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US-South Korea State Visit Talks to Include Deterrence Against N. Korea

A view of a test launch of a new solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Hwasong-18 at an undisclosed location in this still image of a photo used in a video released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) April 14, 2023. KCNA via REUTERS TV/via REUTERS
A view of a test launch of a new solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Hwasong-18 at an undisclosed location in this still image of a photo used in a video released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) April 14, 2023. KCNA via REUTERS TV/via REUTERS

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol will be in Washington later this month to discuss Seoul's efforts to upgrade extended deterrence against North Korea and Washington's goal of diversifying supply chain networks away from China, according to experts.

President Joe Biden is scheduled to host Yoon on April 26 for a state visit that will include a dinner and celebration marking the 70th anniversary of the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

The state visit is the second to be hosted by the Biden administration and the first for a South Korean president since 2011.

"State visits are an extremely big deal because state visits are only given to countries that you feel you're incredibly close to," according to Dennis Wilder, senior director for East Asian affairs at the White House's National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration.

"What it symbolizes is the success of democracy, the success of a military alliance that has kept the peace in a very troubled region and the tremendous economic success that comes from that kind of bilateral relationship," Wilder told VOA Korean.

FILE - US President Joe Biden, right, meets with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol at the People's House, May 21, 2022, in Seoul.
FILE - US President Joe Biden, right, meets with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol at the People's House, May 21, 2022, in Seoul.

The U.S. helped South Korea rise from the rubble of the Korean War of 1950-53 to become a democracy that is one of world's top economic powers. Wilder called it "one of the great success stories of American foreign policy."

The Biden-Yoon summit follows the leak of Pentagon documents that reportedly revealed that the U.S. spied on South Korean officials discussing whether artillery shells Washington requested would end up in Ukraine. Seoul maintains a policy of not sending lethal aid to Kiev.

The issue, according to experts, is unlikely to overshadow the summit or damage the alliance.

"Given the recent leaks of information, there will be efforts by Biden and others to reassure the South Koreans of the very strong trusting relationship between our two countries," Wilder said.

Andrew Yeo, the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies at the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, said Biden and Yoon "may also issue greater clarity on arms procurement and defense industrial policy."

Experts said a likely priority for Biden and Yoon will be the so-called "extended deterrence" strategy for defending South Korea against the North. Other agenda items are likely to include political, economic, security and people-to-people ties, according to the White House.

Extended deterrence

"Of the many important issues in the alliance, perhaps the highest priority will be to make progress on extended deterrence, reassurance to the Republic of Korea that the American nuclear umbrella is both effective and assured," said Daniel Russel, who served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Obama administration.

He is now vice president for International Security and Diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI). South Korea's official name is the Republic of Korea (ROK).

U.S. extended deterrence promises the use of wide-ranging military assets including nuclear weapons to provide a security guarantee against threats including ones from North Korea.

The summit comes at a time of high tensions on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea launched what it claimed to be a new solid fuel, Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Friday.

It was the regime's third ICBM test this year after last year's record number of ballistic missile launches conducted in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

As North Korea's threats escalate, many in South Korea want more security assurances from the U.S. Earlier this year Yoon floated the idea of Seoul having nuclear weapons, a remark he dismissed later.

Gary Samore, former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction during the Obama administration, said, "The U.S. recognizes that it has to do more to reassure South Korea that extended deterrence is credible."

Biden and Yoon could discuss increasing U.S. strategic assets in the region and joint nuclear planning involving "potential nuclear use and incorporating or institutionalizing a South Korean role in the deployment and consideration of nuclear scenarios in East Asia," Samore said.

At an integrated defense dialogue between South Korea and the U.S. in Washington last week, representatives discussed "the revision of the ROK-U.S. Tailored Deterrence Strategy" against North Korea's advancing nuclear and missile threats, according to a joint statement released by the U.S. Defense Department and South Korea's Defense Ministry.

The nations agreed to bolster extended deterrence with "information sharing, joint planning and execution, consultation mechanisms, and crisis communication" and to "accelerate expanding the ROK's role under the combined defense system," continued the joint statement.

Yeo of Brookings said, "At the broad level, the two governments want to demonstrate to their respective publics that the U.S.-ROK alliance is ironclad, and the U.S. commitment to South Korea remains credible."

Trilateral drills

Biden and Yoon are also likely to plan for bolstering trilateral military drills with Japan, experts said.

The Biden-Yoon summit comes after Seoul and Tokyo put historical disputes behind them and resumed their ties. South Korea and Japan held their first summit in 12 years on March 16.

"President Biden recognizes and appreciates the value of the important steps taken by the Yoon administration in rebuilding ties with Japan — an urgent priority as the three countries face mounting security challenges, particularly North Korea's expanding nuclear and missile programs," said Russel.

The three countries held joint naval missile defense drills on Monday aimed at responding to North Korean threats. The exercises came after trilateral talks on Friday in Washington in which defense officials agreed to hold regular missile defense and anti-submarine drills to deter North Korean threats.

High-tech facilities

Another focus for Biden and Yoon is the high-tech infrastructure investments made in the U.S. by South Korean companies, experts said.

"On diversifying the supply chain, South Korea has turned out to be one of the most important countries for efforts to reduce reliance on China in areas like batteries and electric cars and semiconductors," said Samore. "I'm sure that will be a big part of the summit agenda."

Robert Rapson, who served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul from 2018 to 2021, said, "President Yoon will be seeking tangible relief from the U.S. on some of the most stringent regulations" that "impact flagship Korean companies such as Samsung, Hyundai and SK."

Top executives of those conglomerates, including automaker Hyundai Motor Group and chipmakers Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix are expected to travel with Yoon. The South Korean companies last year announced plans to invest more than $200 billion combined to build production plants in the U.S. Also expected to travel with Yoon is an executive of Poongsan Group, an ammunitions manufacturer.

Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center's Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy project, said one of the results Yoon could seek from the summit is "resolving South Korean concerns with regard to EV and battery restrictions on Korean exports and a roadmap for expanded technology cooperation."

South Korean companies have been concerned that the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) Biden signed into law in August will hamper their sales. The IRA, aimed to reduce U.S. dependence on China for EV batteries, limited a tax credit of up to $7,500 to EVs assembled in North America that have batteries that use a certain percentage of minerals mined and process in the U.S.

The U.S. Treasury announced a new guideline relaxing the rules on March 31, which South Korea welcomed.