12.10.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Yoon Suk-yeol on tour of the Anglo-Saxon world

Between September 18 and 24, 2022, ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol went on a foreign tour. It included visits to the United Kingdom (funeral of Queen Elizabeth II), the United States (participation in the UN General Assembly) and Canada (the key topic was economic security and diversification of supply channels for raw materials and minerals).

Hopes were high as Yoon’s National Security Advisor Kim Sung-han stressed that the purpose of the trip was to build solidarity with partner countries sharing the same core values and to broaden the foundations of economic diplomacy.

On September 15, the ROK presidential administration announced that Seoul and Tokyo had reached an agreement in principle to hold a Korea-Japan summit, although the talks are unlikely to last long because both leaders are busy with events at the UN General Assembly. Yoon was also due to hold talks with President Joe Biden and UN Secretary-General António Guterres while in the US.

 Although the agenda for the meetings with the heads of the US and Japan had not been discussed in advance, it was assumed that Yoon would likely discuss the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which excludes electric vehicles assembled outside North America from tax credits, and ask the US to allow Korean-made electric vehicles to receive tax subsidies.

On September 18, Yoon Suk-yeol attended a reception hosted by King Charles III at Buckingham Palace. The ROK leader personally expressed his condolences to the former Prince Charles on the death of his mother, and also congratulated him on his accession to the throne. During the conversation, Charles III and members of his family (notably Kate Middleton) expressed a desire to visit South Korea (Charles last visited Korea in 1992), to which Yoon replied that his country would always welcome them.

However, London traffic interfered with the further schedule of the visit, and Yoon (in fairness, along with other heads of states) did not make it to the casket, confining himself to condolences in a special visitors’ book.

The fact that the ROK leader was not able to participate fully in the farewell ceremony for Elizabeth II made him vulnerable to criticism from the opposition, which called it a diplomatic disaster: he could have timed it better, although Yoon was not alone among those “not in time”. However, rumors swirled in South Korean online circles that Yoon had been slighted by the British royal family and government, while other G7 leaders were treated in accordance with diplomatic protocol. It was mentioned that there was still no South Korean ambassador in the UK and there had been no one to prepare the visit on the ground.

On September 20, the ROK President arrived in New York, where he addressed the UNGA, and like his inaugural address, Yoon Suk-yeol spoke extensively about freedom, calling on UN member states to unite in order to defend freedom and peace. The word “freedom” was repeated 21 times in less than 7 minutes by Yoon, followed by “solidarity” (8), “support” (7) and “responsibility” (3). Yoon thanked the UN for its contribution to the ROK development, saying its first mission after its founding was to establish the country as the only legitimate government on the Korean peninsula and to defend the country’s freedom by deploying UN forces during the Korean War.

Thus, on the one hand, Yoon “shone” and reinforced the image of the Republic of Korea as a “free and democratic country” with his speeches. On the other hand, he has not issued anti-Russian or anti-Chinese rhetoric. In fact, even DPRK was NOT explicitly mentioned.

            On the same day, September 20, the ROK President met with UN Secretary-General António Guterres. Yoon Suk-yeol expressed gratitude to the UN head for supporting efforts to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula, and spoke about a project to provide comprehensive aid to Pyongyang in exchange for giving up nuclear weapons. At the same time, he called on the UN Secretary-General to support a united, strong global response to Pyongyang’s nuclear tests or other nuclear-weapon-related activities. António Guterres said the ROK can trust the UN which will take decisive action within the UN Security Council if peace and freedom are threatened.

            In addition, Yoon Suk-yeol met with representatives of the Korean diaspora in New York and promised to ask the US government to ensure their rights and safety. Yoon said he hoped that a bill aimed at creating a ministry for Koreans abroad would be passed by the National Assembly.

On September 21, Yoon Suk-yeol held a brief meeting with his US counterpart Joe Biden. The summit had originally been planned, but due to changes in the White House’s work schedule, the communication lasted less than a minute. According to the ROK presidential administration, Yoon Suk-yeol invited Joe Biden to work closely together to solve problems in implementing the provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act. Biden said he was aware of the problem and offered to discuss it later. In addition, agreements were reached on cooperation in stabilizing financial markets and confronting North Korea’s policies.

The failed summit was criticized by both the left and the right, but no one paid attention to the version that seems most understandable and realistic. Yoon had earlier shown independence by refusing to meet Nancy Pelosi during her visit to Taiwan and other Asian countries, after which the ROK President was put in his place.

The situation was exacerbated by Yoon’s remark on the switched-on microphone, which, if reporters are to be believed, sounded something like “if those sons of bitches in the National Assembly don’t approve, Biden will be ashamed.” The consequences of this remark will be discussed in a separate article, because it has caused a serious internal political uproar which continues to this day.

