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Has Joe Biden Repaired U.S. Relations with South Korea?

Despite Biden’s best efforts with South Korea, the summit declaration merely puts a band-aid on a festering wound in the bilateral alliance. 

Joe Biden
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the passage of gun safety bill S. 2938, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, Saturday, June 25, 2022, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Erin Scott)

U.S. relations with the Republic of Korea (ROK) have been experiencing severe strains over the past several years. That pattern reached a new level of intensity in April 2023 when leaked Pentagon documents indicated that the United States had been spying on its longtime ally. That revelation likely did not come as a great surprise to President Yoon Suk-yeol’s government. Washington has been caught conducting surveillance on numerous allies over the decades. Two especially notorious incidents, one in 2015, the other in 2021, involved National Security Agency (NSA) operations focused on German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Nevertheless, the latest revelation put Yoon in an awkward position. Korea’s opposition Democratic Party immediately exploited the situation, issuing a statement condemning Washington’s behavior as a “clear infringement” of the ROK’s sovereignty and accusing Yoon of overseeing “lax” security policies. The timing of this scandal also could scarcely have been worse, coming barely two weeks before Yoon’s scheduled summit with Joe Biden.

Biden moved to repair the damage as much as possible and to discourage Seoul from pursuing a foreign policy that seemed increasingly independent from Washington’s goals. U.S. leaders were growing concerned that the ROK was flirting with acquiring an independent nuclear deterrent to reduce the country’s reliance on the United States for its security.  Prominent members of the American foreign policy community noted that a serious debate on the issue had begun to take place in South Korea. 

The joint declaration at the conclusion of Biden’s April 2023 summit meeting with Yoon clearly sought to discourage that option by conveying a more robust U.S. commitment to South Korea’s security, including the symbolic gesture of sending a nuclear submarine to dock in the ROK for the first time since the 1980s.  Biden also indicated that Seoul would have greater input into decisions involving the bilateral alliance, including nuclear policy. Whether or not such steps will be sufficient not only to keep South Korea in Washington’s camp, but to induce ROK leaders to commit their country to back Washington’s overall agenda in East Asia remains uncertain.

The main source of discord is policy toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As Donald Trump’s administration attempted to do, the Biden administration seeks to enlist South Korea in a de facto containment policy directed against Beijing. That approach has two main elements: encouraging allies to reduce their economic and technological dependence on the PRC (so called “decoupling”), and getting a commitment to help the United States defend Taiwan, if the PRC decides to use force against the island to compel reunification with the mainland. 

Yoon’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in, firmly resisted that courtship, and even though Yoon was widely expected to be more hardline and pro-U.S., the trajectory of South Korean policy toward China has not changed that much. Seoul still would prefer to avoid antagonizing the PRC regarding either economic decoupling or Taiwan. China is a major ROK trading and investment partner, and Seoul needs the PRC to discourage North Korea from engaging in rash actions.  

As Cato Institute senior fellow Doug Bandow points out, Seoul especially has major incentives not to antagonize Beijing militarily. “South Korean military facilities would be targeted by Chinese missile attacks to prevent their use by U.S. forces. If Seoul and other allied states committed to war on Washington’s command, Beijing would have an incentive to strike preemptively if conflict loomed.” 

That reality largely explains Yoon’s refusal to make a firm commitment to Washington regarding policy toward Taiwan, North Korea, or other matters that could lead to a collision between the ROK and the PRC.  Bandow points out that Yoon “appears to have edged back from the U.S. on THAAD deployments, Quad membership, semiconductor chips, and Taiwan’s defense.  The Quincy Institute’s James Park likewise observes that the ROK leader “looks far from [being] a China hawk.”

Such major differences between Washington and Seoul about relations with China mean that Biden’s concessions at the recent summit will have only limited beneficial effect. The ROK is not about to enlist in a U.S. crusade against China, especially regarding the issue of defending Taiwan. Despite Biden’s best efforts, the joint summit declaration merely puts a band-aid on a festering wound in the bilateral alliance. 

