A summit between President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea and U.S. President Joe Biden was held on May 2021. Significant objectives were achieved in the summit meeting. President Moon was able to secure vaccines and U.S. cooperation on North Korea and the United States was able to secure South Korea’s cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region and strengthen the supply chain links between the two countries. They also dealt with global humanitarian issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, economic recovery, and technological innovations.
During the Trump administration, the Republic of Korea was reluctant towards U.S. policies because of the difference of opinions between President Moon and President Trump on various issues. However, after the summit, a shift in the alliance structure has been observed and although it is uncertain, the alliance should play an active role in the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region.
In their joint statement, the two countries focused on their shared history and democratic values along with their comprehensive partnership. It stated that the Republic of Korea and the United States have committed to an “ironclad alliance” as the regional security in the Indo-Pacific region grows more complex and the issue of COVID-19 pandemic, and climate change has been weighing heavier on the world. President Moon believes that the recent summit was a meaningful opportunity to reconfirm the ROK-U.S. alliance and its evolving nature. He believes that the Republic of Korea’s status as a partner has been upgraded and more responsibilities and roles have increased in the region. President Biden believes that the alliance should play an active role in the Indo-Pacific region. A few summit objectives which are particularly influential in shaping the future course of the region and the world, in general, would be:
- Bilateral consensus between the U.S. and the ROK to advance the Korean Peninsula peace Process, Complete denuclearization, and establishment of permanent peace on the Korean peninsula. Cooperation on the non-proliferation and safe and secure use of nuclear technology was also ensured.
- Termination of the ROK-U.S. Revised Missile Guidelines which gives South Korea the freedom to develop their space technology or even long-ranging missiles. The US also showed support to develop the Korean Positioning System or ROK’s own satellite navigation system.
- Cooperation on vaccine and vaccine production for the COVID-19 pandemic was agreed upon. ROK secured vaccine supplies from the US and vaccine production in South Korea was announced in collaboration with the technical expertise of the US.
- The bilateral cooperation has strengthened the supply chain links between the two countries. Strong cooperation on semiconductor industries, environment-friendly EV batteries, and developing new cutting edge technologies like AI, 5G, 6G, quantum technology, and biotechnology, etc were agreed upon.
- Joint support to ASEAN centrality and ASEAN-led arrangement of the region. Greater cooperation of the ROK-US Alliance with the Pacific Island countries and the ASEAN region including Quad was reaffirmed. They also agreed to create a free, safe, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region and to maintain peace and stability along the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, and beyond.
The US-ROK alliance goes beyond the two nations; it goes towards the Indo-Pacific region and is based on shared democratic values. The summit has realigned the alliance structure of the region. From the U.S. perspective, the summit acted as a reminder to South Korea and other countries of the region that they are reliant on the U.S. alliance. This meant that global politics and issues were also to be given importance as much as national interest. When the Indo-Pacific was seen as a regional attempt to contain China during the Trump administration, South Korea disagreed about various issues, leading to serious friction between the two countries. Even though the Biden and Moon administration is not in full agreement over various interests, the change of stance by the ROK regarding the US policies signals deepening ties between the two countries. Domestic reasons might also have played an important role in helping to forge this alliance. For President Moon the vaccine security and being on the good side of the US President would help him keep his party in power in the coming elections next year; for President Biden, it would be setting a new approach or goal for the US different from the previous administration.
The appointment of Ambassador Sung Kim as a special envoy to North Korea implies a request from the U.S. to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to resume dialogue with the ROK. President Biden expressed support for an inter-Korean dialogue based on cooperation. The termination of the Revised Missile Guidelines gives South Korea the freedom to strengthen its defense capabilities. It also agrees with the US approach of discreet diplomacy and stern deterrence towards North Korea. This could create quite a stir in the region in terms of security.
Joint command to oppose any activities that endanger the safety and stability of the international laws in the South China Sea and Taiwan were agreed upon and China responded or referred to this as “interference in their domestic policies.” More aggressive strategies or policies might only be implemented when South Korea would seek to develop long-ranging missiles. To reduce reliance on Chinese supply chains the U.S. engaged in new technologies and other industries of South Korea. The ROK on the other hand sought to diversify its economic base and reduce its dependence on China. This shift in supply chains would make China’s influence on South Korea weaker than before and reduce Chinese influence in the South Korean economy.
Both Washington and Seoul were together in regards to Afghanistan and were ready to help and support the country.
The alliance also supported ASEAN centrality. The organization had grown weaker recently In the Indo-Pacific President Biden expects the ROK-US alliance to play an active role in implementing the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy. China views the QUAD as a military alliance and hence is pushing away other countries in the region from joining it. Reportedly talks about the US inviting the ROK to join the QUAD plus has been going around. However, it seems South Korea would not align with either the U.S. or China.
Although their relationship has not been strong recently, the United States and the Republic of Korea for over 70 years have worked together and have shared history and values. The Summit meeting of May 2021 was successful in achieving the goals of both the nations. South Korea’s response to US policies during the Trump administration did not send a clear signal to the US and regional countries. After the recent summit meeting with the US, South Korea seems to have inched a little closer towards the Biden administration. Even though the joint statement claimed an “ironclad alliance” there is uncertainty regarding the alliance. South Korea has kept the QUAD at arm’s length because of the counter-China features. Nevertheless, we observe the ROK’s tendency to lean towards the U.S. side because of the oncoming elections in 2022.