South Korean President Visits US, Moves Closer to Indo-Pacific Cooperation

Moon and Biden talk vaccines, emerging tech, and North Korea . . .

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has completed his official visit to the U.S., which took place May 19-22. During the visit, Moon met with US President Joe Biden, announcing several new initiatives and agreements. Seoul and pharmaceutical company Moderna reached a deal to produce COVID-19 vaccines in South Korea, and Biden pledged to provide vaccines to 550,000 South Korean soldiers. Moon and Biden also agreed to collaborate more closely on emerging technologies such as 5G, 6G, and AI. The South Korean private sector delegation that accompanied Moon announced its plans to invest C$47 billion in the U.S. Also, the two countries agreed to scrap their bilateral missile guidelines, effectively allowing Seoul to expand its missile capacity. Finally, Moon and Biden reaffirmed their commitment to denuclearize North Korea.

Moving away from strategic ambiguity?

The bilateral meeting reaffirmed the two countries’ commitment to their alliance while showing signs that Seoul might be changing course from strategic ambiguity between Beijing and Washington and instead inching closer to the U.S. Their joint statement said that Seoul would align its New Southern Policy with the U.S. vision of an ‘open and free’ Indo-Pacific and collaborate with multilateral security entities such as the Quad. The two leaders also emphasized the importance of “preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” Further, the agreement to collaborate more closely on emerging tech and the substantial investment in the U.S. by South Korean semiconductor producers suggest South Korea’s closer alignment with the U.S. in the tech competition between Beijing and Washington. A Chinese spokesperson, taking note of the joint statement, expressed “concern” and cautioned against “playing with fire.”

Challenges for middle powers . . .

The Moon administration has been criticized for its overly deferential and cautious approach in bilateral relations with China. The announcements from the visit to Washington signal a deviation from this path, likely a product of external and internal pressures from the U.S. and the South Korean public, both of which have become increasingly hawkish against Beijing in recent years. Seoul’s decision to move closer to the U.S. underscores the difficulties of remaining a ‘middle power’ for Canada, which shares similar challenges in this geopolitical environment.