U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met her South Korean counterpart, National Assembly Speaker Kim Jin-pyo, on Thursday and agreed to support their governments’ efforts to achieve “practical” denuclearization and build peace under strong extended deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear programs.
It was the first visit by a U.S. speaker of the House to Seoul since Dennis Hastert visited in 2002. Also, Pelosi’s visit came three months after President Joe Biden held a summit meeting with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol in Seoul in May.
In a 40-minute phone call with Pelosi on Thursday, Yoon called her visit to the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom “a sign of the powerful South Korea-U.S. deterrence against North Korea.”
Considering the rising tensions between the U.S. and China in the wake of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Yoon, who has been outspoken on regional and international issues, was expected to hold a face-to-face meeting with Pelosi. As Pyongyang’s nuclear threats have escalated since early this year, it was critical for South Korea to check whether the U.S. Congress is preparing a response to the North’s expected seventh nuclear test.
However, the Presidential Office told reporters that the decision not to meet Pelosi in person was made after considering “the national interests” in general. A reporter asked a follow-up question over which national interests that referred to, but the official refused to make further comments. However, the official denied accusations that Yoon avoided meeting with Pelosi due to his fear of the possible hawkish reaction from Beijing.
The decision renewed criticisms over Yoon for allegedly neglecting his duties. Less than three months since taking office, his approval ratings have plummeted to below 30 percent. Public anger was exacerbated when the Presidential Office announced that Yoon would not have a meeting with Pelosi because of his scheduled summer vacation. Yoon’s decision to skip a meeting with Pelosi became even more controversial when a photo of him with performers at a local theater in Seoul was published on Wednesday.
Even though Yoon has been on summer vacation from August 1, many South Koreans believe that he should have met with the U.S. House speaker, given how rare such visits are. It was a golden chance to convey the president’s strong willingness to cope with North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats and ask for the continued support and interest of the U.S. Congress on the issue.
As it has not even been 100 days since Yoon took office in May, his decision to fully focus on his five-day summer vacation failed to garner support from the public.
The ruling and opposition parties also voiced similar frustrations.
Yoo Seong-min, a contender against Yoon during the People Power Party’s presidential primary elections last year, criticized Yoon’s decision directly by saying that his vacation cannot be an excuse for skipping a meeting with Pelosi. Considering Pelosi’s power and role, Yoo also questioned why the president – who is currently having his vacation in Seoul, not somewhere far from the capital of the country – decided not to meet Pelosi in person.
Initially, the Presidential Office had announced that Yoon would not meet with Pelosi because he would be on vacation outside of Seoul. However, since he decided to stay at his home in the South Korean capital, the office is believed to have had internal discussions on whether to meet Pelosi. The Presidential Office again announced that it had not arranged a meeting with Pelosi’s office but suddenly said Yoon would have a phone call with Pelosi on Thursday to welcome her visit to Seoul.
Further adding to the controversy, when Pelosi arrived at Osan Air Base, no South Korean official was on site to welcome her and the rest of her delegation. The Presidential Office said that it is the responsibility of the National Assembly Speaker’s Office to escort the delegation of U.S. House representatives. Somewhat confusingly, the Presidential Office also said that the decision not to send South Korean officials to the air base to greet Pelosi was reached through coordination with her office. Whatever the reason, when photos were published on Wednesday of Pelosi arriving at Osan Air Base without any representatives from the South Korean government, it sparked accusations that Yoon’s administration is incapable of managing diplomatic protocols.
Park Hong-keun, the floor leader of the opposition Democratic Party, criticized Yoon’s “amateurish” statecraft at such a significant moment for the country.
When U.S. delegations visited Seoul in the past, South Korean presidents normally met them and discussed common issues. In past decades, Pelosi has met three former South Korean presidents. Some have argued that this is not a big problem as Pelosi’s direct counterpart is Kim, not Yoon, but considering the relationship between South Korea and the United States, Yoon should have made time to meet Pelosi unless there was a serious reason to pass on the meeting.
Pelosi has met with the top leaders of all the other destinations on her Asia-Pacific tour: the prime ministers of Malaysia and Singapore, as well as Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. She is also expected to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio in Tokyo on Friday.
Based on Yoon’s hawkish stance on North Korea and his passionate support for Washington, it is difficult to logically explain his decision. He was staying at his home in Seoul at the time; it would take less than 30 minutes to arrive in the National Assembly or his office from his house if he was willing to meet Pelosi.
Some have pointed out that Yoon would have considered the potential outcome of the meeting with Pelosi: Beijing’s retaliation. Considering China began holding live-fire drills encircling Taiwan on Thursday, Yoon may have wanted to back off from the rising tensions between Washington and Beijing at this moment.
However, Yoon already showed off a clear foreign policy stance at the NATO meeting in June. Beijing was not supportive of his attendance, but Yoon showed that his stance on international issues would match with the United States’. Also, as Yoon has showed his deep interest in joining the Quad, the democracy and security of Taiwan will be something his administration will eventually have to address.
The Yoon government’s stance on the current tensions in the Taiwan Strait will likely be made clear in South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin’s remarks during the meetings hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from August 3 to August 5. Depending on Park’s statements regarding Seoul’s position on China’s ongoing military exercises, South Koreans may be able to glean the underlying reason for Yoon’s decision to pass on a meeting with Pelosi.