This week South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol is visiting Washington to mark the 70th anniversary of the U.S.-South Korea security alliance. It is the first state visit by a South Korean leader since 2011.
The Biden administration is keen to strengthen ties with its stalwart ally which plays an important role counterbalancing China’s rising influence and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Part of Biden’s outreach involves the administration’s efforts to convince South Korea to abandon its rules against sending weapons to nations at war and provide Ukraine with badly-needed artillery shells.
There are also ongoing efforts by the White House to curb South Korean exports of advanced semiconductor chips and equipment to China as part of its efforts to hamper Beijing’s manufacturing of technologies with military applications.
Yet, President Yoon’s trip comes at a time when an increasing number of South Koreans are questioning America’s ability to protect it from North Korea’s nuclear menace.
Concurrently, his visit takes place as leading South Korean companies are angered by onerous subsidy and tax credit restrictions that come with two of President Biden’s signature legislative accomplishments, the U.S. Chips & Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.
Understandably, recent geopolitical developments have heightened South Korean worries about security. Putin’s brutality in Ukraine, China’s expansion of its nuclear weapons arsenal and the People’s Liberation Army’s mock invasions of Taiwan have contributed to apprehensions.
And then there are the threats from Pyongyang. Recent weeks have seen the North’s test-launch of an Hwasong-18 solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile, and latest estimates suggest that North Korea could have enough fissile material to build anywhere from 45 to 100 nuclear weapons.
All of these factors have contributed to a lack of confidence in Washington’s ability and will to protect South Korea. Most concerning, polls over the past year indicate that over 70% of South Koreans believe that their country needs to develop its own nuclear weapons program.
Developing nuclear weapons would damage Seoul’s relations with Washington and set back recent gains in improved ties with Tokyo. It would also invite international sanctions and likely prompt nuclear weapons proliferation in Japan and Taiwan, among other regional states.
To address this, President Biden was right on April 26 to provide assurance that a North Korean nuclear attack against the U.S., allies or partners is unacceptable and would result in the end of the regime in Pyongyang.
Biden’s announcement of the Nuclear Consultative Group designed to advise and inform South Korea about U.S. nuclear operations planning – – as well as announcing that U.S. nuclear-armed submarines would dock in South Korea for the first time in 40 years – – were important steps towards demonstrating U.S. resolve for South Korean security and crisis response.
Adding to this, President Biden should expand the scale of combined U.S.-R.O.K. military exercises and the deployment of American strategic assets (nuclear-capable B-1B bombers, F-22 and F-35B fighter aircraft, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, aircraft carriers, etc.) on a rotational basis to the Korean peninsula.
Emphasis should also be placed on missile defense, anti-submarine warfare training, cyber and space.
Such pledges will also be important for reestablishing Seoul’s 70-year trust in Washington for its defense needs.
Additionally, Mr. Biden needs to commit to working with Seoul to increase joint economic security and supply chain resiliency. This needs to involve developing partnerships for the production of next-generation technologies.
Specifically, American companies will need to collaborate with South Korean semiconductor and electric vehicle battery expertise to expand domestic manufacturing of these technologies for purposes of reducing dependence on China.
The Biden administration should also create carve outs to the Inflation Reduction Act for South Korean electric vehicle makers Hyundai and Kia, making them eligible to receive the $7,500-per-vehicle tax credit for their overseas EV production. Such a measure would address South Korea’s economic interests while also helping to make foreign electric vehicles more affordable for American consumers.
Over the longer term, the administration should consider providing tax incentives to Hyundai and Kia to build factories in the U.S. where the production of both companies’ electric vehicle lines can be transferred.
Other needed areas of cooperation that should be addressed by Washington and Seoul are quantum information science, AI, cyber law enforcement and space situational awareness (SSA) for military purposes.
South Korea is a worthy ally deserving of the measures outlined previously. It has fought alongside U.S. troops in every major conflict since the Korean War and has been a responsible defender of the rules-based order. In recent years, Seoul has invested billions in the American economy while contributing to a free and open Indo-Pacific.
By addressing Seoul’s security and economic concerns, the Biden administration can make the 70-year alliance more resilient to meet the challenges of our time. Such steps would address the strategic interests of both countries, supporting both peoples’ shared values and objectives.