An Assessment of President Yoon’s State Visit to the White House
South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol’s visit to the White House on April 26 was the fifth meeting with President Biden since their first summit held in Seoul in May 2022. The two leaders have built a good rapport through their continued engagement on the sidelines of the NATO Summit last summer, UN General Assembly in New York City this past fall, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Phnom Penh last November.
Q1: What is the significance of Yoon being granted a state visit?
A1: A state visit is the highest honor bestowed by the White House on a visiting head of state. This was only the second such visit offered by the Biden administration (the other was to France) in large part because 2023 marks the 70th anniversary of the U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance. The Biden administration also wishes to show strong support for Yoon’s foreign policy agenda which has shifted to deepening strategic ties with the United States and away from the hedging strategy of the previous administration.
Q2: What was the biggest takeaway from the summit?
A2: Aside from setting a high bar for musical performances by future world leaders at the White House, the main deliverable of the summit was the Washington Declaration. The declaration is the closest the alliance has come to a shared decisionmaking framework for the use of nuclear weapons in Korea, and effectively has committed the two allies to a nuclear planning group in the establishment of the Nuclear Consultation Group (NCG). NCG activities will include joint nuclear planning and execution concerning U.S. nuclear operations in a contingency, as well as exercising with U.S. Strategic Command. The United States also will maintain a regular rotation of air- and sea-based nuclear capable assets, starting with a nuclear ballistic missile submarine to South Korea for the first time since 1981. While this is not tantamount to the return of tactical nuclear weapons to the peninsula (as advocated by some), it does represent a presence of nuclear capable assets around the peninsula for deterrence and assurance purposes. The declaration is a significant document that sharpens the meaning and execution of the U.S. nuclear guarantee and will sit alongside the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty. While this was not part of the declaration, the two sides also agreed in to education and training on nuclear deterrence for ROK military personnel.
Nevertheless, like most major documents or statements, the Washington Declaration has met some criticism in South Korea both from progressives and conservatives. The progressive opposition party has denounced the summit outcomes for warmongering and some from the conservative camp have criticized Yoon’s reaffirmation of South Korea’s nonnuclear status and compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) during the summit. Neither criticism really holds water. Rather than warmongering, the Washington Declaration tries to address South Korean concerns that nuclear deterrence may not be strong enough to prevent North Korea from disturbing the peace. Yoon's statement on the NPT is simply a reiteration of existing South Korea policy, and is a responsible statement given all the loose talk and polling lately regarding nuclear weapons in South Korea. To have expected him to disavow the NPT during the summit would have been absurd.
Q3: Besides North Korea and extended deterrence, were there other noteworthy deliverables for the alliance?
A3: Yes, a lot. The two leaders used the 70th anniversary of the alliance to highlight and build the so-called New Frontiers agenda of the relationship. First, Biden and Yoon both featured the global nature of the alliance providing not just private goods to each party but also public goods for the world. Biden supported Yoon’s new global agenda, including hosting the next Democracy Summit, partnering with NATO (as member of NATO Asia-Pacific partners), and partnering with the G7. Yoon made about the boldest statements for an Asian leader on Ukraine, featured at the top of the joint statement, condemning Russia for war and for attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure. The reference to attacks on civilians lines up with previous conditions Yoon has laid out for sending lethal equipment to Ukraine. Yoon has little room to maneuver under the current law, but his inclinations on this issue are clear as evidenced in this document and in his speech before a joint session of Congress.
Second, the two leaders used the summit to make significant progress on several New Frontier issues. There was a new joint statement on U.S.-ROK cooperation in quantum information science and technology and a new high-level Next Generation Critical and Emerging Technologies Dialogue (led by national security advisers). The two sides also agreed to establish a U.S.-ROK Strategic Cybersecurity Cooperation Framework. And it appears as though some streamlining of export controls policies will allow for more collaboration in space, that will facilitate more commercial and governmental cooperation in space. The two sides also affirmed continued cooperation on artificial intelligence (AI), biotechnology, medical products using AI, and biomanufacturing.
Q4: What are the takeaways on North Korean denuclearization and trilateral relations with the United States, Korea, and Japan?
A4: Biden and Yoon reiterated their commitment to diplomacy and denuclearization of North Korea, which was expected. The two put more emphasis, however, on human rights abuses in North Korea and also made explicit reference to aspirations for Korean unification in the joint statement, which was not seen in U.S. joint statements with the previous government.
On Japan, Biden made reference to Yoon’s “political courage” and leadership to take the initiative to improve South Korea's relations with Japan. This has become a regular adulation by White House officials regarding Yoon’s efforts with Japan. Behind the scenes, White House officials have expressed some frustration with the tepid response from Tokyo on the forced labor compensation deal and hope that Kishida will use an upcoming visit to South Korea in early May to do more. Biden and Yoon also made reference to economic security dialogues bilaterally and trilaterally with Japan. The latter suggests U.S. acceptance of a Yoon-proposed 2+2+2 on economic security.
Q5: How will China react to the U.S.-ROK summit?
A5: China will respond negatively to the summit. Yoon agreed to regularize anti-submarine and missile defense exercises, information-sharing, interdiction, anti-piracy, and also the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) trilateral exercises with the United States and Japan. The commitment to missile defense exercises, China would say, is a violation of the “three no’s” agreement of the previous administration. The United States and South Korea also made a very strong (and new) statement on opposing economic coercion which clearly refers to China (though unnamed). South Korea also agreed to a new and strong statement on opposing any changes to the status quo in the Taiwan Straits through use of force, as well as “unlawful maritime claims, the militarization of reclaimed features, and coercive activities” in the South China Sea. All of these are new major statements that will surely anger China, as they demonstrate a clear shift by South Korea to the United States and away from the previous hedging strategy.
Q6: Were there any big deliverables on economic/trade issues?
A6: The Biden administration’s acknowledgment of the intent to work closely with the Yoon government on the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), CHIPS and Science Act, and export controls suggests that going forward, there might be more consultation with Korea and other key partners on rule-making rather than unilateral disclosures. Yet there was no sense that any new measures had been offered at this summit. However, it is noteworthy that U.S. companies have announced about $5.9 billion investments into South Korea, including from Netflix and Corning.
On climate change, both sides reiterated their Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement. They also remained committed to nuclear energy cooperation, but no apparent resolution was reached on the legal dispute between Westinghouse and KEPCO, which will hold up any further collaboration.
Victor Cha is senior vice president for Asia and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.