Will the new Yoon Suk-yeol presidency in South Korea positively impact Seoul’s ties with Washington? Apparently, prospects thereof look fine.
Observers say that relations between the United States and South Korea have traditionally been very strong. On January 1, 1949, the United States recognized South Korea (Republic of Korea) as the sole legitimate government of Korea. On March 25, 1949, Washington established diplomatic relations with Seoul.
When the North Korean forces invaded the South in June 1950, the US fought on its UN-sponsored side. In accordance with the 1953 treaty, signed at the end of the Korean War, the United States has since been committed to helping the South defend itself, particularly from the North.
Today, there are about 29,000 United States troops stationed in South Korea. The US has its Camp Carroll Army Base in Daegu City. South Korea is dependent on the US military for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).
On its part, South Korea has aided the US in almost every crisis since the Vietnam War. At the 2009 G-20 London summit, then US President Barack H. Obama called South Korea “one of America’s closest allies and greatest friends.”
South Korea and the United States have had a vibrant trade relationship. South Korea today is the United States’ sixth-largest trading partner. The trade between the two nations was estimated at $168 billion in 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world.
President Yoon is energetic about boosting Seoul’s ties with Washington. He is known to be an ardent advocate of freedom and democracy. In his inaugural speech, he urged his people to think “as global citizens” and “stand” against any attempt to “take our freedom away, abuse human rights or destroy peace….” His ideological leanings make him a natural ally of the United States, which claims to be the leader of the free world today.
During his election campaign, Yoon said his government might join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD comprising the US, India, Japan and Australia) as well as the Five Eyes (an intelligence-sharing alliance between the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). He added South Korea might partner with the US in forming a trilateral military alliance in place of the 1951 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the US and Japan.
In his presidential campaign, Yoon indicated expanding the American anti-ballistic missile defence system (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) aimed at countering growing threats from North Korea.
However, US President Joe Biden is being rather dull on Yoon’s ideas. During his recent four-day visit to South Korea, Biden was silent on Yoon- proposed trilateral military alliance. Nor did he welcome South Korea into the QUAD fold.
Pertinently, the White House has of late been stressing the idea of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). The new forum is proposed to include South Korea, Japan, Australia and fast-growing ASEAN economies like Vietnam.
It may be recalled that in 2017, the Donald J. Trump administration in Washington withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This was followed by the China-endorsed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The RCEP was signed by 15 countries, including South Korea and Japan, and most of the new IPEF members.
(The author is a New Delhi-based journalist)