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A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute and a senior fellow at the Libertarian Institute.  He also served in various policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato Institute. Dr. Carpenter is the author of 13 books and more than 1,200 articles on international affairs.  His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022). 

Written By

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.  His books include (with Doug Bandow) The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2004).



  1. len

    April 30, 2023 at 9:52 am

    More talk of Neocon interventionist wars.
    The costs in blood and treasure are way too high.
    Haven’t we had enough?
    Quit it!

    The Biden regime could ‘fuck-up’ a free soup.

  2. 403Forbidden

    April 30, 2023 at 9:57 am

    South korean president yoon suk-yeol is a bit of a hot-tempered dude which might not exactly suit dementia joe’s (ideal) vision of a totally obedient lackey.

    In sept 2022, yoon was caught speaking on a hot mic describing certain US congressmen as ‘fuckers’.

    Dementia joe ought to be fully aware that yoon isn’t the typical canadian or australian type of US lackey.

    Koreans are known to be harsh people or people capable of being harsh when circumstances require them to be so.

    During ww2, many korean guards employed by jap military were generally or widely regarded as some of the meanest humans that ever walked on Earth.

    Dementia joe should know that.

  3. Joe Comment

    April 30, 2023 at 11:57 am

    403Forbidden posts here that South Korea is not a typical US lackey, while on another recent article 404NotFound posts that it is a total US lackey. It seems someone may have accidentally posted something close to truthful. 50 kopek refund owed?

  4. Jim

    April 30, 2023 at 12:56 pm

    The run of the mill official State Visit of the South Korean President to Washington D. C. is the result of the ambivalence with which the South Korean government views the agenda or role Washington wants it to play in North East Asia… but probably more important… Taiwan.

    The United States wants to lineup Japan, South Korea, and anybody else they can “rope in” to back the U. S. quest to peel away Taiwan from Chinese Sovereignty.

    Let’s be clear, the Chinese government and, perhaps, more important, the Chinese People, see Taiwan as part of China… as does official United States’ One China Policy.

    Various historians search for historical analogies… it’s part of what they do.

    I assert the Delian League (The Athenian League) is the analogy which should concern American policy makers.

    A great democracy, Athens, the most powerful city-state among the Greek city-states enlisted all the Greeks to repulse the Persian Empire… and was successful.

    But then Athens started using the gold & men of the lesser Greek city-states for Athens own imperial agenda and to attack other uncooperative Greek city-states.

    Athens & Sparta… the other great power Greek city-state fell into military conflict.

    Athens demanded all the Delian League join their fight against Sparta… many did, but many did not… did not want to involve themselves in an intra-Greek conflict.

    Athens put the financial & warrior squeeze on its allies… with often brutal reprisals for failure to fall in line with Athens “requests.”

    What am I getting to:

    Our Asian allies privately have great reluctance in falling in line with the U. S. scheme of peeling of Taiwan from China, including as mentioned, South Korea.

    The United States has suffered a series of diplomatic failures… other nation-states are tiring of “towing the line” of dubious U. S. foreign policy objectives.

    What eventually happened to the greatest democracy in Classical Antiquity?

    It lost against Sparta, in large part because of hubris, arrogance, and abuse of its allies.

    Wow to the greatest democracy in the Modern Era if it repeats the fate of Athens.

    The ambivalence of South Korea is a manifestation of this “my way or the highway” foreign policy of the United States.

    The “my way or the highway” approach to geopolitics is a recipe for disaster in the dawn of a Multi Polar World.

    U. S. foreign policy is failing. Roping in our Asian allies to the Taiwan Project… is disaster waiting to happen.

  5. Jacksonian Libertarian

    April 30, 2023 at 1:37 pm

    Nobody respects Joe Biden, as he is clearly not in charge, and “10% for the big guy” corrupt. Nearly everything out of his mouth gets retracted by his handlers in the White House. He literally isn’t allowed to answer unvetted questions, as pictures of the recent cheat sheet prove. And the fix is in for the Democrat’s primary with no debates allowed, because they would reveal the extent of his dementia (he announced his re-election campaign in a video!). It won’t be much longer before he is a vegetable and unable to read.

