Nukes, leaks and chips: What you need to know about South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol's visit to Washington

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WASHINGTON — At the White House state dinner held in his honor on Wednesday night, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol took the microphone from President Biden and sang the opening lines of Don McLean’s classic song “American Pie.”

The following morning, Yoon addressed both chambers of Congress, invoking the bond between the Republic of Korea and the United States that was forged 70 years during the Korean War. “Sons and daughters of America sacrificed their lives to defend a country they never knew and people they never met,” he said.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaks at the State Department.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, at the State Department on Thursday. (Jemal Countess/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Yoon also met with Netflix co-chief executive Ted Sarandos, who committed to investing $2.5 billion in South Korea. And he is to speak at Harvard before returning home.

If the scope of the visit is a sign of the deepening cultural, economic and political bonds between the two nations, it also comes during a fraught moment for both Biden and Yoon, as they struggle to reconcile ambitions and concerns that are not always entirely aligned.

An embarrassing revelation

Yoon at a joint meeting of Congress.
Yoon at a joint meeting of Congress on Thursday. (Nathan Howard/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Yoon’s visit came two weeks after a trove of Pentagon documents that had been illegally posted online revealed that the United States has been wiretapping his government.

The 62-year-old conservative arrived in Washington with a 27% approval rating from South Koreans, a pervasive discontent stemming in good part from his foreign policy, which has been perceived as overly deferential to the United States. He has recently been criticized for improving relations with Japan, a neighboring country that many Koreans continue to view with profound hostility because of wrongs committed by Japan during its colonial occupation of Korea, which lasted until the end of World War II and included both sexual violence and forced labor.

Yoon’s administration dismissed the wiretapping story as “absurd lies,” but his efforts to deny and downplay the news only reinforced the notion for many in his country that he is too eager to please Washington, which had also pushed for South Korea's reconciliation with Japan as a means to contain China.

“This might be a real big disaster for both Korea and U.S.,” foreign policy expert Yang Uk of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies told the radio program "The World" ahead of the state dinner.

During a press conference with Biden on Wednesday, Yoon again tried to downplay the controversy, in seeming hopes that public attention will soon move on. “We need time to wait for the investigation results by the United States, and we plan to continue to communicate on the matter,” he said.

The ‘Washington Declaration’

President Biden and Yoon shake hands in the Oval Office.
President Biden and Yoon in the Oval Office on Wednesday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On Wednesday, Biden and Yoon signed an agreement, which the White House calls the “Washington Declaration,” that commits the two nations to “develop an ever-stronger mutual defense relationship.”

In keeping with the new agreement, U.S. Ohio-class nuclear submarines will visit South Korea in an effort at deterring North Korea. South Korea committed in 1975 not to develop nuclear weapons of its own. But the idea of nuclear self-defense is gaining traction in the South, and Yoon himself only recently expressed interest in the idea.

The United States does not want Seoul to develop its own nuclear arsenal, and the Washington Declaration calls for the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

The new declaration is meant to reassure South Korea that it need not worry under the vast “nuclear umbrella” of the United States. At the press conference following the two leaders’ Oval Office meeting, Biden had unstinting words for Pyongyang, which tested a solid-fuel ballistic missile earlier this month. “A nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies or partners is not acceptable and will result in the end of whatever regime that would take such an action,” he said.

But the declaration could have had another target: China. Although Biden has repeatedly said he does not seek an armed conflict with Beijing, he has also tried to curb Chinese geopolitical ambitions through a series of strategic alliances in the Indo-Pacific region.

China clearly understood that it was as much the audience for Wednesday’s declaration as North Korea was. “The U.S. behavior is a result of its Cold War mentality,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said at a Thursday briefing. “What the U.S. has done stokes bloc confrontation, undermines the nuclear nonproliferation system and hurts the strategic interest of other countries.”

Chips and China

Biden signs the CHIPS and Science Act into law.
Biden signs the CHIPS and Science Act into law at the White House on Aug. 9, 2022. (Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo)

Last year, Biden signed the CHIPS Act, a $50 billion investment in the nation’s virtually nonexistent semiconductor industry. The funds are intended to act as seed capital for private manufacturers, provided that “recipients do not build certain facilities in China,” according to the language of the law.

That could pose a problem for South Korea, which produces 19% of the world’s semiconductors, which are tiny but crucial components of electronic devices — and of sophisticated weapons. Two of South Korea’s — and the world’s — biggest makers of memory chips (a type of semiconductor), Samsung and SK Hynix, have factories in China, meaning they could run afoul of the CHIPS Act and see themselves shut out of the American market.

At Wednesday’s press conference with Yoon, Biden was asked by a reporter if the CHIPS Act would hurt South Korea’s economy. “My desire to increase U.S. manufacturing and jobs in America is not about China. I'm not concerned about China,” he said without exactly answering the question directly. “Remember, America invented the semiconductor.”

As the East Asia analyst James Park recently wrote, the “zero-sum notion of choosing American or Chinese markets has met whole-of-society resistance from the South Korean business community, government, parliament, and public,” and could further contribute to Yoon’s deepening unpopularity.