Biden rolls out red carpet for South Korea’s Yoon with state visit and new cooperation against North Korea’s nuclear threat

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President Joe Biden welcomes South Korea President Yoon Suk Yeol to the White House for the full pomp and circumstance and hospitality of an official state visit – a high-stakes meeting amid ongoing provocations from North Korea, China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region and a recent leak of Pentagon documents.

The leaders are set to announce a key new agreement strengthening extended deterrence – a US policy that uses the full range of military capabilities to defend its allies – with new commitments alongside South Korea in response to nuclear threats from North Korea.

And more broadly, the visit signals the importance with which the US views its relationships with allies in the Indo-Pacific, this trip coming one week before Biden hosts Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos and weeks before Biden is expected to travel to the region himself.

Biden and Yoon will unveil the “Washington Declaration” on Wednesday at the White House, senior administration officials told reporters, a set of new steps to boost US-South Korean cooperation on military training, information sharing and strategic asset movements in the face of a recent spate of missile launches from North Korea.

It is intended to send a clear message: “What the United States and the ROK plan to do at every level is strengthen our practices, our deployments, our capabilities, to ensure the deterrent message is absolutely unquestioned and to also make clear that if we are tested in any way that we will be prepared to respond collectively and in an overwhelming way,” a senior administration official said.

The product of a monthslong discussion between officials from both countries, the declaration will announce that the US “(intends) to take steps to make our deterrence more visible through the regular deployment of strategic assets, including a US nuclear ballistic submarine visit to South Korea, which has not happened since the early 1980s,” the official said. Officials made clear that such assets will not be stationed permanently, and there is “no plan” to deploy any tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula.

The US and Korea will also “strengthen our training, our exercises and simulation activities to improve the US-ROK alliance’s approach to deterring and defending” against North Korean threats, per the official.

It also creates the “US-ROK Nuclear Consultative Group,” which the official said will convene regularly to consult on nuclear and strategic planning issues, with the hope that it will give allies “additional insight in how we think about planning for major contingencies.” That group is modeled after US engagement with European allies during the height of the Cold War, the official said.

After a year in which North Korea fired a record number of nuclear missile tests, South Korea’s President Yoon earlier this year spoke about possibly deploying US tactical missiles on the Korean peninsula or even developing the country’s own set of nuclear weapons.

While he dialed back his remarks, those are both scenarios the Biden administration wanted deeply to avoid, and White House officials spent recent months looking for ways to reassure South Korea by bolstering the alliance, including considering a plan to incorporate nuclear exercises into the war planning the two nations already do together, according to two senior Biden administration officials.

“We need to have tabletop exercises that go through a variety of scenarios, including possibly nuclear weapons,” a senior official told CNN earlier this month.

“The South Koreans don’t have experience in using nuclear weapons. This is why we need to do tabletop exercises with them. The Koreans need to be educated in what it means to use nuclear weapons, the targeting, and the effects,” said David Maxwell of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, adding that there will be no change to the US having control on the targeting. “The hope is that this will satisfy them and improve readiness.”

The hope, the officials said, was that this offer – along with sustained engagement to develop other ideas to implement – will provide the alternative that the South Koreans need.

Beyond the declaration, Biden and Yoon are expected to celebrate 70 years of the US-South Korea alliance, highlighting close economic ties between the nations, pointing to cooperation on issues like climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic, and looking toward ways to continue supporting Ukraine amid Russia’s ongoing invasion, plus a new dialogue on cyber cooperation. They are also expected to announce a new student exchange program focused on STEM “that will significantly increase the number of students going in both directions,” a second senior official said.

And Biden is expected to celebrate Yoon’s “determination and courage” to improve the strained relationship between Japan and South Korea, an area that has been “of deep interest” to Biden, who has twice met with both countries’ leaders in a trilateral setting, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told White House reporters earlier this week. A stronger alliance between those two countries is strategically important to the US as it looks for ways to counter China’s rising influence.

Recent online leaks of Pentagon documents involving South Korea also loom over the visit. One of the leaked documents describes, in remarkable detail, a conversation between two senior South Korean national security officials about concerns by the country’s National Security Council over a US request for ammunition.

The officials worried that supplying the ammunition, which the US would then send to Ukraine, would violate South Korea’s policy of not supplying lethal aid to countries at war. According to the document, one of the officials then suggested a way of getting around the policy without actually changing it – by selling the ammunition to Poland. The document sparked controversy in Seoul.

The leaks “caused the press to push him (Yoon) more on this. And we’re hearing more and more about how he feels about the issue,” Dr. Victor Cha, Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a recent briefing.

Cha continued, “Korea has one of the largest, if not the largest, stockpile of munitions of any country in the world. And they also have tremendous production capacity in terms of munitions. And if there’s one thing that Ukraine needs in this war and that NATO allies who are supporting Ukraine need in this war, it’s munitions. So I would say to watch this space,” adding that it is unlikely that an announcement will be made during this state visit.

And the White House emphatically stated Tuesday that US commitment to its security partnership with South Korea is “ironclad” despite those leaks, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declining to say whether it would be a topic of discussion between Biden and Yoon.

More broadly, Russia’s war in Ukraine is expected to be a key topic of discussion, with both leaders expected to continue to promote the importance of democracy, and a fulsome conversation expected on “what comes next for Korea’s support for Ukraine,” a third official said.

“Ultimately, there’s no country that has probably a better sense of the importance of the international community standing together to support a country that’s completely invaded than the ROK,” the second senior official said.

Wednesday’s events mark just the second state visit of the Biden presidency (Biden hosted French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte in December 2022).

The visit began informally Tuesday as the Bidens welcomed Yoon and his wife, Mrs. Kim Keon Hee, for an evening trip to the Korean War Memorial.

The South Korean guests will be formally received with an official arrival ceremony Wednesday morning on the South Lawn ahead of a bilateral meeting with the presidents and their staffs, followed by a joint press conference. And there will be full pageantry and glamour in the evening as the White House rolls out the red carpet for the leaders, their spouses and key dignitaries at the black-tie state dinner.

The elaborate dinner is the result of weeks of careful diplomatic preparations, with each detail meticulously planned by a team of White House chefs, social staff, and protocol experts. Ties between the countries will be front and center in the décor and on the menu, with guests set to dine under towering cherry blossom branches on food prepared by Korean American celebrity chef Edward Lee. The menu includes crab cakes with a gochujang vinaigrette, braised beef short ribs, and a deconstructed banana split with lemon bar ice cream and a doenjang caramel. Entertainment will be provided by a trio of Broadway stars.

Yoon is also scheduled to join Vice President Kamala Harris for lunch, and toured NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland with her Tuesday, where the leaders committed to increase cooperation on space exploration. And he is set to address a joint session of Congress on Thursday.

A senior administration official noted that some of the “last remaining veterans of the Korean War from both Korea and the United States” will join in Wednesday’s proceedings.

The visit is also an opportunity to reinforce the Biden-Yoon friendship. Sullivan said the leaders have “developed a rapport” that has seen four engagements to date, including Biden’s trip to Seoul in May 2022 just days after Yoon took office, as well as on the sidelines of summits in Spain, New York and Cambodia.


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