    Contrast that with Trump who used to spend an hour or more speaking to the press on the way to his helicopter, and famously rarely uses notes at his rallies.

    You can also see the results Trump got for Americans with a string of successes, like energy independence, reduced illegal aliens, the border wall, lowest ever unemployment for minorities, etc. Compared to nothing but horrific statistics coming with Biden in the White House. Inflation, deficit spending, Covid deaths, skyrocketing illegal immigration and crime, Russia invades Ukraine because the Authoritarians don’t fear him like they did Trump, the list goes on.

  6. David Chang

    April 30, 2023 at 4:55 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    The past of Mr. Yoon is an attorney general, the past of Mr. Biden is a lawyer, so they think differently. Lawyer is without principles, while an attorney general must obey law and certain moral principles at least.

    Mr. Moon Jae-in represents the South Korea socialism party, competes with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un for the title of South Korea socialism party representative. But Mr. Yoon opposes socialism, which is another difference between him and Biden.

    The Washington Declaration this year is the result of South Korean soldiers and Mr. Yoon protesting to the socialism party, but the Democratic Party still keeps its habit of betraying allies, so the Democratic Party perfunctory South Korea with the Washington Declaration.

    As the recent release event of the U.S. intelligence papers, the U.S. Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of South Korea cooperate to break the alliance agreement between the United States and South Korea. Because the two socialism parties are working together to break the alliance, Mr. Yoon must ask the U.S. to share nuclear weapons with South Korea for the safety of people in South Korea.

    South Korea and Japan ask the United States to share nuclear weapons for a different reason than the reason why the United States shares nuclear weapons with West Germany. The latter is to reflect the wrong policy of the German Social Democratic Party, so that West Germany must live and die with the United States. The former is to keep the alliance between the United States and South Korea, so South Korea lives and dies with the United States voluntarily.

    God bless America and Korea.

  7. Jim

    April 30, 2023 at 7:23 pm

    Where to draw the line… with China?

    China has claimed to take almost the whole South China Sea as sovereign territory by Right of Conquest with the build up of coral atolls into military air strips and fortifications.

    This has already been adjudicated in the International Court of Justice (arbitration) at the Hague in 2016.

    China was found to be in violation of International Law.

    There is evidence of vast, massive deposits of hydrocarbons (oil & gas) below the floor of the South China Sea. (fishing rights & “protecting shipping lanes” is for public consumption)

    China is recently wrapping itself in the U. N. flag, stating its fealty to the United Nations Charter & International Law.

    (And throwing shade @ the U. S. claiming we don’t.)

    China is appealing to neutral nations and even shaky allies.

    Expose China for their hypocrisy to the International Community of Nations.

    Demand binding arbitration on China’s claims to territory by way of Right of Conquest in violation of International Law. War, if necessary, if China fails to accept binding arbitration.

    My hunch is China will accept binding arbitration (where China’s claims have already been rejected) rather than war against the United States.

    And be exposed (for what they are) to all those they claim benevolence and benign intent to in the International Community (their neighbors).

    China will back off the South China Sea Aggression, but won’t back off of China’s sovereignty of Taiwan.

    In terms of International Law Taiwan is at the opposite pole of standing… While China’s position in the South China Sea is as brazen & bald a Conquest as any by standards of International Law.

    Taiwan is the “Ice Berg” dead ahead. It’s the fool’s gold of South East Asia.

    Hydrocarbons in the South China Sea is where the money is at… and the Red Line should be drawn.

  8. Joe Comment

    May 1, 2023 at 6:07 am

    Jim: I often get the impression that China underestimates its relationship with the US.

    In the 1980s, Taiwan came close to testing its own nuclear device, and it was the US who blocked them.

    Since the 1990s it was publicly known that North Korea had a nuclear weapons program, and in 1994 the US and North Korea negotiated the Agreed Framework for the North to give up its program in exchange for aid for a peaceful nuclear energy program. This agreement broke down in 2003 amid US claims of cheating, and North Korea tested its first weapon in 2006. But where was Mainland China during this time? It’s hard to imagine that the combined leverage of the US and China would not have been enough to block North Korea’s nuclear breakout.

