House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stopped in South Korea on her way back from Singapore and Taiwan, but controversy erupted when South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol opted to say on vacation rather than carve out time for a face-to-face visit. Yoon had a 45-minute phone conversation with Pelosi, but that wasn’t good enough for a lot of South Koreans.
Indeed, Yoon’s staff didn’t help matters when they botched the messaging on the president’s refusal to meet.
Initially the president’s office told reporters that the meeting between Yoon and Pelosi was not arranged because of Yoon’s scheduled summer vacation. Then it suddenly said that it was coordinating with Pelosi’s office to arrange a meeting, but then reversed its announcement again, saying there was no coordination between the two offices.
They could have just been honest and said they didn’t want to get China angry at them. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, and the nation’s business leaders are already jittery about the tension between Washington and Beijing.
It wasn’t exactly a snub, but it’s a far cry from the welcome that House Speaker Dennis Hastert received from South Korean officials in 2002. To make matters worse, on Wednesday evening, Yoon found time to attend the theater and hobnob with actors.
“Pelosi is the number three politician in the US, and if this were in the past, the president or the foreign minister would have tried to hold talks with her, but I think that this time the government seems to have decided not to excessively politicize the issue and unnecessarily antagonize China,” Kim Heung-kyu, director of the US-China Policy Institute at Ajou University, told the Korea Times.
The president’s decision to stick to his plan came after Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan infuriated China and further inflamed tensions between Beijing and Washington.
As Pelosi left Taiwan on Wednesday en route to South Korea, China’s military set off its largest air and sea drills near the Taiwanese Strait in more than 25 years.
Despite Pelosi’s trip, the South Korean leader’s attitude speaks volumes about what our friends in the southern Pacific really think of our deterrence with Joe Biden as president. They have doubts that Biden and the U.S. would defend them.
The showdown is coming. It may not be a full-blown, all-out shooting war with China, but it will be extremely dangerous. It’s understandable from South Korea’s point of view that edging away from the United States may be a good way to hedge their bets if things get too real in the Pacific.