Focus on the first summit

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Focus on the first summit

Sohn Yul
The author is a professor at the Graduate School of International Studies (GSIS) and president of the East Asia Institute (EAI) at Yonsei University.

The first official event for President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol was a telephone conversation with U.S. President Joe Biden on the morning of March 10, just a few hours after his election victory. After he is sworn in as president on May 10, Yoon will have to spend nearly half of his time wrestling with diplomatic and security issues that gained little attention in the campaign. He will soon recognize that a successful presidency depends on managing national security and diplomacy, as suggested by former president Kim Dae-jung. “The fate of countries like South Korea rests on diplomacy,” he said.

But our president-elects in the past had a critical lack of expertise in diplomacy. This can be compared to a business novice taking over as CEO of a company. Most of them made major decisions in diplomacy and security while learning on the job.

Yoon exchanged heated tit-for-tats with his rivals during TV debates over the additional deployment of the Thaad missile defense system and a preemptive strike on North Korea to avert nuclear attacks. Yoon can put such thorny issues aside for the moment, as a more urgent job requires his attention: preparations for a summit with Biden to be held probably in May or June.

If a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) summit in Tokyo proceeds as scheduled in the first half of the year, Biden will visit Seoul after the summit. In the past, presidential transition committees did their best to send their boss to Washington for a summit with their U.S. counterpart at the earliest time possible, but this time, a U.S. president will likely visit South Korea first. Yoon and his transition committee must thoroughly prepare for such a rare occasion. 
President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol talks with U.S. President Joe Biden over the phone just a few hours after his election victory on March 9. [PEOPLE POWER PARTY] 

A Yoon-Biden meeting offers a great diplomatic opportunity for the president-elect. The Biden administration has been pushing for comprehensive cooperation with Seoul based on the alliance to achieve peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia beyond the Korean Peninsula through policy coordination to augment deterrence of North Korea and denuclearize the recalcitrant state. In the first Korea-U.S. summit, both leaders will discuss Korea-China relations, Korea-Japan relations, regional issues, and bilateral cooperation in economics and technology. They are critical challenges for our diplomacy in the next five years.

The Biden administration’s diplomatic strategy is contained in its Indo-Pacific Strategy. The U.S. wants to restore its leadership in the region by establishing a U.S.-led order based on freedom, opening and democratic values. America opposes any acts disturbing the rules-based order — particularly China’s aggressive attempts to change the status quo in the South China Sea, East China Sea and Taiwan Straits by military force or economic prowess. Targeting China, the Biden administration, for instance, is pushing for joint leadership with allies and other partners to develop technologies respecting human rights. The new approach, which was reflected in Biden’s summit with President Moon Jae-in at the White House last May, will take a more concrete form in his summit with Yoon.

The biggest challenge for the Yoon administration will be how to reconcile the U.S. grammar of using the decades-old alliance as a part of its Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China with the South Korean grammar of interpreting the alliance as a mechanism for stability and peace on the peninsula.

South Korea must encourage the U.S. to rekindle its dialogue with North Korea by reminding Washington of the significance of North Korean issues while complying with America’s demand for improved Seoul-Tokyo relations at the same time.

If China rushes to change the status quo in a big way or if an international dispute takes place outside the Korean Peninsula or a technology-based international alliance to isolate China from global supply chains is formed, Seoul must make clear its position.

The new president does not have to know all the aspects of those issues. But he must at least set three basic directions. First, China cannot be an alternative to the U.S. China has been criticized not only for its belligerent approach to territorial disputes in the South and East China Sea and Indian Ocean but also for raising the level of tension through economic coercion and human rights violations. It is better for the new administration to first join the U.S.-led order based on trilateral relations among South Korea, the U.S. and Japan while seeking a possible extension of Seoul-Beijing networks at the same time.

Second, the new administration must have a confident attitude towards the U.S. and China. As clearly seen between the Trump and Xi Jinping governments, it backfired when both sides forced a neighboring country to take a choice. A case in point is Australia. China put all-out economic pressure on the country after it cut off Huawei’s 5G network and called for an international investigation into the origin of the coronavirus. However, in the face of Australia’s bold counteraction, China suffered massive damage to its global influence after the U.S., the QUAD and the European Union all joined the move by Australia.

Third, given South Korea’s status as the world’s 10th largest economy, its respect for market economics and its powerful soft power embodied in Hallyu, or the Korean Wave of cultural exports, the new government must set diplomatic standards and principles befitting its enhanced stature to promote the national interests. It must abandon outmoded tactics such as “balanced diplomacy” or “strategic ambiguity.”

A head of state exercises enormous power over diplomacy and security and that can determine the fate of a country. These are issues that cannot simply be left to experts, as in economic affairs. I look forward to seeing Yoon make the best of his first summit with Biden for the future of the country and himself.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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