Top Korean security official makes unannounced trip to D.C., amid diplomatic strain
South Korea’s National Security Adviser Suh Hoon met his U.S. counterpart at the White House in an unannounced visit Wednesday, American officials confirmed Thursday, amid signs of strain in the allies’ relationship.
White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien announced Suh’s visit in a Twitter post, saying the “ironclad alliance is stronger than ever, and continues to grow to meet all regional and global challenges.”
The U.S. State Department also revealed Suh was scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday, though the subject of their talks was undisclosed.
Suh’s visit comes at an ominous time for the two countries, when cracks in their alliance have emerged over ongoing disagreements on security and key foreign policy ventures.
Despite a lack of alacrity from Washington, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has pushed for a formal declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War as a means to revive deadlocked negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang over the latter’s nuclear program.
The idea was agreed upon by the two Koreas at their first summit in 2018, but progress toward such a declaration was halted due to a collapse in nuclear talks and Washington’s aversion to dealing with the North prior to major steps toward denuclearization from Pyongyang.
In light of the push, Suh may have visited the White House to enlist support for the venture, though it's questionable how much flexibility the Trump administration will have with just days left before the presidential election in November.
The visit by Seoul’s top security adviser, who previously served as Moon’s first spy chief, may also be aimed at allaying concerns in Washington, following controversial comments from South Korea’s ambassador on Monday.
In a remote parliamentary audit hearing on Monday, Ambassador Lee Soo-hyuk had told lawmakers that Korea’s choice of the United States as its primary ally for the next 70 years was not guaranteed, but rather contingent upon what he called “national interest.”
“The idea of keeping an alliance with the United States in the future just because we have had an alliance for 70 years is an insult to the United States,” Lee said.
Seoul’s Foreign Ministry quickly attempted to douse the controversy, saying Tuesday the alliance was firm, but the implication was clear that South Korea could hedge its bets by moving closer to China should the U.S. alliance no longer serve its needs.
And top ruling Democratic Party figures subsequently sprung to Lee’s defense, including the party's floor leader Rep. Kim Tae-nyeon, who on Wednesday characterized the response as excessive veneration for the Korea-U.S. alliance that was unnecessarily feeding the controversy.
Part of what is nurturing this growing skepticism about the perpetuity of the alliance in Seoul may be the economic strain South Korea has experienced from the growing rift between Washington and Beijing.
On Wednesday, in their annual Senior Economic Dialogue, the United States again called on Seoul to ban Chinese-made equipment like the fifth-generation networks made by Huawei and mobile applications like WeChat due to the dangers they pose to national security.
The request was made as part of Washington’s campaign to enlist South Korea in its “Clean Network” program, a venture aimed at purging Chinese tech companies from the global internet infrastructure.
South Korea, however, fears its participation in such a venture may antagonize China and prompt the larger neighbor to retaliate like it did following Seoul’s deployment of U.S. made anti-missile batteries on its soil in 2016. A Foreign Ministry official told reporters on Thursday that such decisions on whether to adopt Chinese technology were up to private companies and not the government.
“But with regards to the security of networks, they are matters that the government should intervene in, so we are coordinating accordingly as we hear out U.S. concerns,” the official said.
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [email@example.com]