On the same day, Yoon Suk-yeol attended a digital forum at New York University, stating that digital technology should be shared and used to expand freedoms. Yoon also met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and agreed to strengthen cooperation in responding to disruptions in global supply chains.

On September 22, the ROK President and the Prime Minister of Japan met. The first meeting between Yoon and Kishida in two years and nine months lasted about 30 minutes and took place freely, without a pre-agreed agenda. The ROK and Japanese leaders agreed on the need to improve bilateral relations by resolving contentious issues, expressed concern over Pyongyang’s nuclear issue and agreed to work closely with the global community to resolve it.

According to the South Korean presidential administration, the sides have managed to take a step towards resolving bilateral issues. Tokyo was less positive about the outcome of the meeting, saying that it did not lead to concrete agreements and that it was not a summit, but an informal conversation. The South Korean democrats also criticized the result of the meeting, as Park Hong-keun, head of the PDK parliamentary faction, said, “both the process and the results were humiliating. … No progress has been made on such historic issues as forced labor.”

On September 23, Yoon Suk-yeol arrived in Canada on a visit. In a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the two sides agreed to upgrade the bilateral relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership”. The sides expressed support for the complete denuclearization of the DPRK; established a “ROK-Canada Climate Change Dialogue”; updated a memorandum of understanding between the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) and the Canadian Ministry of Defense for cooperation on military equipment; and a memorandum of partnership on industrial technology innovation between the Korea Evaluation Institute of Industrial Technology (KEIT) and the National Research Council Canada.  In the economic sphere, they have launched a “high-level dialogue on economic security”, agreed to intensify the work of a joint committee on scientific and technological innovation, and to deepen strategic partnerships on sustainable supply chains (prioritizing key mineral resources for the production of batteries and electric cars, and the transition to clean energy). Under the latter, seven Canadian companies are investing $1.15 billion in the ROK to establish R&D centers and advanced R&D in semiconductors, batteries and electric vehicles.

In addition to meeting with Trudeau, Yoon Suk-yeol met with representatives of University of Toronto’s Artificial Intelligence faculty and said that the ROK will actively support cooperation with Canada in the field of artificial intelligence. Yoon stressed that the new e-government platform project will improve the quality of administrative services and open a new page in improving the efficiency of the social welfare system, which is needed by the vulnerable sections of society. Moreover, the two sides agreed to work together on the global digital transition, leveraging Canada’s expertise in artificial intelligence and South Korea’s digital innovation to use their respective strengths in the production and supply of clean hydrogen to achieve high levels of synergy in their pursuit of carbon neutrality by 2050.

On September 24, Yoon Suk-yeol returned home, where the outcome of the visit was called a “diplomatic disaster” by both Democrats and Conservatives.  The main complaint was the inability of Yoon’s team to organize the announced summits; the 48-second interaction between the US and ROK Presidents looked very offensive against the hopes that Yoon could influence the US course, and the Japanese side did not call it a summit. As a result, on September 29, the National Assembly, where the Democrats hold the majority, impeached Foreign Minister Park Jin. Technically, this means a recommendation to dismiss, but Yoon Suk-yeol has no intention of removing the Foreign Minister.

The domestic political implications of the visit will be considered later, but this article will conclude with a summary of the results.

  • There might be inconsistencies, but there really were a lot of them in the present instance, and the author does not know whom to blame more – the protocol service or the black swans. Everyone is smart in hindsight, but the president’s entourage should be advised not to halloo till they are out of the wood.
  • Judging by the visits of the British Foreign Secretary and the US Vice-President to the ROK shortly after Yoon’s trip, there was no particular disaster, and as for the reason behind Biden’s change of schedule, the author is prepared to explain it separately: rather too rebellious a leader got taken down a peg or two.
  • Negotiations on economic issues with all but Biden went well. On the rostrum of the UNGA, Yoon looked at least as good as Moon, and unlike him did not come up with overtly utopian projects. Separately, it should be noted that while he had the opportunity to “kick” Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang and receive the “respect of the international community” for doing so, Yoon did not do so.
  • The on-camera profanity came out inappropriately, but it was not a demonstration of the president’s incompetence, but rather the skillful hands of the man who left the microphone on. This again raises the question of new standards for first-person communication.
  • The meeting with Kishida, though not a summit, is the first attempt by the leaders to discuss what is important at this level – what Moon destroyed for years cannot be rebuilt in months.
  • So while it is true that the visit was a failure in terms of landmarks, it was by no means the failure that the president’s detractors see it as.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.