US President Joe Biden flew to South Korea on 19 May for his first visit to Asia since taking office in January 2021. The visit was part of a tour that included Japan, where he was expected to participate in a Quad Summit with the leaders of Japan, Australia, and India, the third of its kind under the Biden administration. The first was a virtual one in March 2021, and the second took place in person last September at the White House in Washington.
Biden’s trip to South Korea came after the country’s presidential elections and the election of a conservative president with no experience of foreign affairs, Yoon Suk-yeol, who succeeded former president Moon Jae-in.
The South Korea-US Summit was the first official foreign engagement of the new Korean president, who has adopted a more muscular approach to North Korea than his more open predecessor. Through his constructive and forward-looking diplomacy towards North Korea, former South Korean president Moon Jae-in succeeded in arranging the first and “historic” summit meeting between a sitting US president, Donald Trump, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at Sentosa in Singapore in June 2018.
Judging from the initial positions of the newly elected South Korean president on the North, it does not seem likely that he will be in a position to repeat such a diplomatic opening, at least not at this stage.
Of course, Biden’s visit to South Korea demonstrated the US commitment to the defence of South Korea and the enduring alliance between the two nations. However, the trip also comes within a larger US strategy of deepening and enlarging strategic alliances in the Indo-Pacific region, a strategy that aims at creating an ambitious Grand Alliance that includes three wings – the US-South Korean-Japanese alliance, the Quad, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
In fact, before going to Asia, Biden hosted an ASEAN-US Special Summit in April in Washington. The long-term US objective is the containment of China through a network of alliances that extend from Europe to the Indo-Pacific. The US-led NATO alliance is working on a new strategic concept that is likely to extend the mission of the alliance to the Indo-Pacific region. This concept is expected to be adopted during the Madrid NATO Summit at the end of next month.
The US-South Korean Summit dealt with various major issues, not only in the context of the bilateral relations between the two countries, but also regionally and globally taking into consideration the ambition of the new South Korean president for his country to play a larger “strategic role” in world affairs. That role, in case it materialises in terms of deeds and geographical reach, would not be independent of US interests and the US strategic vision. One of the basic and most serious challenges that South Korea will face will come after NATO unveils its strategic concept for the next decade in June. Will South Korea sign on to it?
The talks between the US and the new South Korean president reaffirmed their known positions vis-à-vis North Korea, particularly its nuclear and ballistic missiles programmes. Anyone wanting to try to find an implicit invitation to the North to start to show a certain flexibility on this score may be facing a hard time discerning one. The US-Republic of Korea’s Leaders Joint Statement on 21 May said that the two sides “are unified in a common determination to deepen and broaden our political, economic, security and people-to-people ties.” It further referred to the two leaders’ determination to pursue “their common goal of the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and agree to further strengthen airtight coordination to this end.”
A question mark hangs over the “denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula,” however. Is this meant to address all nuclear capabilities and nuclear military assets in the two Koreas or only those of North Korea? Maybe the answer to this question is to be found in the following quotation from the 21 May Leaders Statement, provocative from the North Korean point of view. This says that “Biden affirms the United States extended deterrence commitment to the ROK using the full range of the United States defence capabilities, including nuclear, conventional, and missile defence capabilities.” Furthermore, it has been agreed to reactivate the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group at the earliest date.
It is doubtful that the call for dialogue on the part of the South Korean president with the North will find listening ears in Pyongyang, given the clear political will of Washington and Seoul to deepen their security cooperation under the heading of “extended deterrence,” a concept that the North Korean leader will find threatening to the security of his country and regime.
How the US and South Korea want to combine denuclearisation and the application of the “extended deterrence” concept to their strategic approach to the North remains to be seen in the light of the contradictory message that it carries. But we can safely argue that the Sentosa spirit, as highlighted by the joint statement released after the US-North Korean Summit in June 2018, is dead. Incidentally, when answering a question at the joint press conference held with his South Korean counterpart in Seoul on 21 May Biden did not rule out another US-North Korean summit but conditioned a repeat of it by stressing that such a summit “would depend on whether he [Kim Jong-un] was sincere and whether it was serious.”
The emerging realignment of forces internationally in the post-Ukraine War era and the US strategy of targeting and containing China make the goal of the denuclearisation of North Korea unattainable. I see no reason from the standpoint of the strategic vision of Pyongyang for it to engage with Seoul for the foreseeable future in any meaningful and comprehensive dialogue about peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, let alone a theoretical denuclearisation programme.
In the light of the persistent US strategy worldwide to encircle its adversaries with an interlocking system of alliances across the globe, and a trilateral alliance between the US, South Korea, and Japan, as articulated by Biden during his visit to Seoul, the international system is facing a very challenging security and military environment. Extended deterrence is not limited to the US and its allies only.
In such a context, talking about the denuclearisation of North Korea seems a pipe dream. You can’t expect your opponent, adversary, or enemy to disarm while you yourself are arming to the teeth.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.