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Highlights of US South Korea Summit 2021

 The United States (US) and Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) held a bilateral summit on May 21, 2021. The US President Joe Biden and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in participated in the Summit. Both leaders reviewed bilateral relations and pledged to strengthen their alliance. China and North Korea’s shadow was evident on the outcomes of the summit between two leaders.

In a landmark move, the US and South Korea have decided to completely abolish the bilateral missile agreement signed in 1979 to limit the range of missiles developed by South Korea. US President Joe Boden and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in announced the decision in a joint statement released on May 21.

Agreement to terminate the Revised Missile Guidelines will give greater autonomy to South Korea over its missile program. The original guidelines were placed on South Korea to placate the concerns of China and Russia and to avoid the arms race in the region. After the war between North Korea and South Korea in 1950-52, the region remained sensitive for years. Tensions flared up again when North Korea decided to build nuclear weapons. 

In return for getting advantage of using the US technology, South Korea, a US ally, had agreed to limit the range of its ballistic missiles to 180km, with a maximum payload of 500kg. After the threats from North Korea increased, the guidelines were revised. Since 2001, the US and South Korea eased restrictions on ranges and payloads four times. In 2012, both countries agreed to extend the range of South Korea’s ballistic missiles from 300km to 800km. Increasing the range to 800km puts North Korea well within the range of South Korea. The restrictions on missile payload were removed completely in 2017. In 2020, the US removed all restrictions on the dual-use technology of solid fuels for space rocket launches.

This development comes amidst the rising tensions between Washington and Beijing. The US is slowly removing the military restrictions over its East Asian allies and encouraging them to increase their defence capacities. A few days ago, Japan’s Defence Minister in an interview had said Japan will cross the 1% threshold set on defence spending post World War II.

“The significance of the U.S.-ROK relationship extends far beyond the Korean Peninsula: it is grounded in our shared values and anchors our respective approaches to the Indo-Pacific region,” read the statement released by the White House on May 21, 2021. 

Acknowledging “contemporary threats”, Mr Biden and Mr Moon also agreed to deepen cooperation in technology including climate, global health, emerging technologies, including 5G and 6G technology and semiconductors, next-generation communications network (6G), open-RAN technology, quantum technology, and biotechnology.

As a reflection of the efforts to reduce technological dependence on China, both countries agreed to mutual and complementary investments in semiconductors. The agreement includes a commitment to advanced and auto-grade chips and high-capacity batteries. The countries also committed to mutual and complementary investments across the entire supply chain of materials, parts, and equipment to expand the production capacity of the key semiconductor-based products.

To strengthen the supply chain resilience, the US and ROK have decided to establish a US-ROK Supply Chain Task Force between the White House and the ROK Office of the President.

North Korea also shadowed the discussions. Mr Biden and Mr Moon Jae-in emphasised their commitment to the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. They called for the full implementation of  UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions including by North Korea. The UNSC has adopted nine resolutions since 2006 to encourage denuclearisation of Korean peninsula. UNSC has also established a 1718 Committee to monitor sanctions placed on North Korea after its nuclear and ballistic missile activities since 2006.

In order to navigate the post-COVID-19 world, South Korea and the US agreed to expand their cooperation under the Global Health Security Agenda.  His includes cooperation in vaccine production and related supplies. To prepare for future global health threats, South Korea has committed $200 million in new funding over five years.

Concerns over Indo-Pacific and promotion of democracy were among the key issues discussed by the leaders. They agreed to establish US-ROK Democracy and Governance Consultations (DGC) as a “mechanism for coordination on human rights and democracy promotion efforts at home and abroad.”

The joint statement of leaders after the bilateral meeting further read, “We agree we will work to align the ROK’s New Southern Policy and the United States’ vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific and that our countries will cooperate to create a safe, prosperous, and dynamic region.”

The details released by White House also mention measures to “promote ASEAN centrality”. Increased emphasis on Indo-Pacific and ASEAN in the region indicates that the US is banking on South Korea to take an active role in the Indo Pacific, which also means reducing the influence of China.

Both the leaders also reviewed bilateral relationships including trade, people-to-people relationship and agreed to enhance cooperation on climate change policy. South Korea plans to release its provisional enhanced 2030 target in October 2021 and its final enhanced 2030 target by COP26. While redoubling their commitment to “democratic values, and the promotion of human rights at home and abroad”, they emphasised the need for women’s participation in democracies.