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Biden visit tests new South Korean president, a foreign policy novice

President Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol hold a joint news conference after a meeting in Seoul on May 21. (Yonhap/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

SEOUL — Eleven months ago, South Korea’s top prosecutor launched his presidential campaign, making his first run at politics. This weekend — just over a week into his presidency — Yoon Suk-yeol made his debut on the global stage alongside the world’s most powerful leader.

It’s been a whirlwind beginning to the presidency for Yoon, who squeaked by to victory with the narrowest margin in South Korea’s democratic history and was faced with his first leadership test: forging a relationship with President Biden, the leader of South Korea’s most powerful ally. He was inaugurated May 10.

The differences between Yoon and Biden on diplomacy could not be more stark. Yoon is a political rookie with no foreign policy experience. Biden is a career politician with decades of experience in foreign relations.

“If you compare it to boxing, President Yoon is an aggressive fighter, like an infighter. President Biden is an out-boxer, well-versed in strategically jabbing and ducking,” wrote Hankook Ilbo, a South Korean news outlet.

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But South Korean commentators pointed out that the two men’s personalities are similar in ways that could foster the right chemistry — which is particularly important in dealing with an American president who has emphasized the importance of personal relationships in foreign relations.

During their first state dinner, the two men bonded over their pets and their families, the South Korean presidential office said. (Yoon has four dogs and three cats. Biden has a puppy and a cat, and until recently raised a shelter dog, the first to live in the White House.) The menu included bibimbap, dumplings and sous-vide beef ribs.

“I’m honored to be able to meet you so early in your tenure, and it’s a pleasure to get to know you personally,” Biden said during his remarks at the two leaders’ joint news conference on Saturday.

“Today, I also realized that President Biden and I see eye-to-eye on so many fronts,” Yoon said.

In the end, the carefully choreographed visit reinforced the countries’ alliance and was largely uneventful — except when Yoon bungled an answer on gender equality, a dominant issue of the presidential campaign. (During the campaign, Yoon was criticized for his gaffes, once standing in silence for two minutes at a candidate forum when the teleprompter went down.)

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Yoon appeared to struggle to answer a question about the role of South Korea as a leading economy to ensure equal opportunity for women’s advancement. South Korea consistently ranks low among developed countries regarding gender equality in pay, political advancement and economic participation.

Biden’s trip arrived unusually early in Yoon’s term and was arranged while the presidential transition team was still hiring staff, setting up their offices and working out the logistics of a presidential office.

But the two sides had a template off which to work: the agreement last year between the Biden team and Moon Jae-in’s administration to expand the military alliance into one that also encompasses economic security.

Now, Yoon faces the challenge of balancing his foreign policy ambitions with an overflowing domestic policy agenda, said Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based adjunct senior fellow at the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Yoon “needs to prove himself at home this year because his election victory was so razor thin.”

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“So, we’ll have to see if Yoon has the bandwidth and governing style to be able to give both domestic and foreign policies the attention they need,” Kim said.

While Biden’s hope in the Indo-Pacific region is to lean on alliances to counter the economic and military rise of China, it remains to be seen whether South Korea will be able to fully join the United States in that endeavor. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, and South Korea has faced harsh economic retaliation in the past when Beijing was unhappy with Seoul’s coordinated actions with Washington.

With China drawing North Korea closer in recent years, South Korea will also need a cooperative relationship with China to deal with its northern neighbor.

“Yoon and his advisers have the right intention, but it’s unclear if Seoul will truly be able to stand up to China when faced with geopolitical and economic realities, and when Seoul will eventually need Beijing to make progress on the North Korea issue,” Kim said.

As Biden left his final event with Yoon on Sunday, the two men shook hands to say goodbye, according to the presidential office. “I trust you,” Biden told Yoon, and the two men gave each other a thumbs-up.