- US Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin arrived in Seoul on Wednesday, 17 March for meetings with South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Defense Minister Suh Wook, including a 2+2 meeting with all four officials on 18 March.
- While the allies touted the strength of their relationship as they inked a new defense cost-sharing agreement, the two governments have different views on how to manage China and North Korea.
The Biden administration is determined to rebuild relations with South Korea after the Trump administration struggled to coordinate with Seoul on North Korea and pressured South Korea for a dramatic increase in its contributions to the cost of hosting US forces. However, while the two governments hailed their alliance and celebrated the conclusion of a new special measures agreement (SMA) after years of stalled negotiations, issues remain that could complicate efforts to strengthen cooperation.
First, unlike in Tokyo, where the US and Japanese governments openly voiced their concerns about the Chinese government’s behavior across Asia, the joint statements between the US and South Korean governments made no mention of China and offered only modest proposals for cooperation beyond the Korean peninsula. This reflects Seoul’s reluctance to anger Beijing, particularly after the Chinese government organized a boycott of South Korea during the dispute regarding South Korea’s deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system against the burgeoning short-range missile threat from North Korea. South Korea remains highly dependent on China, a dependence more acutely felt due to the uneven global recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. To the extent that the Biden administration is seeking to work with regional allies and partners, particularly democratic allies, to provide a coordinated effort to counter China’s influence and deter its military power, South Korea may play a smaller role in US Asia policy. It is still unclear, for example, whether South Korea will join the Quad or other regional initiatives, although US and South Korean officials discussed regional cooperation in keeping with President Moon Jae-in’s New Southern Policy.
The implication is that the US-South Korea relationship remains primarily focused on ensuring peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. However, while the Biden administration is still conducting a review of policy towards North Korea, there are signs that Washington and Seoul may be at odds over how to approach Pyongyang. President Moon Jae-in, approaching his final year in office, is anxious to restart inter-Korean negotiations, which stalled after the two governments agreed to reduce military deployments around the de-militarized zone in 2018. Moon had hoped to use negotiations with North Korea to pursue new joint economic projects as a step towards a more durable peace on the peninsula, but could not overcome the inability of the US and North Korea to agree on how to exchange sanctions relief for steps towards denuclearization. The Moon administration is likely advocating for the Biden administration to consider a bolder approach to diplomacy with North Korea, even as the North does not appear in the mood to talk to the new administration. The two administrations may also be at odds in their willingness to prioritize human rights in their approach to North Korea. Whereas Blinken on Wednesday referred to the North Korean regime’s “systemic and widespread abuses against its own people” and said last week that he felt strongly about appointing a new envoy for North Korean human rights (a post left vacant since 2017), the Moon administration has sought to downplay criticism of North Korea’s human rights record and cracked down on activist groups that have sought to send propaganda across the DMZ. Thus, while the two governments removed a major irritant by concluding the new SMA signed Wednesday, resumed joint military exercises last week, and continue to work on the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) to South Korea, substantial policy coordination work remains to be done.
Pyongyang may in fact try to exploit these differences. Kim Yo-jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, issued a statement on Monday, 15 March criticizing the South Korean government for opting for hostility towards the North by holding joint exercises with the US. She warned, “if they dare resort to more provocative acts, we may take a special measure of resolutely abrogating even the north-south military agreement.” This statement likely reflects North Korea’s frustrations with the increasingly lame duck Moon administration and its failures to convince the US to offer sanctions relief. Meanwhile, Choe Son Hui, North Korean vice minister of foreign affairs, issued a statement on 18 March, while Blinken and Austin were in Seoul, rejecting US initial efforts at restarting dialogue as long as it continues demanding “complete denuclearization” and pursuing its “hostile policy.”
If North Korea were to conduct a missile test in the near future, it could place considerable pressure on Seoul, as a provocation would impact the policy review in a direction that would set back diplomacy six months or longer, running out the clock on the Moon government. North Korea will not be able to drive a wedge between the allies; Blinken has indicated that “all available options” will be considered in the policy review and has hinted at the possibility of humanitarian relief in light of North Korea’s economic struggles due to border closures and last year’s flooding. North Korea’s need for Covid-19 vaccines – it is slated to receive some from COVAX, but far short of its needs – could also create an opening for engagement. However, without a conclusion to the US policy review and absent North Korean willingness to talk, the diplomatic space is likely to be filled by intense bilateral and trilateral policy coordination among the US, South Korea, and Japan. Pyongyang could disrupt this by opting for some kind of small-scale test shortly after Blinken and Austin leave the region (and after Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan meet their Chinese counterparts on 18 March so as not to embarrass China).