by Seung Hee Jeon
During his campaign, U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden pledged to end “forever wars.” After taking office, in January 2021, during his first State of the Union address, he explained that his administration would be committed to “engaging our adversaries and our competitors diplomatically.” Consider, however, the phrase modifying the words “engaging our adversaries…diplomatically,” i.e., “where it’s in our interest.” This focus, of course, is related to the growing sense in the U.S. of threats to its global supremacy. With the rise of many developing economies, in particular, the Chinese economy, during the past few decades of globalization, the U.S.’s position as the sole global superpower has been challenged. In response, the Trump administration began a trade war with China, which aggravated the antagonism between the two countries and ushered in a more unstable world. Despite Biden’s campaign promise of diplomacy over conflict, his administration has been intent on enhancing and amplifying Trump’s anti-China policy. This undertaking has led to a full-out China containment policy, as represented by the appointment of Kurt Campbell, a prominent anti-China ideologue, as the first National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific.
It was no secret, although unacknowledged, that Biden’s policy of containing China hit a snag as President of South Korea Moon Jae-in pursued a more balanced diplomatic approach between China and the U.S. Moreover, Moon was unwilling to overlook Korea’s unresolved historical issues with Japan, still a major player in the U.S.’s anti-China policy. Thus, the May 10, 2022, launching of the conservative Yoon Seok-yeol administration, after Yoon was elected on the hawkish platform of preemptive strikes against North Korea, offered a perfect opportunity for the Biden administration to accelerate its project of besieging and deterring China. Accordingly, it was no surprise that Biden grabbed at this opportunity by beginning his Asia trip in South Korea, just ten days after Yoon’s inauguration. As expected, the result of the Biden-Yoon summit was a package of full compliances with US demands in return for its aggressive policy in Asia. As noted in a May 18 article by the Washington think-tank CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies), this summit was expected to “restore the trust between Seoul and Washington and elevate the US-ROK comprehensive strategic alliance to a new level.”
On careful examination, though, what is “restored” and “elevated” through the extensive, 2,000-plus-word “United States-Republic of Korea Leaders’ Joint Statement,” published on May 21, is an alliance based not on an equal partnership, but rather on the unilateral U.S. incorporation of a subservient ROK—ignoring the Korean people’s desires for peace and stability. Militarily, by reactivating a “high-level Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group” and expanding “the scope and scale of combined military exercises and training on and around the Korean Peninsula,” the statement is a recipe for increased tensions on and around the Korean peninsula. Further, its gesture of openness to a “path to dialogue” with North Korea completely ignores recently stalled interim efforts and progress in inter-Korean relationships, by insisting on the unrealistic CVID—complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement—of the North Korean nuclear program.
Economically and technologically, the statement emphasizes a “strategic partnership” between the U.S. and ROK in critical, cutting-edge industries, such as semiconductor, EV batteries, artificial intelligence, quantum technology, biotechnology, biomanufacturing, and autonomous robotics. In addition, it sets in motion a defense sector supply-chain partnership with a new discussion on Reciprocal Defense Procurement Agreement, as well as ROK participation in a U.S.-led summit on Global Supply Chain Resilience, which includes energy supply-chain cooperation. This strategic partnership in economy, technology, and defense fields means that South Korean high-tech industries will be under direct U.S. oversight.
Further, the statement envisions a heightened role for the ROK in the world in “advancing freedom, peace, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.” For this purpose, the ROK is included as a leader, along with Japan, in a new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), an economic bloc to besiege and deter China both economically and militarily. By the end of the statement, the ROK has made an increased commitment to a more militaristic defense of Taiwan and Ukraine, under the guise of the defense of freedom, peace, and prosperity. This commitment will no doubt further provoke China and Russia, while forcing Koreans into the front lines of a new U.S.-led Cold War, destabilizing the international environment in Northeast Asia and beyond.
What, then, are the prospects for peace in Korea, after this latest and dangerously irresponsible action by the leadership in the ROK and U.S.? First and foremost, what we should not lose sight of is that the South Korean polls have consistently shown overwhelming support for a phased, negotiation-based approach to the denuclearization of North Korea. This support has remained steadfastly around 70% to the upper 80% range, as a recent Macromill Embrain survey on South Korean support for a peace treaty with the North finds. Even among supporters of the hawkish Yoon administration, more than half are in favor of negotiations and reconciliation. Given that Yoon won the presidential election by a margin of less than 1%, as an associate at the Korea Policy Institute, Dr. Simone Chun, recently pointed out in an April 27 article in CounterPunch, Yoon’s victory certainly indicated “no public mandate for a hawkish pivot.” Indeed, votes by the liberal and progressive candidates together exceeded those of conservative Yoon. Already, the Yoon administration has broken records as far as low levels of favorability and expectations among South Koreans in its period of power transfer. It is only a matter of time before attempts to implement the above joint statement meet with popular resistance.
Although Yoon and conservatives criticize his predecessor’s dialogue- and negotiation-based approach to North Korea as being submissive to North Korea and condemn it as a failure, I would agree with the chief Koreas correspondent for Diplomat, Mitch Shin, who aptly wrote in a May 4 article: “Rather than saying Moon’s peace process failed, it’s more accurate to say it showed a possible path to tackling North Korea issues.” Above all, as Shin also pointed out, Moon’s peace process was successful in that it deescalated the tensions on the Korean peninsula, which had been intensified during nine years of conservative administration before Moon’s tenure as president. Through three meetings with North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un, Moon successfully worked out a phased denuclearization process, based on gradual peace-building practices, only to be thwarted by Trump because of his unreasonable insistence on CVID, a condition that could not be accepted by Pyongyang, who does not have any other leverage than nuclear weapons against the global superpower U.S.
In fact, regarding Moon’s dialogue-based peace process and effort to pursue multilateral collaboration amidst this newly brewing Cold War, I would go so far as to say he, and the majority of South Koreans who supported his approach, showed the world a possibility, albeit still nascent, in which South Korea could lead the world out of current international and environmental crises. During the recent pandemic, clearly related to humanity’s environmental crises, South Korea emerged as a surprise leader with its reasonable and practical approach to this disaster, avoiding both extreme containment and extreme non-interference policies, while being decisively proactive and transparent. This approach, based on voluntary cooperation of mature citizens rather than antagonism and violence, was in sharp contrast to that of traditional leaders like the U.S. and Western Europe or emerging leaders like China, thus, enabling South Korea to lead the cooperative global Covid-19 response during the virtual G20 meeting in March 2020. By taking a neutral position between China and the U.S., while emphasizing multilateral coordination, cooperation, and collaboration, despite the Biden administration’s clear push to incorporate South Korea into an alliance against China, Moon showed a possible path to leading the world toward a peaceful and prosperous future, as his address on global economy at G20 Summit Session in November 2021 shows.
The newly inaugurated Yoon administration and his rushed alliance with the Biden administration’s new Cold War clearly mark a missed opportunity to follow this path of cooperation and collaboration. Nonetheless, I want to believe that this path, however briefly it was explored, can be revived through the steadfast and collaborative efforts of peace-loving global citizens in support of South Korean peace workers.
—Seung Hee Jeon is a visiting professor of Korean, Boston College, and Co-chair of the New England Korea Peace Campaign.