A critical issue South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol will discuss during his state visit this week to Washington D.C. will be how to strengthen security cooperation with the United States.
The trip marks the 70th anniversary of one of the United States’ most important global alliances even as the two countries face unprecedented security challenges in Northeast Asia from China, Russia and North Korea. The transformation of the South Korea-U.S. alliance into a global partnership for peace, prosperity and democracy is especially welcome given recent setbacks to these values.
U.S. officials should use this week’s meetings to reward Yoon for his bold stances aligning with U.S. positions regarding China, Russia and Japan, despite international and domestic concerns. Additionally, Seoul and Washington should build on this week’s high-profile encounter — the first state visit by a Republic of Korea (ROK) president in over a decade — to accelerate several critical security initiatives.
Yoon has strongly criticized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and joined other Western countries in imposing multiple sanctions on Russian entities. Even so, South Korea’s importance as a global arms exporter has placed growing pressure on Seoul to relax its opposition to sending lethal aid to Ukraine.
As a major diplomatic and industrial power, South Korea has become entangled in Chinese-U.S. tensions over semiconductors, Taiwan and other issues. South Korean and U.S. companies are increasing mutual trade and investment to decrease reliance on Chinese supply chains. ROK national security leaders are also more openly expressing concerns regarding potential Chinese aggression against Taiwan and Beijing’s other policies.
Although South Koreans’ wariness of Japan is weakening due to the challenges from China, Russia and North Korea, Yoon nonetheless disregarded substantial domestic unease when he held a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida last month. The ROK president insisted on the meeting, despite the political risks, due to his strong commitment to strengthening ties with fellow liberal democracies and his understanding that Japan would become an increasingly important partner of South Korea as both countries face Chinese assertiveness, Russian revisionism and North Korea’s aggressive military buildup.
North Korean threats represent the most immediate menace. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPKR) relentlessly fields new missiles aimed at South Korea, Japan and North America. Last year saw a record number of DPRK missile launches, including testing new missiles capable of hitting targets anywhere in the United States. The DPRK regime aims to undermine the ROK-U.S. alliance by making South Koreans believe the United States would not defend them if North Korean missiles can attack the U.S. homeland. Pyongyang will not end its nuclear missile program until the DPRK regime is replaced by a unified Korean Peninsula that respects human rights and international law.
South Korea has met this threat by increasing its national defense spending, imposing stronger sanctions on North Korea and resuming major military exercises with the United States. Besides failed efforts at diplomacy with Pyongyang, the United States has taken steps — such as deploying more strategic assets to Northeast Asia and bolstering cyber and space cooperation — to protect Asian allies from North Korea. Such reassurance is critical to avert demands that South Korea acquire its own nuclear weapons, which would erode ROK-U.S. security cooperation.
U.S. officials will also need to accept South Koreans’ constraints in publicly backing the United States in disputes with Russia and China, given Seoul’s hope to leverage Moscow’s and Beijing’s influence with North Korea to restrain Pyongyang’s provocations. Heavy-handed U.S. pressure could counterproductively complicate South Korea’s growing alignment with U.S. preferences regarding Russia, China and Japan.
Congress can best support ROK-U.S. cooperation by supporting the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, including programs to augment U.S. military capabilities in Northeast Asia, and resisting protectionist trade and investment measures that unduly burden U.S. allies. Additionally, strengthening U.S. national missile defenses will make it less likely that North Korea will kill Americans in Asia as well as North America.
Congress should fully fund programs to augment the sensor network for tracking and targeting North Korean missiles, whatever their flightpath, and deploying Next Generation Interceptors (NGIs) to supplement the existing fleet of interceptors defending North America from ballistic missile attacks. According to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, the NGI “features a multiple kill vehicle payload, improves survivability and increased performance against projected threats from North Korea and potentially Iran.” The Pentagon is overseeing a robust competition to select the best interceptor design and begin NGI deployment by 2028.
If DPRK leaders understand that they cannot assuredly attack the United States with nuclear warheads, they are less likely to risk war. Likewise, if South Koreans can more confidently count on receiving U.S. military support, they are less likely to seek to accommodate China and Russia or nuclear weapons.