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ANALYSISAt G20, Yoon seeks to boost cooperation with US, Japan to rein in NK threats

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President Yoon Suk-yeol holds a trilateral meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Nov. 13. Reuters-Yonhap
President Yoon Suk-yeol holds a trilateral meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Nov. 13. Reuters-Yonhap

Yoon-Biden-Kishida talks to help Seoul engage in major diplomatic initiatives

By Kim Yoo-chul

A few days after the end of large-scale aerial drills by the United States and South Korean forces, President Yoon Suk-yeol is seeking to tip the balance of regional diplomacy toward the U.S. and Japan over China in a bid to contain North Korea's growing nuclear threats.

There were no specific deliverables from Yoon's in-person meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and U.S. President Joe Biden on the sidelines of their participation in a summit of the G20 gathering of countries in Bali, the resort island in Indonesia.

Yoon agreed with Kishida to continue talks for an early resolution of key pending issues, but the South Korean presidential office did not add any details about how and when. Yoon and Biden once again reaffirmed their firm commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in accordance with United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions.

Because the United States has set Biden's core purpose for this year's G20 event as elevating Washington's engagement in the Indo-Pacific by advancing security partnership efforts amid a range of threats, the trilateral conversations between Biden, Yoon and Kishida were a chance for Yoon to understand the U.S.' "forward-deployed posture" toward regional defense, according to two presidential foreign policy advisers under the former Moon Jae-in administration.

"Regarding the specific outcomes from the trilateral talks, because Washington still hopes to remain on the front foot in terms of security cooperation, I would say the conversations will help South Korea engage in major diplomatic initiatives for Seoul to have more support from its top allies when it comes to enhancing the allies' strong combined defense posture in the wake of North Korean threats," one adviser to the former Moon administration said by telephone.

Behind the reasons for the North's recent high-level provocations, are Pyongyang's hopes for recognition as a nuclear state by the international community, according to security experts in Washington, D.C. They viewed the North's recent missile tests as an "opportune time" for continuous progress both on the nuclear and missile fronts.

This handout photo taken on Nov. 5 and provided by the South Korean Ministry of National Defense in Seoul shows two U.S. Air Force B-1B heavy bombers, center, four Republic of Korea Air Force F-35 fighter jets and four USAF F-16 fighter jets flying over South Korea during the Vigilant Storm joint air drill after a blitz of missile launches by North Korea. AFP-Yonhap
This handout photo taken on Nov. 5 and provided by the South Korean Ministry of National Defense in Seoul shows two U.S. Air Force B-1B heavy bombers, center, four Republic of Korea Air Force F-35 fighter jets and four USAF F-16 fighter jets flying over South Korea during the Vigilant Storm joint air drill after a blitz of missile launches by North Korea. AFP-Yonhap

Scott Snyder at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and Zack Cooper at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), both of whom have extensive experience in advising the Biden administration on Washington's North Korea policies, told The Korea Times that Pyongyang will not change its "nuclear-first core philosophy." They said the U.S. is concerned about its weakened grip on the global non-proliferation regime if it accepts North Korea as a nuclear state.

North Korea has ramped up its missile tests so far this year, having conducted such tests on 32 occasions so far this year, compared to eight in 2021 and four in 2020, according to military and intelligence sources. Pyongyang is ready to conduct its seventh nuclear test at any time, said intelligence officials in Seoul.

The central question is, despite Washington's extended deterrence commitment to Seoul, it's quite unclear exactly how the commitment can be implemented effectively, given the various parties' differing definitions of extended deterrence. The extent of the "U.S. extended deterrence commitment" is being perceived differently in the United States, South Korea and North Korea.

Amid the North's growing military provocations, ruling People Power Party (PPP) politicians and more South Koreans are asking for the government to become more determined to pursue its own course, including an "independent nuclear deterrent." However, it is very unlikely that Washington will let Seoul have its own nuclear weapons as doing so will give Pyongyang justification for its nuclear program and could result in further horizontal proliferation in Northeast Asia.

"From South Korea's standpoint, a key focus on security cooperation between Washington, Seoul and Tokyo is determined in managing the North Korean threats. Within that context, the leaders of South Korea and the United States agreed to explore specific measures in order to further strengthen extended deterrence to counter North Korea's growing threats," a senior official at the presidential office said.

President Yoon Suk-yeol, right, shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during the 17th East Asia Summit (EAS) as part of the 40th and 41st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and Related Summits in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Nov. 13. EPA-Yonhap
President Yoon Suk-yeol, right, shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during the 17th East Asia Summit (EAS) as part of the 40th and 41st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and Related Summits in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Nov. 13. EPA-Yonhap

The official declined to answer questions about the possibility of Washington deploying its carrier strike groups, bombers and other strategic assets to Seoul on a rotating basis. During the G20, Yoon said South Korea is ready to provide massive support to North Korea, but only after seeing progress in the North's steps to denuclearize its nuclear arsenal.

Getting closer to Japan, still icy relations with China

Yoon's summit with Kishida is also in sync with the South Korean leader's focus to highlight his "central diplomacy" initiative, as North Korea has continuously been testing its missiles at an unprecedented pace.

"Yoon and Kishida's officially confirmed meeting happened as Seoul-Tokyo relations are still at their lowest point over historical issues. The good point is the two found their common ground in possibly getting past the frozen bilateral relationship because they agreed to keep leader-level communication channels open. Japan also has serious concerns over North Korea's nuclear threats," another adviser under the Moon administration said in a separate phone call.


Months earlier in New York, Yoon met with Kishida on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, but contrary to Seoul's description of the meeting as a summit, Japan described it as an informal meeting and no official announcements were made by the two sides about the outcome.

"I just want to clarify that the leaders of South Korea and Japan have no doubts over the necessity of maintaining close communication. Yoon's summit with Kishida will help South Korea develop discussions in addressing issues with mutual interests," said another official at the presidential office.

But when it comes to improving South Korea's ties with China, which has a huge influence over North Korea, more time will be needed, said experts. With the United States, China is also one of the top stakeholders in terms of breaking the impasse of the North's stalled denuclearization process.

In the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and amid the deepening conflict with the United States over issues including U.S. support in cross-strait matters, Washington's crackdown campaign on Beijing's tech industry and Seoul's support for Washington-led policy initiatives, South Korea's relationship with China has been even worse since Yoon took power in May this year.

President Biden met with Xi after significant political events for both. Xi recently secured an unprecedented third term and Biden received better-than-expected results in the U.S. midterm elections.




Kim Yoo-chul yckim@koreatimes.co.kr


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