US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi was not accorded a meeting with South Korean President Yoon. Image: Handout

SEOUL – US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, having ignited a military and diplomatic firestorm with her trip to Taiwan, was offered a reception in South Korea that might best be described as cool.

Pelosi flew into the country with her delegation on late Wednesday (August 3), and her schedule today (August 4) included talks and a visit to the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates the two Koreas.

But President Yoon Suk-yeol, who is on vacation this week, (albeit, at his home in Seoul) did not meet with the senior US politician, though he did hold a 40-minute telephone conversation with her. Foreign Minister Park Jin also did not meet her: He is on a trip to ASEAN.

Pelosi did hold talks with her South Korean counterpart, National Assembly Speaker Kim Jin-pyo. The two discussed North Korea, the Indo-Pacific, economic cooperation and climate change, but reportedly did not reference Taiwan. Nor did they take questions from reporters.

Pelosi tweeted images of herself in the US Ambassadorial residence in Seoul, which is designed in neo-traditional Korean style, and of her and her delegation meeting a Korean honor guard dressed in traditional regalia.

Some said it was normal that Pelosi and accompanying US lawmakers were not greeted by more senior officials.

“Isn’t it natural?” Moon Chung-in, an academic and advisor to past Korean presidents, asked Asia Times. “The speaker of the US is not the president she is the speaker of the US, therefore, we should treat her as such.”

In fact, though, South Korea is the only leg of Pelosi’s Asia tour where she was not granted a meeting with the national leader.

In Singapore, she met Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in Malaysia she met Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and in Taipei she met President Tsai Ing-wen. And – at least according to Japanese media reports – she will meet Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Friday in Tokyo, the last stop of her highly watched Asian jaunt.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (L) waving beside Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, August 3, 2022. Photo: Handout

Moreover, South Korea – unlike Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan – enjoys a security alliance with the US, which includes the stationing of some 28,000 GIs on Korean soil.

Given the lavish welcomes customarily offered to senior US political figures, accompanied by cliché-ridden talk of the two countries’ “iron clad” alliance that is “ready to fight tonight,” the lack of a high-level welcome was widely noted in local media.

Korea’s best-selling daily, The Chosun Ilbo, reported on allegations of “protocol negligence”, pointing out that not a single Korean official was on hand to greet her aircraft and citing rumors that there was anger in the US embassy at the perceived snub.

Conservative National Assemblyman Ha Tae-kyung told the Chosun, “Imagine that our speaker of the National Assembly arrives in the US and no one comes to meet him? It is desirable to hold a meeting for the national interest, even when the president is on vacation.”

“I respect President Yoon’s privacy and he has a right to have a vacation in the middle of this hot summer but the presidential behavior is a deliberate message,” Lim Eun-jung, who teaches international relations at Kongju University told Asia Times. “It been almost 20 years since the last visit of an American speaker of the house and this means we should have been more active to deal with this special visit.”

Even so, given China’s current fury, and its position as the “giant next door” to South Korea, Yoon’s in-the-bunker response to Pelosi’s visit might be considered prudent.

According to Yonhap news agency, the president’s secretary for international relations Choi Young-bum, when asked why there was no in-person meeting between Yoon and Pelosi, simply said, “Everything is decided in consideration of national interest.”

Perhaps it was unlucky that Korea was the stop on Pelosi’s agenda that immediately followed her trip to Taiwan – a trip that was not confirmed until it actually took place. Inevitably, her Korean visit is being massively overshadowed by developments around the island.

A furious China is now conducting live-fire drills in waters around the island, a move that some see as a de facto blockade or even siege. It has also put both its operational aircraft carriers to sea.

Meanwhile, two US carrier groups are at sea to the southwest and northeast of Taiwan: one in waters near the Philippines, one off of Okinawa.

These traumatic stresses to the delicate status quo are unlikely to be commended by many in Seoul.

“Whether you are a conservative or a progressive, peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is in our best national interest,” Moon, who is currently a professor emeritus at Seoul’s Yonsei University, said. “What kind of benefit can there be for us if there is a clash between China and the US over Taiwan?”

For decades, South Korea’s security alliance with the US was a boon to the Asian partner. It deterred North Korea while saving Seoul untold billions that would have otherwise been spent on domestic defense and gave South Korean troops access to the latest US kit and methodologies.

