim Jong-un regime in recent weeks.
North Korea sought to insert itself in Blinken’s and Austin’s visit to South Korea by announcing that it will ignore the US’s overtures unless it drops its ‘hostile policy’. This can be seen as Pyongyang’s first official message to the Biden administration since it took office in January. The North Korean statement came after Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un, threatened to withdraw from an inter-Korean tension-reducing agreement signed in 2018 due to the South Korea-US joint military drills. In any case, it seems that Pyongyang has taken a wait-and-see approach until the Biden administration completes its policy review, leaving the door open both to dialogue and to ramp up tensions.
What other issues were discussed?
China was another topic of discussion during the visit by Blinken and Austin. The Biden administration would like the Moon government to commit to deepening US-South Korea ties to address what it sees as China’s threatening behaviour. South Korea, however, is undergoing an internal discussion regarding whether to join the Quad and other initiatives to deal with China. Following the 2+2 meeting, South Korea and the US issued a joint statement indicating that the two allies will ‘continue to work together to create a free and open Indo-Pacific region through cooperation with the ROK’s New Southern Policy’. This suggests that South Korea will indeed cooperate with the Quad countries in areas such as dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, but it will continue to think whether to join the Quad. Indeed, this was the policy during the Trump administration years. But the two sides also emphasised ‘their shared commitment to maintaining peace and stability, unimpeded lawful commerce and respect for international law’. The last two are implicit references to China, much like the recent Quad joint statement did not mention China by name. This underscores that South Korea shares the concerns of Quad members regarding some of China’s activities.
US-South Korea-Japan trilateralism was a last important topic under discussion during Blinken’s and Austin’s visit. The Biden administration has openly talked about boosting trilateral cooperation to bolster the US’s position vis-à-vis China. Both the Moon government and the Suga Yoshihide government have expressed their commitment to cooperate together with the US. Seoul has also indicated in recent weeks its willingness to address disputes related Japan’s use of Korean sex slaves (or ‘comfort women’) and slave labour during World War II. But tensions between Tokyo and Seoul remain, and it is unclear whether they can be solved any time soon. In any case, South Korea and Japan have continued to cooperate in areas such as counter-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden. So there could be scope for cooperation closer to home even if historical disputes remain unresolved.