May 13, 2022
SEOUL – North Korea will likely top the agenda for President Yoon Suk-yeol and US President Joe Biden at the summit meeting in Seoul, but forming economic alliances and ties to contain China will also be high on the list for the US.
The Yoon administration will face difficult choices as the US and China seeking to involve Korea, a strong player in strategic industries such as chips and batteries, in their supply chains.
The Korea-US summit is a key diplomatic event for President Yoon, who has emphasized strengthening the alliance since his election campaign. It is also the first time in 29 years that a US president is visiting South Korea before Japan since Bill Clinton in 1993.
North Korea ‘center’ of agenda
While the Korean presidential office has not yet announced details of the upcoming summit, the White House recently told reporters North Korea would be “front and center” in the summit’s agenda.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that Biden plans to talk about security and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and North Korea will be front and center on the agenda.
North Korea already destroyed an intercontinental ballistic missile moratorium by conducting ICBM test-fire in March. Since then, the possibility of a North Korean underground nuclear test has been raised in the US and South Korea. There are also speculations that the North may conduct a seventh nuclear test during Biden’s visit to South Korea.
Psaki said the White House is monitoring for any signs that show Pyongyang is likely to conduct another nuclear test around the time Biden goes to Seoul.
An emergency meeting of the UN Security Council was held on Wednesday to discuss the issue of North Korea’s successive ballistic missile tests. The US plans to vote on a resolution on additional sanctions against North Korea within this month, but it is unclear whether it will be passed as China and Russia are opposed.
In the North, COVID-19 has emerged as a new variable. The North ordered a national lockdown after the first coronavirus patient was found in the capital on Thursday.
“North Korea may postpone its nuclear test to focus on overcoming the coronavirus, or it may conduct it to divert the attention of its citizens,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“If the North pushes for the nuclear test around Biden’s visit to Korea, the US-North Korea dialogue will be delayed a lot, and UN Security Council sanctions, led by the US, will be strengthened,” Yang said.
Keeping China in check
Biden is expected to launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework on the occasion of his visit to Korea and Japan.
The IPEF, a Biden administration initiative, refers to economic cooperation among Indo-Pacific countries aimed at safeguarding against China’s economic influence. China has taken the lead in launching the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, the world’s largest free trade agreement.
Given that this Asian trip is an act of pressure on China through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue summit among the US, Japan, Australia and India, it was seen to be the right time to launch the IPEF, an Asia-Pacific economic consultative body, that seeks to protect trade norms and supply chains from undue interference and overdependence on China.
The Yoon administration, stressing stronger ties with the US, is also expected to join the initiative and open the prelude to a “comprehensive strategic alliance” with the US.
The US is expected to announce the launch of the IPEF together with participating countries through a video conference with the participating countries in the presence of four Quad countries in Japan.
China has already expressed discomfort.
The Global Times, a Chinese state-run media, warned that joining the IPEF would be a test for the Yoon Suk-yeol administration and that any attempt to undermine China’s interests could damage Korean-Chinese trade. Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan also told President Yoon on Wednesday that the Chinese and South Korean economies were “highly complementary” and the industrial supply chains between the two countries are “inseparable.”
As things get more complicated, “Balanced diplomacy is, in the end, important for South Korea to pursue national interests and practicality,” Yang said.
Industrial alliances becoming more important
During his trip to Korea, Biden is expected to meet with the heads of the nation’s four major conglomerates, Samsung, Hyundai, SK and LG, urging them to expand investment in the US.
The meeting with the business leaders is seen to focus on building an “economic security” alliance in key new industries such as semiconductors, electric vehicles and batteries.
The US is expected to seek to strengthen its economic and security alliance with Korea through semiconductors, as it competes with China for supremacy in chips.
President Biden has been emphasizing the importance of chips ever since he took office. He presided over semiconductor-related meetings and called Samsung Electronics officials to the White House. Last year, they put pressure on Samsung to invest by demanding the submission of sensitive and confidential information such as the semiconductor chip technology stage, and eventually attracted Samsung Electronics’ second foundry plant in Texas.
Biden is predicted to visit Samsung Electronics’ Giheung semiconductor factory in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, on May 22, the last day of his visit to Korea.
Hyundai Motor is also expected to announce plans to build an electric vehicle plant in Georgia, the Southeastern region of the US in time for Biden’s visit to Korea. The investment plan came amid Biden’s policy to promote investment in electric vehicles.
At the Korea-US summit last year, the four major groups announced an investment plan worth 44 trillion won ($34 billion) in the US.