    Then if Taiwan decided to restart its nuclear program in the future, which would be a great temptation for them if the US would stop guaranteeing their security, next time should the US block them again? Why should we, if China is not going to reciprocate and help with our non-proliferation goals in other places? A nuclear weapon belonging to Taiwan would not constitute proliferation to a new country, on the understanding that Taiwan and the Mainland are both China.

  9. Jim

    May 1, 2023 at 9:51 am

    Joe, North East Asia is a complex, difficult situation.

    But, we are where we are… hopefully, the waters can be calmed.

    I have no illusions about China.

    They want their place in the Sun.

    China has infiltrated & penetrated the United States government and American society to achieve undue influence… influence, okay, but undue influence has to be rooted out at all levels.

    And China can be curbed from these abuses on American Soil with determined & consistent action, follow through, and follow up.

    China is a smart competitor and adversary… and depending on the circumstances, must be confronted over their actions… the Conquest of the South China Sea is their most flagrant violation of International Law.

    Many analysts want to see China as this “gentle giant” with benign intent… I take a different view… China will take advantage where they can or are unchallenged, or face weak opposition.

    I’m up to challenging & confronting China.

    But peeling Taiwan from China is a recipe for war… which the U. S. would likely lose or only prevail in a pyric victory with heavy loss of life and material destruction… and leave a seething China ready to strike back anyway they could.

    Americans do not grasp the reality where China sees Taiwan as a non-negotiable, elemental part of China, full stop.

    As opposed to China’s annexation of the South China Sea… which even the Chinese know is a naked Conquest against all notions of Modern International Law.

    I draw a Red Line because I know China is dangerous… I draw it where I do because I’m a realist and a patriot… idiots & “War Junkies” insist on making Taiwan the fight against China… it’s stupid because the U. S. doesn’t have an “International Law” leg to stand on regarding Taiwan independence.

    China doesn’t have an International Law leg to stand on regarding the South China Sea.

    The people in China’s government are Realists & pragmatists… they don’t want war over the South China Sea… but China will go to war over Taiwan if the U. S. insists on attempting to peel off Taiwan from China, that’s a lead pipe cinch… their Red Line.

    The people who want war with China are not patriots… they are “War Junkies” wanting their fix… damn the American People’s welfare… “I gotta have more cowbell!”

  10. Joe Comment

    May 1, 2023 at 10:50 am

    Jim: The Mainland’s claim to Taiwan is founded in political positions, not international law. Taiwan clearly qualifies as a country, albeit currently with limited recognition. A few decades ago the positions were reversed and Taiwan was the one with more international recognition, UN membership and the UN Security Council seat. But nobody (outside of Taiwan) then argued that the Mainland was not a real country and Taiwan had a right to reintegrate it by force at any time.

    It is worth noting that, at that time, leaders in Taiwan were always making a big show of champing at the bit to return to the Mainland and re-fight the Chinese civil war, and the US consistently and firmly refused to support the idea, even when the Mainland was going through a lot of instability with the famine, Cultural Revolution etc.

    The problem across the Taiwan Strait is a political one, and so must be the solution to it.

  11. Jim

    May 1, 2023 at 12:17 pm

    Joe said, “The problem across the Taiwan Strait is a political one, and so must be the solution to it.”


    War is not the answer… we can’t have politics by other means… we can’t have Carl von Clausewitz…

    But do you hear one single Senator or Congressman state that clearly for the American People.

    Actually, the One China Policy was meant to encourage a political solution. The Taiwan Relations Act passed by Congress in 1979, which acknowledges the One China Policy, also has language, ambiguous, about China refraining from military coercive measures… regarding the self-governing status for the island and its People to this day.

    So, China recognizes Taiwan’s political system, as a self-governing island and in return the United States recognizes Taiwan is an inseparable Part of China.

    It’s a delicate dance… idiot “War Junkies” want to screw that all to pieces.

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