US and South Korean soldiers in Yeoncheon-gun, South Korea. Decades of close interoperability with US forces is now paying dividend sfor the South Korean defense industry. Photo: AFP / Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images

It also provided a credible aegis for economic development by underwriting both foreign direct investment and sovereign credit ratings. But in recent years, certain doubts about the relationship have cropped up.

While Seoul and Washington remain staunchly aligned against North Korea, South Korea is increasingly being placed in difficult positions as the regional and global rivalry between Beijing and Washington heats up in multiple spheres – security, diplomacy, trade and technology.

Seoul is never comfortable antagonizing neighboring China, which some believe exerts influence over North Korea, is an increasingly assertive player in regional affairs and is also South Korea’s leading trade partner.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the 1992 establishment of diplomatic relations between Seoul and Beijing. That tie-up was enabled by multiple events: the collapse of Eastern European communism and the relations forged with communist and ex-communist countries as a result of the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, which represented a “coming out” party for the newly prosperous nation.

But the haste with which Seoul recognized Beijing surprised and shocked Taipei – previously, a regional anti-communist partner aligned against China, which had fought against South Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War.

It was not just a high-profile diplomatic defeat for Taipei, it was a humiliation as the landmark embassy in downtown Seoul was handed over to Beijing. For years, relations remained cool: In 1992 both national flag carriers ceased direct flights, a situation that would only change in 2004.

South Korea – which officially backs Beijing’s “One China” policy – has historically been loath to take any other stance on the Taiwan issue.

And even though Yoon, who took office in May, has made clear that he will break the habit of past Korean presidents by preaching the benefits of democracy and human rights in global fora, he has refrained from any criticism of China.

Given this history of caution, there are plenty of critics of Pelosi’s incendiary visit to Taiwan – and, indeed, of aggressive American policy toward Beijing that threatens to drag South Korea into a confrontation it wants no part of.

The left-leaning Hankyoreh newspaper editorialized today: “A crisis in the Taiwan Strait is not something Koreans can afford to watch with idle curiosity. Amid growing conflict between the US and China and closer ties between China and North Korea, there are growing fears that the North Korean nuclear issue will get worse and that the Korean Peninsula will become entangled in conflict.”

And it is not just in the security sphere where issues are simmering.

Washington expects a response from South Korea by the end of this month as to whether it will join the “Fab 4” semiconductor alliance. That body seeks to unite Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the US in a stable supply chain of the highly strategic products.

China, obviously, is not invited in the US-led initiative. Even staunchly pro-American Foreign Minister Park – who formerly headed up a Korean-American friendship group – admitted to foreign reporters last month that it would be a difficult decision to take, given how closely interlinked domestic supply chains are with China.  

And even though South Korean memory chipmaker SK hynix last month announced a US$22 billion investment in the US, Washington has pressured the firm not to export advanced chip-making machinery made by Dutch firm ASML to its fabs in China.

Moreover, South Korean chipmakers are reportedly mulling the implications of the US CHIPS and Science act, which could negatively impact their Chinese investments.

Samsung may or may not join the US-led ‘Fab-4’ chip initiative. Image: Twitter

“I hope the US will be much more cautious,” said Moon. “There are US and South Korean national interests and common interests between the US and South Korea, so we should maximize common interests with sensible diplomacy.”

South Korea’s position toward Taiwan is rather less florid than that of Japan, where Pelosi is expected to meet Kishida on Friday.

There are many figures in Tokyo who recall with satisfaction the generally amicable colonial rule they instituted in Taiwan, and who now consider Taipei the friendliest capital to Japan in the region – given the militaristic hostility of Pyongyang, the often-strained ties with Beijing and the prickly relationship with Seoul.

A number of these figures – most prominently, the recently murdered former prime minister and senior party figure, Shinzo Abe – have agitated, so far unsuccessfully, for Tokyo to adopt a stance on the possible defense of Taiwan.

There are no such figures in South Korea. On the contrary, some in this trade-dependent nation are deeply concerned about the ongoing bifurcation in regional and global relations.

“We should go back to multilateralism in trade and economics and evoke a multinational security regime in Northeast Asia,” Moon said. “Our US alliance is good but it is not the best choice: We need a regional security architecture.”

Follow this writer on Twitter @ASalmonSeoul