An Important Agenda for the U.S.-South Korea Summit This Week
Many South Koreans jokingly say that the most famous Korean in the world is Kim Jong-Un, the North Korean dictator who inherited the kingdom from his father at the age of 27. Koreans made the same joke about Kim Jong-Il, Kim Jong-Un’s father, when he was alive until 2011. This generations-long global notoriety is due to the military threats North Korea made for decades targeting South Korea and its allies, including the United States.
But if you pay attention to the news about Korea, you will notice that the joke is actually very true – especially in the United States. Most articles about Korea published by mainstream American news outlets are about North Korea and its nuclear and ballistic missile tests. The same is true with remarks and social media postings about Korea made by American opinion leaders, including Members of Congress. At various congressional hearings, U.S. Senators and House Members on a regular basis express concerns about North Korean-related security issues, which constitutes the vast majority of their engagement about Korea. Their Twitter and Facebook postings reflect the same level of interest in North Korea. Even when South Korea is mentioned, the country often remains a victim of ruthless military threats from North Korea. By doing so, people see Korea through the lens of military and security issues created by North Korea.
This is an interesting phenomenon as there’s another Korea on the Peninsula – South Korea. It gets even more interesting if you understand the important status in the world economy the country holds. According to OECD, the nominal GDP of South Korea in 2020 is expected to be the ninth-largest in the world, larger than that of Canada. South Korea’s economic impact on Americans’ daily lives is not insignificant. Many Americans use smartphones, TV sets, and appliances made by Samsung and LG and drive cars and SUVs made by Hyundai and Kia. Ford F-150 Lightning, an electric version of America’s all-time favorite truck, will be powered by batteries made by a U.S. subsidiary of SK Innovation in South Korea. The country is one of the top destinations for U.S. beef exports, bringing a significant amount of revenues to American ranchers. South Koreans contribute to making the American way of life more abundant by being a great trade partner.
Moreover, South Koreans create jobs for American workers on American soil. Many South Korean manufacturing firms invest heavily in automotive, electronics, and heavy equipment industries in the U.S., creating thousands of well-paying jobs for American workers in Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Texas, and other states. According to statistics by U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. subsidiaries of various South Korean firms employed approximately 74,300 American workers as of 2018, up 11% from the previous year. This trend continues as many larger Korean companies are increasingly interested in creating or expanding their base in the U.S. Americans should pay more attention to their ally South Korea, not its evil twin. And it is important to do so for American interests more so than Korean interests.
The United States now officially vies with China to keep the title of the world’s most powerful country. The U.S. successfully defeated its challengers several times in history, but the current competition with China is on a completely different scale as the U.S. faces Chinese challenges in both military and economic areas. Americans need proven, trustworthy allies strong in both areas to win the competition, and South Korea is an indispensable American ally with world-class strengths in both.
For the past couple of decades, many Koreans believed in international dynamics represented by the phrase “An Mi Gyung Joong,” which means “security with the U.S., economy with China” because China is South Korea’s largest trading partner. That view is being changed rapidly. According to a survey conducted by the Federation of Korean Industries in May 2021, 70.7% of Koreans answered the U.S. is more important than China for the economic prosperity of South Korea. Only 19% answered China is more important. The overall survey result shows that South Koreans think that the foundation of Korea’s security and stability is the strong military, economic and cultural alliance with the U.S. American’s view for South Korea must also catch up to the times and see the country as the critical ally for the U.S. to win in the economic competition with China. And this must be an important agenda for the U.S.-South Korea summit in Washington, D.C. this week.