South Korean and other media are speculating that South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol intentionally shunned an in-person meeting with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in deference to China, South Korea’s biggest trading partner, whose leaders are furious over Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan.
The headline in the Financial Times reads, “South Korean president snubs Nancy Pelosi as China tensions rise.”
Yoon’s office released a statement claiming that his vacation and Pelosi’s visit to South Korea overlapped and that Yoon “did not rearrange [his] schedule.” Instead of an in-person meeting, Yoon spoke on the phone with Speaker Pelosi, and, according to South Korea’s Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Tae-hyo, Yoon “promised close cooperation with the U.S. Congress.”
Pelosi did meet with South Korean lawmakers and pledged to work with them to “end North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.” Pelosi also traveled to the Demilitarized Zone in Panmunjom that divides North and South Korea.
The Guardian reports that South Korean political observers believe that Yoon didn’t meet with Pelosi because he didn’t want to “unnecessarily antagonize China.” Yoon’s office said simply that it had “reviewed national interests,” whatever that means.
Meanwhile, the South China Morning Post notes that social media is filled with speculation that Yoon avoided meeting with Pelosi “in deference to China’s wrath.”
China’s English-language mouthpiece, the Global Times, wrote, “It may have dawned on the South Korean leader that whoever plays high-profile host to Pelosi at this sensitive moment could risk provoking China.”
Interestingly, Pelosi made no direct comments on her Taiwan visit or on China–Taiwan relations while in South Korea — perhaps out of deference to Seoul’s wishes.
Yoon’s reluctance to meet with Pelosi after her visit to Taiwan may reflect the same political calculation that the Biden administration made when it tried to dissuade Pelosi from going to Taiwan: Don’t escalate tensions with — i.e., appease — China. South Korea is a frontline state in the new Cold War with China. Yoon, given the Biden administration’s less-than-stellar foreign policy record, may be pursuing the Asian version of Ostpolitik (in which West German leaders conducted their own independent and softer version of detente with Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the late 1960s–early 1970s).
Or perhaps Yoon, whose own popularity has precipitously declined since his election, may view Pelosi as a lame-duck speaker. He knows he will have to deal with the Biden administration for at least the next two years — and the Biden administration has done everything possible to distance itself from Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and her hardline rhetoric.
The South Korean president’s failure to meet with Pelosi is symbolic. China’s recent military drills around Taiwan are real. The big question is whether South Korea and other Asian powers in the Indo-Pacific — Japan, India, Australia, the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — will pursue their own version of Ostpolitik, given the weakness displayed by the Biden administration over Taiwan.